Monday, February 15, 2010

Slipper Slip Up

Clean undies. Mom always said to wear clean underwear "just in case." The supposition was that she would feel ashamed on some level if I got into an accident, was life-flighted to the hospital, and the medical staff found me in dirty dungarees. I'd like to believe that if I were in an accident rendering me in the ER, that she would have a bigger worry than the state of my undies. Nevertheless, with her greatest fear in mind, I pretty much developed basic hygiene habits, which featured laundering and changing underwear daily, from an early age. I make my Mom proud. She is so easy to please, a trait that has come in handy as a much needed confidence tool over my trials and tribulations living overseas. However, since relocating to Japan, Mom's rule of thumb has been slightly altered, say a few fingers over to the pinkie. The importance of the quality of my socks has trumped the condition of my underwear in every case. I spend so much time taking off and putting on shoes in front of others, each time changing into and out of strange or borrowed slippers, that I would never consider donning non darned socks again.

Covered in any Travel Japan Etiquette guide is the gentle reminder to remove shoes upon entry into a Japanese home. The front door to any house, condominium or apartment in Japan opens into the genkan. It's a traditional entryway that's somewhat of a combination of an indoor front porch and a mud room. The main function is to remove shoes and any dirt tracked in before "stepping up" the home. Shoes do not step up, they do not pass go, and if they do, you go directly to jail. Slippers will be lined up on that step with the heels pointed toward the door so that the guest need only, now try to follow the word use here, "slip" in and resume pace.

There is an awkward moment here, designed for foreigners, that no amount of years in Japan can cure. It's the feeling of being watched as if the host is wondering if you'll get all or none of the following steps of the process right. First, pin point the exact location in that genkan pit to take off your shoes, then execute your acrobatic slip into those guest slippers. Finally, now launched in your slippers, face the split second decision of whether you 1) just scoot scoot forward into the home, or, 2)once up out of the pit, do you squat down and turn to point your own street shoes in the other direction suitable to leaving. All the while you wonder if you should leave that to the host, as if depending on the nature of the relationship, are you creating a rank or power issue? Besides, "wear clean underwear," Mom always warned decisions could be tricky. Alas, the act of removing and lining up your outdoor shoes, slipping into slippers as you step up into the house is a not simply tradition or ritual, but it's also serves as a comprehensive nerve inducing act for veteran as well as first time foreign guests. Things get more complicated regarding the degree of difficulty if you are supposed to pick up your street shoes and place them on a shoe shelf or in a shoe locker on your own, but we'll cover that later. Up to now we've barely got our foot in the door, so let's try to just to work on getting into the house without losing technical points first.

To present a concrete, tile, stone but not straw mat example, we'll take my home. Upon entering the front door, you will immediately be standing in a recessed area of the floor, which is tiled and has somewhat of a stone walkway feel (that would be if there were front yards, and if front walkways led from the door, through the yard, to what would be, if there were, driveways in Japan). On the left, there are 3 built-in waist-high (my waist) cupboards with 4 shelves each designated to house shoes. The lower level is deep enough for boots, as rain boots are an essential accessory to any Japanese wardrobe. Most Japanese keep a shoe rack for guests just as matter of factly that you'd have an umbrella stand in the foyer in any home (also a matter of fact due to Japan's typhoon and rainy seasons), although the umbrella stand would be on the door side of the genkan, and the slipper rack would be in the hallway part of the house, as soon as you "step up" from the genkan to enter the home.

Thanks to the genkan, my shoes have a bigger closet than my clothes. You might even say they have their own room. This is not a statement linking me to Imelda Marcos, or some hot at the moment Jimmy Choo clad Hollywood fashionista. In actuality, I own fewer pairs of shoes than ever before, based solely on the unavailability of size 9 medium women's shoes in this country (size 8 is as far as they go, and all shoes big and small come in a EEE width), further complicated by the unwillingness of most dot com companies to mail overseas. As a result, I tend to load up on shoes an my annual trip back to the States in August. This goes for our-topic-of-the-day, socks, too. The standard "off the rack" set of 3 size 9-11 pairs of socks doesn't exist on this side of the Pacific. Now that the airlines are charging per bag, I get every inch to the yen out of my check in luggage by stuffing my elusive size 9 shoes with size 9-11 socks. Oh, I've tried the Japanese "large" size, only to find my big toe nail popping out to greet me after one wear. I can't risk having to spontaneously visit a home, school or business requiring the shoe to slipper change while sporting the footwork for a hobo Halloween costume. My mother would be so ashamed. Putting those fears behind us both, I justify a suitcase devoted to my over-sized and under-pampered feet every year. Come to think of it, the Macy's shoe department encourages me to open a charge card with them each time I visit. I assumed it was for employee bonus points for landing the sale, but they probably were plain curious to see if I'd open an account in the name Kathryn Marcos.

