As a child, I had (like many children) a fascination with toilets. My interest, however, seems to have been higher than average: My mom tells me she could hardly take me to a restaurant or other such place without me begging to see the restrooms. In fact, I have a vivid memory of one restroom at a Mexican restaurant we went to in Austin when I was probably three; the tilework was spectacularly colorful!
So maybe it’s this innate interest that’s led to this post about public washrooms in South Korea. But I mean, this is an important part of life, and since bathroom culture can differ quite a lot from country to country, a lot of people get quite anxious about using the bathroom in new places. I had one friend who, for her first six months in Korea, would hold it for hours because the place we drank had squatters and she was afraid to use one!
So here’s a little tour of South Korean public restrooms, made up mostly of photos I took with this post in mind during our recent visit to Seoul – because no, my fascination does not extend to recording every bathroom trip!
Finding a bathroom in Seoul/South Korea
Public restrooms are actually pretty easy to find in South Korea – much easier to find than public trash cans, in fact! Subway stations generally have them – sometimes within the gate, but often outside it. Malls, train stations, underground market/underpasses, etc.: There are a lot of people in Seoul, which equals a lot of toilets.
You can generally follow the standard man-and-woman bathroom signs to find one, but if you need to ask, the word is “hwa-jang-shil” (화장실), which I guess literally translates to something like the archaic “powder room.”
If all else fails, you can usually sneak into a Starbucks or something. Sometimes you have to buy a drink to get a code, other times you can just walk in. Probably the best public bathrooms are department store washrooms, which I have used shamelessly without a thought of making a purchase. And since convenience stores usually have areas for eating and drinking, even they can usually give you a key to some sort of bathroom, though they are usually, well, not the nicest!
Accessibility in South Korean restrooms
I’m sorry to say that restrooms, like most places in South Korea, are not optimized for accessibility. I would say that accessibility is extremely chancy outside of the more important subway stations/”nicer” places. Lots of things are just old.
This seems to be getting better, fortunately, but I would say there’s still a pretty big gap between say American standards for accessibility (especially at restaurants, etc.) and South Korean ones, both in restrooms and beyond.
I guess I’ll also note here that washrooms in South Korea are pretty much divided along traditional gender lines except in establishments that are small enough to only have one or two total toilets, in which case those are often unisex. Transgender issues are not really on the radar of mainstream South Korea the way they are in “the West.”
Inside the stall in South Korean toilets
Okay, you probably came to the bathroom to do some business, so let’s get down to it.
First of all, there are two types of toilets: “traditional” toilets, aka squatters, and “Western” toilets. Often the doors are labeled with pictures as above, sometimes they aren’t. (In a toilet at the train station in Andong, the lone Western toilet was labeled 외국인 전용, “for the special use of foreigners.”)
Most people will probably use a “regular” toilet if they can. I mean I’m pretty sure this is the preference for younger South Koreans now as well as most Westerners who travel there. Maybe this is TMI but for me it is all a calculus of how long the line is, how badly I gotta go, and what kind of clothing I’m wearing.
Squatters, however, have their advantages. I don’t know how I would have felt about squatters had I first encountered one in a subway station, but since I first had to use one at the Boryeong Mud Festival while rather inebriated, less than a week after arriving in Korea, I carried it off with minimal angst.
Like I said, I know some people don’t like the idea of squatters… and other people just might be physically unable to bend that way. But if you do need or want to try a traditional toilet, make sure you face toward the “hood” part and try to squat flat-footed if you can (for stability). Otherwise, I hope you have great balance or are willing to touch the bathroom walls.
Other features of South Korean toilet stalls
Many public toilets in South Korea have emergency bells that will supposedly call someone to help you if you need it. I’ve never tried them, but I guess that’s nice!
The one here just says “Do you need help?” It makes me think it’s for if you, say, hurt yourself or something. However in an academic building at Korea University, the bells said that they called security, so I guess they might also be for if you feel threatened or attacked. I wonder if men’s restrooms have these?
Public toilets often have etiquette bells as well. The idea is to keep other people in the bathroom from hearing you do your business.
This has never been a major concern of mine (clearly I am unembarrassed enough by bathroom topics to write 1400+ words on them), so I’ve never pushed the button, but I hear that they usually make the sound of running water (presumably where this one gets its name).
What to do with toilet paper in South Korean bathrooms
You may have noticed above the rather full trash can. In Korea, especially in public restrooms, you shouldn’t flush the toilet paper. (Needless to say, you shouldn’t flush anything else besides waste, either.) Instead, you throw it into the trash can near the toilet, which is generally cleaned fairly frequently by an ajumma.
Maybe this seems gross. I’ve definitely seen a lady cleaning out the used toilet paper without even wearing gloves at a music festival once and I have to say that was pretty alarming. However, it’s certainly less gross than an overflowing toilet, so…
Washing your hands in a South Korean washroom
Okay if you are a civilized human who is not allergic to soap, the next thing to do is to wash your hands. (I mean if you are allergic to soap, I assume you will at least use some water.)
Most public South Korean bathrooms have this same blue soap on a stick, as pictured here in Sookmyung Women’s University Station. I guess some people feel like soap bars are icky but for most people it’s not gonna make you sick (especially compared to not washing your hands). Some, though, especially department stores or malls or whatnot, will have liquid or foam soap dispensers.
For drying your hands, blowing hand dryers are the norm. (I just dry them on my pants, I can’t take the sound.)
Taking kids to South Korean toilets
Public (especially subway station) bathrooms in Seoul are often family friendly. (At least…. the women’s ones are in the more heavily trafficked/non-poor areas. I can’t speak for the men’s.)
Many have a mini-urinal (not in a stall) for little boys to use when they come in with their moms.
Koala Kare is also on the scene in many locations.
Some Korean bathroom terms
I don’t think you really need many terms to use the bathroom in South Korea, but here are perhaps the two most essential:
Hwajangshil 화장실 – restroom/toilet/washroom/WC/loo/bathroom/your preferred term
Hyoo-jee 휴지 – toilet paper