Japan House & Home: Slipper Culture
Japanese Culture: Japan Slippers スリッパ
Perhaps the most pervasive element of traditional Japanese daily culture - after bowing and politeness is the genkan. Whether entering a home, modern or old, whether entering a doctor's clinic or a visitor centre, the first impression on peering inside is: "wow, what a lot of shoes!"
The genkan today is the area of national transition from outside to inside; put most simply the genkan is where one leaves one's footwear on entering. While the genkan solves the problems of where to remove one's shoes and where to leave them, it raises the question: "What next?"
If the purpose of the genkan is to confine dirty footwear to an area at the entrance, then what happens beyond this token area of the outdoors? Firstly, look around and there will almost invariably shelving against one wall providing space to place one's footwear. The same space may be occupied by slippers (suripa).
In that case, the protocol is to take out the slippers, put them on the raised area at the entrance, step out of your shoes straight into the slippers and then place your shoes on the shelf where the slippers were. Some hot springs and restaurants have numbered shoe lockers at the entrance, in which case that is where you place your shoes, remembering of course to lock them in and take the key with you. Crucial, in the genkan, is not to place either slippers or socks down on the lower floor, which is considered dirty.
Some establishments, minshuku, pensions and some hotels, will have a line of slippers at the entrance all pointing inwards for ready use. This is a welcoming sign, and there is something very relaxing about trading outer footwear for slippers that is akin to changing out of one's street clothes into yukata - it is both a physical and mental transition towards relaxation!
If you are greeted with a line of slippers, don't be surprised if however many you try on none of them seem to quite fit. Don't even bother asking whether they have larger sizes. I have seen the largest plate-footed sumo wrestler and the most delicately-footed Japanese beauty slipping into identically sized slippers, its not about foot size, its about technique.
Japanese slipper types
Whereas a western approach to slippers might be something along the lines of personally fitting fleece-lined items to keep one's feet warm, or light leather scuffs for wear about the house, in Japan the important thing about slippers is that they are all the same, they don't even need to be comfortable. In fact the golden slipper rule here seems to be "one-size rarely fits anyone, but that's OK because then we are all the same."
Walking in slippers that are likely too small or too large requires a certain trick - it's the slipper gait. With toes jammed in as far as they will go, flat-footed, short shuffling strides are what are required. Normal walking, raising the foot, toes up then heel planted, simply won't work. In fact, walking that way is more than likely to send the slipper shooting off one's foot into the air and crashing along the corridor, or heaven forbid into someone's leg or into a display item; no, the way to walk in Japanese slippers is by means of a slow shuffle without even lifting the slipper from the floor.
If you equate learning to wear Japanese slippers the Japanese way to learning to drive a car, then steering might fall into the first lesson in both cases. If changing gears comes into the second driving lesson, then the equivalent when learning slipper control is changing pace - and tackling the stairs.
Many a first timer gets half way up the stairs only to look down and find one slipper on step three and the other on step seven. Its time to retrace one's steps, and try again. Heading downstairs for the first time can lead to even more hilarious consequences with slippers flicking forwards and shooting off down the whole flight - again, hopefully, there is no-one ascending, or no-one watching!
After some trial and error clenching and unclenching one's toes turns out to be the trick, making it possible to grip the slipper from the inside with one's foot, much like a rock-climber may jam a fist or foot into a crevice for support.
Before long you will be shuffling along without difficulty, patrolling corridors, heading to hot baths, entering dining areas and tackling stairs (both up and down). With confidence now, what could possibly go wrong? Time to go to the bathroom: warning, warning! Let's just pop into this tatami room: warning, warning!
Slippers are the footwear of choice throughout Japanese establishments and are generally worn at all times - except when they are not! Japanese etiquette is full of quirks like this; something is compulsory, but not on certain occasions; or something must always be done in a certain way - except when there is a different way. At first it seems endlessly confusing, but eventually patterns emerge and among these are the patterns relating to slippers.
The special flooring of Japan, the tatami has an expensive woven rush covering that can be easily damaged, so the protocol in any tatami room is to wear nothing more than socks. That means leaving one's slippers at the entrance of a tatami room. Often there is a clue - the room may be slightly raised, or others may have already entered, in which case a line of abandoned slippers will be there as an indicator.
After a while, even trading slippers at the entrance to the washroom becomes second nature. Toilet slippers come in different colours and designs from house slippers, often emblazoned with the word 'toilet' across them, or with a graphic image of Brussels' 'manneken pis,' leaving no doubt as to their purpose. The trick is to remember to change back on exiting, lest one's host raise a laugh at your expense.
Jokingly referred to as "the slipper police," hotel employees seem to have an uncanny knack for spotting slipper indiscretions amongst their foreign guests and reporting them to their tour leaders (believe me, I am one such leader), but it's nothing really to worry about - its just part of the cultural learning curve.
Where, oh where are those slipper police when you need them? They should be patrolling the streets outside Japanese high schools accosting teenage girls for their slipper indiscretions.
Somehow, suede, fleece-lined house slippers from New Zealand have been turned into outdoor fashion statements here, and they are not even waterproof! Perhaps that's a job for interslipol (international slipper police).