Readers of these little stories who have had any experience at all with Japan know how important shoes are to the culture here. Or rather, not so much the shoes themselves, but the question of when they should be on or off …
Before each of us arrives in Japan for the first time, we are warned by more experienced travellers about the 'rules' for wearing shoes. The most basic of these is very easy: "When entering a house, your shoes must be taken off at the entranceway." This is so well understood now that very few visitors would ever make the mistake of walking into a home with their shoes on. For shops and commercial establishments, things are a little bit more vague. I have read stories about the early days of Japan's westernization when the first department stores were opened, and about the chaos at the entrances when great mounds of footwear became scattered in front of the doors, as people - out of long-standing custom - removed their shoes before entering. But the situation has stabilized since those early chaotic days, and these days 99% of all shops operate just like those in the west - you keep your shoes on throughout the building.
When we were planning our shop in Asakusa we had to make a decision - match the modern pattern of 'shoes on', or go with an old-fashioned approach where the visitors should remove their footwear at the entrance. We were forced into making this choice by the physical layout of the space - the floor is not level at the place where people enter, but there is a step up. Just a single step.
Now to any Japanese, and to any foreigner who has begun to become acclimated to life here, the presence of this step is a strong signal - this is the place where you take your shoes off.
We recognized this when we were building the shop, and at one point considered taking the 'easy way', preparing a shoe box there, and requiring people to remove their footwear before entering. But it would have entailed so many problems - providing slippers for everybody, setting up a place where people could sit down to put their shoes back on, building a large shoe rack, etc. etc, that we gave up on that idea, and put a small sign up at that place, reading (in Japanese) "Please enter with your shoes on ..."
It doesn't work. Not one person in a dozen can enter smoothly. Everybody stops short at that point, unsure of how to proceed. That step sends such a strong signal - Take off your shoes! - but without the surrounding infrastructure of bench, slippers, shoebox, etc. etc., nobody knows what to do.
So we have learned that whenever we hear somebody coming up the stair, one of us has to go to the entranceway to meet them. "Come in! No no ... shoes on, it's quite OK ... Please! Shoes on ... don't worry!" And with some of the visitors, perhaps Japanese ladies of a certain age, I almost have to walk over there and physically lift them up that step into the shop, they are so reluctant to do it by themselves.
Once they are in, is it smooth sailing? Well, unfortunately, no. They have no sooner moved a few yards down the hallway when they arrive at the central browsing space of our shop, which is a space converted from one of the rooms of the restaurant that once occupied this space. It now has a carpeted floor, but long ago it was a tatami room, and it was built - yes - at a level one step up from the surrounding area.
The customers get to this step and the whole thing begins all over again. They look at us, we say "Shoes on, come on in!", but they simply can't believe it ...
And it gets worse. Even after we have coaxed them all the way in, and they have been browsing some prints for a while, somebody might ask, "May I use the bathroom ..."
And we look at each other, and one of us will reply, "Yes, of course ... but do you know that expression, 'Things usually come in threes?' …"
Story #487, April 26, 2015