Cultural Etiquette Vignettes

The surprisingly tricky business of taking shoes off and on in Japan

The last item on my do list to get ready for my trip to Japan, was to buy shoes that I could easily slip on and off my feet. In Japan, you are required to remove your shoes when entering somebody’s home, a temple, or a tea house. I really thought that all I needed was the shoes.

I spent considerable effort before my trip reading about proper etiquette for Japan. To bow, be polite, be meek, smile, nod, and eat with chopsticks. My chopstick skills were shaky at best, but sufficient enough to prevent starvation and total embarrassment. But the shoes turned out to be my nemesis.

In Japan, the distinction between dirty public spaces and clean semi-private & private spaces is very important. One cannot step on a clean floor with dirty shoes. And conversely, one cannot step on a dirty floor with clean socks. Armed with this basic knowledge and my slip on/off shoes, I thought I was prepared.

Alas, it turned out to be more complicated than that. You have to remove your shoes while standing up – more specifically, while standing on one foot – with nothing to hold onto. And the now shoe-less foot has to step up onto the clean interior floor – which is sometimes a substantial step up. And once you have established a foot-hold with with the stocking foot on the higher floor level, you need to remove your remaining shoe while standing on your other foot on the high step.

And if you are entering a Tea House, then you are doing this shoe ritual while crouching to get through a tiny entry opening. So much for gracefulness.

Honestly, I found this way of separating and defining dirty public space from clean private space to be fascinating. Something that our homes lack. (Though, to accomplish this in modern homes would require a new method as this one obviously does not work for anybody lacking in good agility.)

And when you leave, you have to do this in reverse, putting the shoes back on. One shoe on and step down, then put the other shoe on and land still upright with both feet on the ground. This proved to be even harder than the shoe removing upon entry.

One of these years, I intend to make another trip to Japan. Prior to that, I hope to watch lots of youtube videos of how other people accomplish this shoe on/off task gracefully, and make myself a little mini stage to practice beforehand. And hope nobody expects me to do this wearing kimono.

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