If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably had to wear slippers at some point – when visiting someone's apartment, entering a temple, or even when going to the toilet. With so many unspoken rules around them, you have to wonder: why are slippers such an integral part of Japanese culture?
Walk into any Japanese home and you'll notice there's a designated space to take off your shoes and pop on a pair of slippers before entering. The space is known as a genkan, and you'll also find them at restaurants, onsen, temples and even some offices. Gyms even prefer visitors swap into a separate pair of indoor sneakers at the door. Once your shoes are off, you can either line them up in the genkan with the toes facing the doorway for an easy exit, or store them in a shelf or locker. On the other hand, you'll usually find slippers placed facing in towards the venue for easy entrance.
After all the shoe shuffling at the doorway, slippers are worn more often than not while walking around indoors. The main purpose of wearing slippers is obvious – to keep the place clean. After all, if you take your outside shoes off at the door, you can't track dirt through your home. Plus, in the colder months, slippers save your feet from touching cold apartment floors.
The genkan isn't the only time you'll come across slippers, though. Homes and restaurants sometimes have separate toilet slippers to wear when entering the bathroom, and some onsen and sento bathhouses have optional rubber slippers, too. The toilet slippers are there to make sure your normal indoor slippers don't get wet or dirty, but they also provide a handy signal that someone is currently using the bathroom. Just remember to switch back to your regular slippers after you're finished – it's surprisingly easy to forget! And be sure the slippers are facing the right way when you leave.
If the space you're in has a terrace or porch, there are often separate outdoor slippers to wear there, too. There is, however, an exception to the rule with indoor slippers: you should never wear slippers into a tatami mat room – the mats are delicate and can easily be damaged by shoes.
Slippers in Japan aren't the typical fuzzy, cushiony shoes that you're probably picturing. Slippers often come in a generic closed or open toe style and are generally one-size-fits-all. In most genkan, you'll probably just find adult-sized slippers and kid-sized slippers. It takes some getting used to, but you’ll find a technique to making sure that ill-fitting slipper stays on your foot as you walk.
Although it can seem a bit confusing at first, you'll pick up slipper etiquette pretty quickly. If you see slippers lined up outside a certain space, that's a good sign you'll need to put some on to go inside. And if you're looking to buy a pair of slippers for yourself, you can easily find them at one of Tokyo's many department stores.