Not long ago I was visiting my friend Maki’s house. While using her toilet, I glanced down and realized with horror that I was wearing my house slippers. Quel faux pas!
Most people are aware that Japan has a tradition of removing street shoes upon entering a home, or any other establishment with tatami mats on where one sits on the floor. The origin of this practice is to keep outside dirt outside and to keep clean living areas or areas where one is sitting or sleeping on the floor. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
Of course, this practice isn’t unique to Japan, but it could be said that Japan has taken things to a completely different level. Indeed, Japan’s rules easily trip up unsuspecting visitors all the time.
Shoes off in the house
This rule isn’t particularly difficult, thanks to the construction of Japanese homes. They come with a foyer, known in Japanese as genkan, the floor of which is usually a step (or less) lower than the rest of the house. So you must step up from the genkan to enter the house.
In fact, you are regarded as actually entering the house not when you step in the front door, but when you step up from the genkan, which is usually also surfaced differently from the rest of the house, sometimes even with the same tiles as are on the outdoor walkway, further signifying where you are relative to the house.
Generally, one is expected to step out of one’s shoes while stepping up into the house. This is the first spot where foreigners are easily tripped up. Many people struggle to remove their shoes gracefully (especially if those shoes are lace ups), so they instead step out of their shoes onto the floor of the genkan. No, no! The genkan is considered to be “outside”, remember? You wouldn’t step on dirt or grass in your stocking feet and you shouldn’t step on the genkan floor with your stocking feet, either.
The next trick is stepping up into the house and simultaneously/seamlessly sliding your feet into the slippers that have been laid out for you. As if that move wasn’t challenging enough, some of us have such big feet that we struggle to squeeze them into Japanese-sized slippers in any event!
Having accomplished all this, next you need to take care of your shoes. Without touching the genkan floor, reach back and straighten your shoes, preferably with toes pointed outward. Try not to wiggle your butt in the air while doing this.
Just because you’ve managed to get out of your street shoes, step up from the genkan and get slippers on and reposition your shoes properly doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. If the house has tatami mat flooring, there are still more rules.
Slippers are not worn on tatami. Period. So, before you step onto tatami, slip off those slippers! This is why you don’t want to wear socks with holes in them. (Hm. Who among us hasn’t been caught out on that one?)
Change slippers for the toilet
So, you’re sitting in the tatami room of your friend’s house sipping green tea and you need to use the toilet. You get up, walk to the door, slide into your slippers, walk to the toilet and … leave your slippers outside the toilet door, instead putting on the toilet slippers (usually marked “Toilet” or cleverly adorned with some other toilet-related image) that are just inside the door.
And this is where I made my mistake at Maki’s house. Except that part of the reason I didn’t change slippers was that there were no toilet slippers to remind me to do so.
When I sheepishly confessed my mistake to Maki, she reassured me. “We don’t bother changing slippers for the toilet at our house. There’s no need.”.
Maki is a modern woman, but more importantly, if you consider that the original reason for changing from house slippers to toilet slippers was because Japanese toilets, being squatters, were sometimes a bit “wet” so that having separate toilet slippers kept the toilet “dirt” from being tracked into the house, a modern house with a Western-style toilet doesn’t have the same cleanliness/hygiene problems of the traditional Japanese squatter, so the need to change slippers effectively no longer exists.
But for many households/establishments, old habits are die hard, and the use of toilet slippers continues. Worse than my faux pas of wearing house slippers into the toilet is the mistake common among neophyte foreigners of forgetting to change back to house slippers so that they find themselves padding around the house in the toilet slippers. Major embarrassment…if/when they, or worse, their hosts, eventually notice.
Same goes for ryokan and other traditional accommodation
The same rules as above apply when one stays in a ryokan or other form of traditional Japanese accommodation. Shoes are left in the genkan, slippers are worn around the common areas and are removed before stepping onto tatami mats, and toilet slippers are used in the toilet (and only in the toilet!).
