Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

A Digression Upon Feet

Life in Japan requires much attending to the disposition of one’s feet.

When you enter the door of a private home or hostel, you will be faced with a boundary – marked perhaps by single step up, a wooden bench, or the edge of carpet or tatami. This is the impermeable membrane between outside and in. At no point should your shoes pass or even rest on this boundary. At no point should your stocking feet touch the outside floor. Rather they should be inserted directly into a pair of indoor slippers, a row of which you will find waiting for you, plastic or felt, depending on the taste of your host.

There is always a brief awkward moment when the foot is between worlds, neither outside nor in. You may sit inside with your feet outside, as you undo your laces, or you may need to practice the art of balancing on one leg to do so. It is sometimes acceptable to walk around inside in socks, if they are not dirty – soaked and muddy from having recently slogged down an icy gully, for example – and if they have no holes, such as those that might be made by the tip of a big toe.

The shoe-swap does not stop there. In the bathroom you will find yet another pair of slippers or sandals. These are your toilet slippers, to be worn only while performing your excretions. Once again, indoor slippers do not enter the bathroom, toilet slippers do not leave it. It is like being in a system of airlocks. It does keep the floors remarkably clean.

Given how Japan loves its devices, its gadgets, its single-function doodads and doohickeys, you are surprised that no one has come up with a creative solution to this problem. You imagine a kind of layered footwear system, with the three requisite pairs of shoes nestled each inside the next, like booster rockets, or a set of Russian dolls. Rubber galoshes could be optional for bad weather. But it would certainly make walking a chore, especially in crowded subways, requiring extra care not to step on each other’s immense, hot, sweaty, clown-sized feet.

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