Much of the time that I was in Japan I felt like a bumbling fool. Shoes were a big part of it. The Japanese have a lot of rules regarding footwear.
1. Entering a house
Most houses, and many other buildings like museums and some businesses, have a step up just inside the door. I can step up, of course; that’s no problem. Except one night when I entered a rather poorly-lit restaurant and didn’t see the step up just inside the door. Thump with my toe (ouch!), loud bang, and everyone in the restaurant turns to look at me. How to make an entrance.
What you are supposed to do as you enter the house is take off your shoes before stepping up. We do that at home as well, to avoid tracking in dirt.
Once you take off your shoes, you put them on a shelf next to the door. Then you put on slippers, which in homes and some museums are provided for you.
This is where I had a problem. Actually, two problems.
- The slippers often didn’t fit me. My heels hung out over the ends.
- The slippers were scuffs, the kind with no back. The heel, though, was sometimes a bit high, and not very wide. My foot is simply bigger than that, so the slipper was uncomfortable. Not only that, I was constantly on the brink of turning my ankle because my foot fell off the slipper when I tried to walk.
2. In the house
So you’ve successfully taken off your shoes and changed into slippers to walk into the house. But wait! If this is a traditional Japanese hotel, called a ryokan, or if it’s a private home, it’s not as simple as that. Any rooms with tatami mats on the floor are off limits to slippers. You have to take off the slippers outside the door and go barefoot or in your socks.
I had trouble here too: I simply forgot. If I was wearing slippers, I just couldn’t seem to remember to take them off. I would step inside, onto the tatami mats. At some point I would realize what I’d done and scurry back to the sliding door to place the slippers outside.
Then, leaving the room to go to the toilet, for example, I would forget about the slippers and walk right by them, barefoot down the hall.
3. In the bathroom
Even if you do remember to put the slippers back on, things get more complicated in the bathroom. Opening the door, you’ll see a different pair of slippers, usually plastic, inside on the floor. There’s only one pair this time, since only one person uses the toilet at a time. (Although in some public restrooms in museums, you’ll see a row of slippers here too, just like at the front door.) The deal here is you’re supposed to take off your house slippers, leaving them in the hallway, and step into the toilet slippers.
Once you’ve done your business (which might take a while given all of the toilet options you have, but I’ll save that for another post), you are supposed to step out of the toilet slippers to leave them there for the next person, and then step into your own again.
I didn’t even once remember to do that on first stepping out of the toilet. Without fail, I would be halfway down the hall before I remembered that I was supposed to leave the toilet slippers in the bathroom. I would hurry back, hoping no one saw me, and quickly trade slippers.
4. In public places
These customs aren’t just for at home. I visited quite a few historic buildings while I was in Japan, and usually I had to do the same thing there. Some supplied slippers, some didn’t—which I preferred because then I could acceptably go barefoot. In some I was handed a plastic bag and expected to place my shoes in the bag and carry them along with me. This was necessary because the entrance and exit were in different places.
I’ve only talked about shoe etiquette so far. There were plenty more things that kept me bumbling:
- Ordering and eating food in restaurants. The first time I had cold soba noodles, I thought the warm liquid in a bowl next to the noodles was some new sort of drink. I realized at a later meal that it was sauce, and I was meant to dip the noodles into it. And that wet napkin I was given with my meal: was that meant for during the meal or after I was finished?
- Garbage. Finding a place to put wrappers, empty bottles or any other garbage is a challenge in itself. When you do finally find a bin, it’s actually a row of bins with labels, only sometimes translated into English. I thought “plastic” meant all plastic at first. I was wrong. Plastic bottles, clean plastic and combustible plastic (whatever that means) all go in different bins.
- My sheer size. At 5’7” (about 170 cm), I’m tall for a woman in Japan. I’m taller than many men as well. As for weight and bulk … well, I’m also much bigger than most Japanese men and women. So when I was moving among Japanese people, I took up more than my share of space. I filled the seat in the train, while the person next to me generally didn’t, or could they have been attempting to shrink away from my overwhelming presence? That’s how it felt, often. On the metro, whenever I stood up to get off at a station, I would bump my head on the straps that hang above the seats for standees. And I mean every. single. time!
- Escalators. The Japanese generally line up on one side of the escalator, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to whether they all stay left or all stay right. One time I was leaving a train at rush hour and a huge number of people lined up (on the left this time) to take an escalator up. Nevertheless, they lined up single file, despite the fact that the escalator had enough room for people to go two by two. Seeing that empty right side, I went ahead and stepped to the right. Others followed me, but was I committing some sort of faux pas by doing that? Did the right side have to be left empty just in case someone was in a hurry?
- Language. I don’t speak or read Japanese, and I don’t think anyone really expected me to. But there’s nothing like being completely illiterate to make a person feel stupid.
So you can see why I felt like a bumbling fool most of the time. I never seemed to do anything right, or at least I felt that way.
Have you had similar experiences on your travels? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below.