Shoes on, shoes off.
Part of my little nostalgia fest was to go to the suburb in Tokyo where my friend had lived and I used to stay when visiting. After taking a requested amount of nostalgia photos of the area I started walking back to the train station using some of the back streets. I walked past a primary school (elementary school) and then came to a screeching halt when looking past the entrance to the school. I could clearly see the area with the shoeboxes. Part of my 'life in Japan' stories I tell children is how Japanese school students (right through to high school) don't wear shoes inside the school, they have 'outdoor shoes' and 'indoor shoes'. Their outdoor shoes they leave in an area just inside and they change into their indoor shoes.
So balancing my umbrella (it was raining) I took out my camera squeezed the lens through the chain mail fence and took a picture of the shoe boxes. (Luckily no-one was around so didn't get any weird looks from passerbys!)
There's quite an etiquette to shoes on, shoes off in Japan. My working in Japan wasn't a long term planned strategy, I was offered a job, took it as I didn't want to look back and regret not taking it, but it meant that I was woefully ignorant of not only the language but also the cultural niceties that go with living in a country. Basically I made ever social faux pas in the book!
Beginning with shoes within a few weeks of my arrival. This is tatami matting, it is a traditional form of floor covering made from rice straw, most homes have at least one room with tatami, in some cases they have western style decor in the rest of the home, and just one 'Japanese style' room'.
(This picture is of the interior of one of the traditional houses in Hida no Sato)
Tatami was the cause of my first major social faux pas. A couple of weeks after I arrived and began my new job (with expats, not a Japanese company) a colleague who had lived in Japan a number of years kindly invited the newbies (3 of us) to his apartment for an afternoon of socialising with some of his Japanese friends. (At least we would have some social contact with Japanese!)
I arrived at the appointed time, entered the apartment, saw all the shoes in the entrance (genkan) knew to take off my shoes and put on the 'guest slippers' (Japanese homes tend to have a rack of guest slippers for visitors). I checked how the other shoes were arranged (shoes together, facing the exit) so I was trying to learn the social niceties.
I then padded down the hallway wearing my guest slippers, (a particularly fetching look with what I was wearing!!) and entered the kitchen area, adjacent to the kitchen was the living room. (Insert important bit of information here, both the hallway and kitchen area had wooden and vinyl flooring) I then entered the living room only to be greeted with horrified gasps from the Japanese women in the living room. Total look of bewilderment over my face, no idea what I had done to provoke such a reaction. I even plaintively thought "but I took off my shoes!" It seems the dreadful faux pas I made was that I had walked on tatami with slippers on. NO! Slippers off, when it came to tatami and only bare feet or socks allowed. It was nicely explained to me and lesson learnt.
Slippers off too, I later learnt (this time by watching a Japanese friend entering the room!) if the room is carpeted and even if the room has a wooden floor but there is a rug, no slippers on the rug. Take them off and leave at edge of rug. (The rug etiquette was another social faux pas, I reasoned the room had a wooden floor so slippers OK, apparently not when you walk on the rug. "It is the Japanese way" as my Japanese friend explained!
Finally, there's also the 'toilet slippers' where some people in their homes have separate 'toilet slippers' to be worn only in the toilet, so it's shoes off, slippers on to enter a home, house slippers off, toilet slippers on when entering the toilet. There's a lot of shoes off, shoes on in Japanese homes!!!!!