It is already apparent that Japan is a land of good order and good manners.
Thus far I have stayed at a big city hotel and eaten in a private room with other foreigners. Tonight it would be a different matter, a country hotel with onsen. The opportunities to give unintended offence or simply make a fool of myself would be endless. How do you mind your “p”s and “q”s when suddenly you can’t even read?
The first place one could trip up is at the entrance. Here there may or may not be a kind of shoe exchange. The visual cues are usually in the form of a step reinforced by the presence of slippers. If confronted with these cues you are in the genkan. The protocol will seem familiar to anyone who has worked as a neurosurgeon. Before you reach the step the floor is part of the outside world and therefore contaminated. Undo your shoes. The slippers are likely placed ready to step into at the edge of the step, if not they will be in reach, place them on the step. Step up from your shoe into a slipper. Do not contaminate your sock on the floor below the step. Repeat the process with the other foot. If there are little shoe racks pick up your shoes and place them in the rack, sometimes they just stay on the floor. To touch the contaminated world with your sock or the sole of your slipper will have much the same effect as stepping on the cracks between paving stones, and to walk on the inside world in your outside shoes would be even more disastrous.
Your new found slippers will not fit. Because you have been careful not to contaminate your socks this will trouble no one, take small steps and try to look at ease.
You will meet a genkan at any private house you visit, smaller restaurants , perhaps at the doctor’s clinic. Be ready.
Having crossed that threshold your feet are now are now safely ensconced and you can relax, right? Wrong, there are at least two more slipper change places to be aware of. Tatami floors are elegant and luxurious and easily damaged. When entering a tatami room the slippers come off, socks may stay on. The other consideration is the toilet. It would not do to walk on the contaminated toilet floor in either your socks or your nice clean slippers. So just inside the toilet you may find a pair of toilet slippers. These are worn only in the toilet.
In the privacy of your hotel room it will matter little whether you change into your toilet slippers but, sooner or later you will enter a toilet that is in public view. To be seen not changing your slippers would be a faux pas. Far worse would be to come walking out in the toilet slippers. They are distinctive, the further you’ve travelled the more you will blush. Following the rules in private will help you remember them in public.
At the traditional country inn or ryokan you can expect to find your yukata in your room, and sleep on a futon on a tatami floor. The yukata can be worn to the bath and to the restaurant. It is elegant and casual and greatly reduces the need to pack evening clothing.
Here I am in my room, standing on the tatami floor next to my futon, dressed in the yukata.
When you do up the yukata, no matter your gender, the right side goes across your chest first, the left side goes over that. Just do it, little grasshopper, I shall explain later.
All I need to do now is find my bath towel and head to the onsen.