It’s widely understood that Japanese custom is to remove one’s shoes before entering a home. However, there’s more nuance to the practice that’s helpful to understand before you embark on your trip to Japan.
Any custom, anywhere, usually develops for a reason. Yes, the Japanese are famously careful with maintaining cleanliness, but removing one’s shoes inside points to basic practicality. Think back to simpler times, when small, traditional Japanese houses made with tatami bamboo floor mats were the norm. Tatami mats are not only expensive, but they trap dirt and are difficult to clean, so it only makes sense that people would stop wearing shoes indoors. Also, people typically consumed meals while seated on the floor, so it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want their dirty shoes near their food.
From there to modern times, well, that’s when other practices gathered along the way. But the simple fact of the matter is that during your visit to Japan, no matter where you go, it’ll be obvious when and where you’re expected to take off your shoes and swap them for slippers. No home, hotel room, restaurant or other place that requires shoe removal is built without this practice in mind.
First things first: Since you know that Japanese custom involves proper shoe etiquette, plan ahead for your trip. Don’t bring cumbersome or overly elaborate footwear that’s time- or labor-intensive to slip in and out of. Keep it simple. Oh, and be sure your socks don’t have holes in them, since plenty of people will see your feet.
Coming and going from a home
Most homes are built with a genkan, or an entrance area just inside the front door — which is likely to be a small step below the main area and constructed with a different floor coloring or material. Generally, you should think of the genkan as if it were outside. You’re likely to see slippers placed on the upper level, inside the home and above the genkan. Step directly from your shoes into the slippers.
If there’s a cubby for shoes, place your footwear inside it. If there isn’t, and you see other people’s shoes lined up on the floor, just follow suit. You’re likely to see that the shoes are pointed toward the door, as consistent with custom — but also for ease of stepping from the slippers into your shoes in the genkan on your way back out.
Bed, bath and beyond
Once you’re inside a home, and especially if you’re staying overnight as a guest, slippers aren’t typically worn on tatami mats — socks or bare feet only, since the mats are often found in bedrooms. So try to be mindful of when or where you’re walking in slippers.
You’re also likely to find a change of slippers between a living area and a bathroom, with a separate set inside and a small wooden platform on which to stand to exchange slippers. You get the idea: Why wear the same slippers in and around the rest of the house as you would in the bathroom?
Out on the town
Similarly, simple mindfulness is required when you’re out and about.
You’ll find that some restaurants require shoe removal and provide slippers, and some don’t.
Eateries that require shoe removal typically have a genkan and also provide a bench on which you can sit down and remove your shoes. They’ll also provide slippers. Since the slippers are used by other diners, it’s not uncommon — especially for women — to carry with them a set of shoe liners, so their thin stockings or bare feet don’t come into contact with the slippers. Feel free to bring your own set as well.
When it comes to hotels, ryokans (typical Japanese inns) generally ask that you remove your shoes at the door. Visits to shrines and temples can often require changing out of your footwear and donning a pair of provided slippers. Carpeted dressing rooms in clothing boutiques sometimes ask that you remove your shoes, too. Not sure what to do? Just look around you and follow the herd.
The simplest and best advice to follow when it comes to shoe etiquette in Japan, however, is to use your eyes more than your feet. Take notice of the customs that those in the know are observing, and just do the same. If you can do that, you needn’t worry about missteps.