Once up from the genkan and into the home, although it's harder to slip up the slipper ritual, you're not out of the carpeted woods yet. Rest assured, after a few rounds, it gets to be has habitual as Sunday Mass. Sit, Kneel, Stand, Sit starts to feel like Shoe off, Slipper on, Slipper off, Stocking feet. Slippers are worn on flooring, but slipped off to cross carpeting, and as a law, removed to enter a tatami (straw mat) room. The latter is not as hard to remember as it seems, since tatami rooms are always elevated a few inches, which serves as a silent whistle of a reminder. Unfortunately, the step up increases the likelihood of tripping ten-fold, but I would rather fall on my face and track a bloody nose across a host's tatami room than be caught dead, or, worse, alive standing on tatami wearing slippers. Good socks. If you're covered there, you can feel good about at least that one thing. The only other margin of error in a home is the bathroom. Indoor slippers are removed when you enter the WC, and there are designated toilet slippers provided as soon as you step in. I use these as a guest, and I keep a pair in our restrooms for guests as well to maintain my (in)consistency. Call it the white lie of cheating if you will, since we don't actually use them at home. Instead, they are tucked in the back of the room and pulled out for when visitors come just like you would pull out the fancy guest soaps or frilly guest towels. It's just one more obstacle in the whole act of answering nature's call that simply doesn't feel natural. I like to justify it as meeting them halfway on that one.

Indoor slippers, guest slippers and toilet slippers. We're covering this one inside to out. On to outdoor slippers. Since everything I do here feels backwards, are start with "backyard" outdoor slippers. There will always be slippers placed ready for launch in the veranda area for hanging laundry, which personally I have found to be the only acceptable case for wearing Crocs. Now that I think of it, a clothes dryer on the veranda would eliminate the need for another breed of slippers in and around the home, but I digress in another self indulgent fantasy (size 9 shoes, please). In addition, if there is another exit stoop for entering the back "yard" for gardening (in our case off of the living room), this calls for a second pair of rear end of the house outdoor fashionably challenged Rubbermaid slippers. Back-tracking to the front of the house, you'll undoubtedly find a sturdy plastic pair of slippers, that most likely have an open toe and slightly elevated heel in the genkan of a Japanese home. These are placed on call for a quick step down and jaunt out the front door. The most common uses of this glorified flip flop are for going out to the gate to sign for a package or pick up the mail, or to pop the door open from the genkan for a guest (there are no socks or indoor slippers worn on that 4 by 4 tiled area).

My favorite use of outdoor slippers (by observation since I don't keep a pair -- I tend to favor the klutzy style semi-slip on real shoe when needed), is convenient store sightings. It's not uncommon, nor unacceptable, to see a grown, otherwise presentable, man in these itty bitty 3 sizes to small open-toe-plastic-slippers-with-heels in a 7-11 after dark. He is not a cross dresser just busting out from the daily business suit ritual, rather, he's just picking up milk, bread, eggs, smokes or beers like most people on any given innocent evening in a convenience store. Sometimes those little numbers even clickity clack when they walk, which makes it all the more entertaining to me. It should seem normal to me by now, but I still see them as successful business men in their Armani suits in wearing Major Margaret Houlihan slippers in public, yet thankfully, without her matching fluffy pink boa.