Rows of slippers are laid out above the genkan—toes pointing indoors–in anticipation of arriving guests, and you will find your street shoes waiting for you in the genkan (having been stored away overnight)—toes pointing outdoors—when you go to leave.
Even Western-style hotels provide slippers just inside the room doors, so that you can remove your shoes at the door and wear slippers in your room.
Shoes off in the restaurant
There are some restaurants where the shoes come off, too. In particular, obviously, restaurants where diners sit on tatami mats to dine at low tables. Some restaurants offering Japanese cuisine have similar low tables, but situated over a pit, so that people can sit with their legs down, as if sitting in a chair, even though they are sitting on the floor. Often these floors don’t have tatami mats, just a flat square cushion to sit on. But street shoes are still removed before you reach the spot where people will be sitting on the floor. Let’s face it, in the course of sitting oneself on the floor, most people put their hands on the floor and then put those same hands on the dining table. Keeping the floor cleaner by banning dirty ole street shoes is sensible in this context.
Many of these establishments put the diners’ shoes away in some kind of shoe box while they’re dining. If a diner needs to go to the toilet, instead of putting the street shoes back on, there are little plastic slippers (or in the really cool places, wooden clogs) laid out. This practice can also easily trip up the uninitiated.
Other places requiring special footwear
Many schools require students to change from street shoes to softer-soled shoes while inside the school and they have special blocks of shoe lockers where the students change from one to the other.
Some office workers also change from street shoes to slippers or soft-soled shoes at their workplace, too. This is probably more a comfort matter than a cleanliness matter, comfort, of course, being the other reason for removing shoes in the first place. Even so, if they decide to tuck their feet under them while working at their desk, or if they need to stand on a chair for some reason, the shoes come off.
Finally, many non-Japanese get a bit of a surprise when they put on their trainers and go to the gym, only to discover that any shoes that have been worn on the street may not be worn in the gym. Make sure you have a separate pair of trainers that have not been worn on the street to change into once you have arrived at the gym.
Where else do I take my shoes off?
As if all of this wasn’t confusing enough, there are still more places where the shoes come off.
- Not surprisingly, shoes come off at the entrance to a public bath (sento) or onsen. Most provide slippers to use as far as the change room. Nobody wears anything on their feet, or anywhere else, beyond that point.
- You’ll also notice that when toddlers sit on the seats in a train, their parents often swiftly remove their shoes and put them on the floor below. This is because toddlers squirm. More specifically, they often turn themselves around to look out the window and wind up with their feet on the seat. That’s the same seat the next passenger will be sitting on, so we don’t want to dirty it up with whatever is on the kid’s shoes, do we now?
- Shoes are also removed to enter historical buildings (eg, castles, historic homes, temples/shrines), largely to protect the old wooden or tatami floors. Sometimes there is an alcove for removing and storing the shoes; at other venues, visitors are given a plastic shopping bag in which they place their shoes and then carry them. So no hole-y socks when sightseeing, either!
- At any outdoor party/picnic where people are sitting on the infamous blue tarps (eg, hanami parties), people take their shoes off before stepping onto the tarp. Just like at that restaurant I mentioned earlier, you’re going to put your hands on that tarp, so we don’t want any street dirt contaminating it.
- A “shoes off” rule that caught my aunt by surprise when she was visiting Japan was in a department store. We were wandering through the ladies wear floor and she wanted to examine some kimonos and kimono fabrics more closely so she stepped up into the kimono space, only to be quickly jostled back to the regular floor by two or three well-meaning sales clerks. Kimonos are usually displayed in an area with tatami flooring (although my aunt hadn’t even noticed that), so…of course…shoes off.
Shoes on (!?)
Harkening back to the point of taking shoes off—to keep outside dirt outside—when walking outside, shoes are to be worn. Otherwise the outside dirt comes inside on your bare feet. Duh!
On the same principal, I know many people who take a wet towel to their dog’s feet when the animal comes inside after its walk.
The outside is a dirty place. Let’s keep all that dirt outside by bringing only “clean” feet inside.
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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