Barefoot in Japan: A bumbling fool

Much of the time that I was in Japan I felt like a bumbling fool, and shoes were a big part of it. The Japanese have a lot of rules regarding footwear. Basically, you are expected to go barefoot in Japan pretty much anywhere inside. That was more difficult for me than you’d think.

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seen from floor level: a wooden floor and feet in black socks. In the distance, blurry, another pair of feet in socks is visible. Barefoot in Japan: a bumbling fool
walking in socks at Matsumoto Castle

Shoe etiquette in Japan

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!

a sign reading "shoes strictly prohibited" in Japanese and English. Above that, a symbol of two footprints with a red circle around them and a red slash across them.
a sign at Himeji Castle

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, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

After taking your shoes off in Japanese houses, 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:

  1. The slippers often didn’t fit me. My heels hung out over the ends.
  2. 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. After removing your shoes: 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. (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 that you’re supposed to take off your house slippers, leaving them in the hallway, and step into the toilet slippers.

A pair of brown vinyl slippers on a rubber mat. The slippers say TOILET on each one.
toilet slippers, in this case helpfully labeled (!), also in Takayama

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: taking shoes off in Japan

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.

A row of 5 neatly lined-up pairs of shoes along a wall made of concrete with wood above it.
shoes lined up outside a temple in Himeji, Japan

Other general bumbling

So far, I’ve only talked about going barefoot in Japan. 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.

At this link, Japan-Guide.com, you can read all about the rules of Japanese etiquette.

You can book your hotels through this booking.com link.

Have you had similar experiences on your travels? How did you deal with going barefoot in Japan and the unfamiliar shoe etiquette in Japanese homes and hotels? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below. 

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Text: Barefoot in Japan: A bumbling fool + the Rachel's Ruminations logo. 
Images: above is a photo of a neat line of shoes against a wall. Below is a close-up of a person's feet in socks with another person in the background, also in socks.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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We go to Japan every year and have learnt to take shoes that are really easy to take off and put on. However, in saying that, I still forget; especially the toilet slippers.

Hi Rachel. Living in Korea,I’m used to the shoe etiquette. However, the Japanese take it to an entirely different level. The one thing I’ve never gotten used to here is Korea is taking off my shoes in a restaurant and then sitting on the floor to eat. I always try to bring socks (which is acceptable), but have often been caught without them. To me, at least, it doesn’t seem very hygienic to sit on the floor with bare feet (Korean restaurants don’t usually provide slippers) so close to the food. I think it’s also the North American thing of most restaurants not allowing you in with bare feet!

Oh dear! I would definitely be a bumbler, too! Do the Japanese carry their own slippers, sort of like the Chinese carry their own chopsticks? I’m not liking the idea of using slippers that have been on many feet.

It is easy to feel like a fish out of water in Japan. One thing though, we could always spot each other in a crowd.

Hi Rachel. Sounds like quite the adventure .., and the ordeal regarding the shoes! You really have to be on your toes to avoid being a bumbler!

The word AWKWARD comes to mind! Whenever I feel like I’m sticking out like a “sore thumb” I just try to smile my way through the situation. Despite feeling like a “left foot” I imagine you had a great time and saw and learned so many things. I’d love to see Japan so I’ll be reading your future posts and learning about the customs for when we get a chance to visit..

Cute and helpful post. I don’t like the “share the slippers” idea at all. However,I am a rule follower, so I am sure I would obey.

The thing with hardly any trash cans in public is that you are not supposed to walk around eating—-not even an ice cream cone. We learned that when we bought one and the woman at the stand where we bought it glared on us and ordered us to stand there to eat it. That’s when the lack of trash cans started to make sense. And, obviously, given the emphasis on propriety in the Japanese culture, no one would even dream of littering.

I love the post Rachel and even though I really shouldn’t laugh, it is quite funny. I can just imagine your tall self trying to squeeze into teeny tiny slippers!
Have I had similar experiences on my travels? Absolutely. Especially where the toilet situation is concerned. I remember going to a developing country for the very first time when I was about 13. My parents wanted us to experience a more rural atmosphere as we were all in private (independent) schools.
I wanted to go to the bathroom. I was desperate to do a number 2.
There was a bucket filled with water. I didn’t know what to do with it.
So I pooed in the bucket!
Everyone found it hilarious and unfortunately, they still talk about it.

Dear Rachel, I attached your blog to my recent blog as a fine example of a post.
You find our meeting on this recent post of mine.
http://rundumdenglobus.com/en/2015/08/23/japan-otsu-airbnb/

I hope you enjoy it.
Best from Down Under
Wolfram

There is a small persentage of people around the world who prefere to go barefoot outside. Is it even possible for them to somehow exist in Japan with such a strict footwear etiquett? If the point is to keep the house clean how can they take of… naked skin to get in?

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