I've witnessed this business man in heeled slippers on convenience store hops here for years now. On the other side of the pond, the fashion world tends to turn its eyes toward the streets of New York to predict what to expect in fashion trends from haute couture to the discount racks. A typical scene, or at least a replayed CNN file photo, is the working woman clad in a smart business suit, walking briskly through the heart of Manhattan wearing Nike cross-training shoes with her heels in hand en route to the office. The understanding is that she arrives at work, changes in to her real world shoes, does her real world job, and wheels and deals with real world people. Japan practices the reverse. Commuters show off their duds. Chic employees in Japan dress to the nines (I didn't need that self-inflicted elusive shoe size reminder) at home, head to the genkan, and put on dapper footwear. They're off on their commutes -- walking, biking, busing, hopping on trains, in cars or cabs all the way to the office. Once they arrive, well, what do you know? They are greeted by another genkan. Off with the shoes (often Choos) and on with the indoor work slippers for another tip toe-y day at the office.

Not sneaking, but swish swishing doesn't slow staffers or even trip them off task on their all out sprint across the office floor. That skit-skit-skeet noise from the slipper clad dart up from the desk to answer that phone, tend to a client, or confer with a coworker must ring in their ears like a welcome hum of productivity - a comforting lullaby signifying that accomplishment is in the making. The only time I could picture employees running across a US office would be if there was a rush to the break room for an employee's birthday sheet cake due to a limited supply of plastic forks, let alone only 4 decorative frosted roses on each corner to fight over. Not exactly in line with that footwear fashion bar set by NYC working women, even if I had my New Balance kickers on in the office, my several decades old history of competitive running would never pick up the pace fast enough for me in a Japanese office. I couldn't keep up with my Japanese colleagues, notwithstanding the fact that the standard issued indoor slipper is made of vinyl, is one size fits none, and only covers 3/4 of the foot. My New Balance logo has been culturally downgraded to No Balance.

The Olympic Office Dash training starts early. At every level of schooling in Japan, students are trained to walk to school (getting a ride from a parent is unheard of, and bicycles are only approved for those who live a specified distance from school), which calls for sturdy outdoor shoes. Upon entering the school genkan, they change from their outdoor shoes to their indoor shoes. These indoor sneaks remind me of a delicate version of the most simple white Keds from my youth. They are uniform, labeled, and are kept in each student's personal shoe cubby. Once up from the genkan and inside the school, they only take off their indoor shoes for gym class (which requires another indoor shoe, toted in a separate cloth bag with draw strings), or to use the restrooms, where they change to another variety of vinyl, one size fits none bathroom slippers.

For visitors and guests to the building, who wouldn't have a personalized shoe slot in the genkan, there are "guest lockers" to stow shoes, and guest slippers available, which would have the school name inscribed on them. The school name in gold lettering is not intended as a protection from theft, like those monogrammed pencils that many American teachers have on their desks, reading, "Property of Mrs. Briss," for example. Thank you, Mrs. Briss. I still have it. Contrary, the name represents pride in the school, and issued in either a shade of public facility brown or public facility green. Those public facility bathroom slippers are always yellow, perhaps to serve as the neon flashing light reminder NOT TO EXIT THE TOILET WITH THE SLIPPERS STILL ON. One wrong move embarrasses everyone, and once that mis-step occurs, you might as well monogram I committed the cardinal slipper sin on all your footwear.

A lesser offense in right or wrong is just not managing stairs. There is no "right or left" to the bureaucratic pair, rending it impossible to manage stairs without painfully cramming your toes in the slippers just to maintain balance while doing flights within the building. There is there is no "left foot right foot" to those slippers which would provide some aspect of grounding, and thus maneuvering steps makes you feel like "wrong foot wrong foot." You are better off as a visitor to the school when the occasion calls for a larger ceremony, which means there would not be an ample guest slipper supply for everyone. The pre-visit message sent home would indicate, "bring slippers and plastic bag." In this case, once you enter the genkan, you change into your BYO indoor slippers, and carry your outdoor shoes with you in the plastic bag. The socio-subtleties continue. Depending on your status in the process of the ceremony (attending an open house while humbly applying for your child to get in the school, or gratefully attending your child's graduation in the auditorium), you would bring your best indoor slippers, that special occasion pair which look new and have some kind of decorative touch such as lace, bows, or a hoity toity visible brand name. The bag would not be a recycled grocery store bag, which would otherwise be accepted, rather a sturdy Harrods of London or Fauchon Tea shopping bag. These tend to be the 2 reoccurring status symbol themes I've confirmed for having your slippers in tow at a school. I'm still waiting to be able to take a victory lap for the balancing act, but to date, I've yet to experience any slippers I've had in tow actually stay on my toes.

