The practice of leaving shoes at the door when entering a home is one of the many Japanese customs that clicked with me. I especially liked it when house slippers were presented in exchange for my shoes. At a ryokan in Kyoto designated toilet slippers were even provided. Kinda brilliant.
I asked a Japanese friend about this, but she couldn’t explain what she considered merely a habit of daily life. So, I put a curious gaijin (my cousin Tommy who lives and works in Tokyo) on the case.
The reason for ditching shoes at the door is largely practical. Traditional Japanese living happens close to the floor. You dine at low tables without chairs and sleep on futon mattresses rolled out on the tatami mat floors. Bare feet, socks or slippers keep living spaces cleaner and save on tatami wear and tear.
There is also the symbolic. In every Japanese house is an area called the genkan, where you take off your shoes. This area literally separates the inside and the outside of the home. Removing shoes in the genkan could be seen as a gesture for letting down your social guard before entering the home where you can be more comfortable with the family and friends inside.
For the most part our house is now a shoe free zone. Friends and family seem comfortable with the rule. But we make it optional for new guests, and we always make an exception when we have bigger groups over. It was an easy and practical change to make. In New York, where garbage blossoms at the curbs, we’re all too aware of the crud we drag underfoot. Plus, with a baby in the mix we spend a lot of time on the floor these days.
Aside from the benefit of cleaning up a bit less, it’s been noted that reduced germs from dirty shoes can result in fewer colds. I’ll go with it. In a nod to Japanese hospitality, I even bought a bunch of slippers for people to shuffle around in–but really, people just prefer to be slipper free too.
So what’s your policy: shoes on or off?