Ah, if only I could count the number of times I’ve given someone in Japan a heart attack.
I exaggerate, of course, but there really is nothing like that moment of great embarrassment where you realize – at the exact moment of a great intake of breath or gasp from said Japanese person – that once again, you’re sporting shoes where you shouldn’t be.
And don’t even get me started on those darned toilet slippers.
So what’s the rule? It can vary depending on circumstance but the following are a round-up of the places you’ll most likely be removing your footwear during your time in Japan.
1. At anyone’s home – In Japan, shoes are NEVER worn inside the home, though a recent statistic swears that 98% of people slide into slippers in their dwelling. When you enter a home, you’ll be in the genkan (entry hall). There is normally a change in flooring (ie from tile to wood or parquet) that marks the spot where you cannot pass beyond in outdoor footwear. When in doubt, just ask your hosts.
2. At a ryokan (traditional inn) – I have yet to visit a ryokan where shoes were allowed, so expect to remove your footwear at the door and slip into the slippers provided by the inn. The staff is usually quite aware of whose shoes are whose, and will often have them lined up at the door when you indicate your desire to leave. At your room, however, you’ll often have to take off the slippers as well to step onto the tatami mats (these are socks only, ALWAYS).
3. At a restaurant – In certain restaurants, you’ll be asked to remove your shoes at the door and even put them into a locker or on a numbered shelf. Many times, you won’t get slippers (too many patrons) so an extra pair of socks in your bag/purse can come in handy.
4. In a dressing room – This is the one that always throws me for a loop. Visit any department store in Japan, from cheap but cheerful Uniqlo to the grand dames that line the streets of Ginza, and you’ll be expected to remove your shoes each and every time you step up into the dressing room even if you’re not trying on pants. Don’t try to argue that it’s just a hat/t-shirt/tank top you’re checking out. Shoes come off regardless.
5. At castles and other historic sites – If you’re visiting a building in its original state (Himeji Castle, Takayama Jinya), there’s an excellent chance you’ll need to remove your shoes to tour it. Make sure you have a free hand, as these sites normally require you to tote your own footwear with you, usually in a plastic bag that is collected at the end of your visit. An extra pair of socks is handy here as well as these drafty buildings have COLD floors in the winter months.
6. At schools – For visitors to Japan, the chance to visit a school may be rare, but for residents, you may be all too aware of the necessity of slip on shoes when picking up your child at the end of the day. At my daughter’s daycare, shoes come off outside the building itself, making for some chilly mornings as we struggle with boots in the open doors.
7. In the bathroom – Come again? In the bathroom? But aren’t my shoes already off? Yes, and there’s a good chance you’re wearing slippers. But should you head to the restroom, be prepared to switch into an entirely different pair of slippers. These are usually marked with the word toilet (often in English), usually sit just inside the bathroom and are not meant to leave that area. From long experience (and more than one goof), I highly advise you to check your feet before leaving the loo!