Shoe shelves and cubbies are common at schools, but other facilities step up the storage to "shoe lockers." When you enter a Japanese restaurant, bath house, or shrine, for example, you're greeted by rows of small wooden lockers, each with a coin slot and key. You put your shoes in, take the guest slippers out, insert a one hundred yen coin, take the key, and carry on. The key often has some kind of rubber band or safety pin to string it around your wrist or clip to your clothes, a reminder of the way my Mom strung my mittens through the sleeves of my winter coat. Not losing the key is taken care of for you here, and fumbling in the slippers for long isn't usually a problem in these cases since in a restaurant or shrine, once you actually reach the tatami from the flooring, you have to remove the slippers and you're down to your socks anyway. In a bath house, once you reach the water, well, you take off your socks too, so this might be the only occasion where you could get use out of that shabby old pair with holes that you wouldn't want to be "caught in." When you return to the shoe lockers, simply reverse the process. The reward from all of your effort comes back to you in the form of that one hundred yen coin. Some would call it a missed marketing opportunity. The shoe locker and slipper use is refundable. If only I could get back the money I've spent on too small, now hole-ly, socks over the years in the same way.

Doctor visits and hospitals. The last thing you want to deal with is the extra effort of changing your shoes and performing the slipper shuffle when you're not feeling well. But a visit to the doctor denotes visitor status which leads to visitor slippers. Usually, when you enter the clinic, the genkan is furnished with ample shoe shelves for patients, and a slipper sterilizing cabinet. This device looks like a mid sized refrigerator with a transparent door. Unlike a fridge, however, it's brightly lit even with the door closed, and, well, it's warm. The shelves of slippers are caged behind the glass appearing somewhat like the Crown Jewels on display. Open the cabinet, and a vending machine type function ejects a pair of slippers, now sterilized, at the bottom. On the way out, you insert the slippers on the top shelf and the well lit cabinet sucks in the pair with your sick day germs through the process. It is an elaborate, admittedly neat at least for the first time, process. Yet an American part of me thinks it would save a lot of steps to just have a door mat to give an old college scrub scrub off the treads before entry. But I can't argue with a tradition that's been around far longer than the existence of my country. You know what they say, "When in Rome, do as the sick Japanese do."

The only hospital visit that really was worth fussing over in my experience was in the hospital to give birth. I entered the hospital on the first floor, and was escorted to my room on the second. The building was carpeted. When I got to my room I was administered a pink robe and a matching pink pair of slippers to wear within the hospital. I stayed in my room until the internal "it's time!" alarm, at which point I walked down the hall to the delivery room. The delivery room had its own genkan, with shelves of delivery room slippers. Oh, my. That was taking labor one step too far at that moment. I had to stop, crouch down, remove my indoor hospital slippers, and change into the hospital delivery room slippers. Next, I paced 8 steps to the delivery table, kicked the slippers off (holding back the temptation to kick them into the midwives at that point), and liftd myself onto the bed. Eighteen minutes later our daughter was born, and the most painful part of the process in memory was swapping slippers.

Clearly, slippers are a serious business. In fact, after all, I wonder if the average Japanese owns more slippers for every occasion too numerous to count, than Imelda Marcos owns shoes? As always, Mom was right. Clean undergarments as a rule. That includes keeping my socks in good shape. And while I'm at it, I'll pass down that sound advice from my mother to her granddaughter. Keep yourself and your socks in shape. You're in for years of training to graduate up the scale of the various steps of the sport of changing footweaer. Changing shoes to slippers (beginner) to judging when you switch from slippers to stocking feet (advanced beginner) to managing your own shoe lockers, indoor shoes, and outdoor shoe totes (intermediate). And one day, like you're mother, you may need to be in as tip top shape as your socks are presentable and enter the advanced level: indoor hosptial slipper to delivery room slipper. This advice is not to be read as pressure to give me a grandchild anytime soon, but it's never a bad idea to have those darned socks on call.