Slip-Ups and Slip-Ons: A Walk Through a Japanese Home
When you walk into a Japanese home – be it a modern one-room apartment in downtown Tokyo, the size of large elevator; or a traditional wooden double story house in the countryside, with the curving roof and sliding paper doors that conjure up images of kimono-clad geisha and sword-carrying-samurai – the first thing you will encounter is the genkan.
This is a basically an area inside the front door where you remove your shoes. In most houses, this entrance hall is a step below the level of the rest of the house. Stepping into the home proper, you don a pair of slippers.
Slippers! Love them or hate them, they’re as an essential part of the Japanese home as soya sauce. The biggest problem for most foreigners is the size. I haven’t been to a Japanese house, school, office, or restaurant yet where the visitor’s slipper have come close to fitting me. This results in most non-Japanese people adopting a shuffling gait when wearing them, sliding their feet along the floor to prevent the slipper falling off, with little more than their toes inside the enclosed tips.
But if you thought that’s the end of the footwear etiquette issue, you’d be wrong. These particular slippers are for use only in the main part of the house. If there is a balcony, a pair of rubber thongs should be worn on it, and slippers must be taken off altogether when entering any room where the floor consists of tatami. These are the 90cm by 180cm woven straw mats whose dimensions form the standardized measurement of all Japanese rooms and homes. Typically the tatami room would serve as a bedroom, but many houses also use this flooring in the living room.
My mother used to warn us as children to always wear clean underpants in case we were involved in an accident and taken to hospital, where the revelation of grubby jocks would, presumably, bring shame on our family, which was already wracked with anguish over the injury of one of its members. Well, in Japan the same could be said about socks. I now have different pairs for home use where, away from the critical eyes of others, I can walk around with my heels hanging out, and other pairs which I put on when I know they could find themselves exposed during the day. Surprisingly, foot odour doesn’t seem to be a problem in Japan, though I’m yet to work out why that is.
On the subject of odour, let’s move onto the toilet. This is where our earliest learning experiences and training took place, and thus home to the most deeply ingrained of our habits, and those hardest to change. For starters, drop those slippers at the door (the ones you just put on to walk the 5 steps from the tatami room). Another pair of slippers awaits you, similar in appearance, but for exclusive use in the toilet area. This is for the sake of hygiene and cleanliness, and by now you should be getting an idea of how hard it must be for a Japanese person to understand the foreign custom of wearing dirty boots throughout the house.
Unlike some Asian countries, Japanese people use toilet paper, though this isn’t always supplied in public toilets. For this reason it’s always handy to collect a few of the small complimentary packets of tissues often handed out at train stations by people advertising credit companies, English schools, and hostess bars.
What some foreigners do have trouble with though is the idea of squat toilets, those holes in the floor which stretch your calves until they feel like they’re going to burst into flame, and make the idea of using your toilet break to relax and read the newspaper at the same time virtually impossible. Nowadays these kinds of toilets are usually found in department stores, offices, convenience stores etc. One American I worked with, despite having lived in Japan for many years, still couldn’t manage the squat toilets in our building (which he called “cliffhangers”) and used to walk 10 minutes to the international hotel to use theirs. Another guy I knew refused to move into an apartment procured by his company, despite the heavily subsidised rent, because he didn’t feel comfortable with such a cliffhanging experience. One of the apartments I lived in was quite old, and the western toilet had a prominently-displayed sticker on which a stick-figure man illustrated that the correct method of use was not to stand on the rim while doing the business. I guess it’s not as obvious as it sounds.
Probably my favourite Japanese invention, even outshining the vending machines that sell beer, are the water-efficient toilets. The top of the cistern is actually a basin, and after the toilet is flushed, the water is replenished via a tap which pours into this sink. Thus the water you wash your hands with is then recycled by using it as the next flush. An added advantage of such a system is that the user leaves the toilet with clean hands, and no germs are passed through door handles. Why such a common-sense and hygienic system has not been widely adopted in a country suffering from severe water shortages like Australia, seems baffling and irresponsible. Imagine the daily savings to the environment if people didn’t need to use additional water to wash their hands after using the toilet.
And lastly, on the subject of lavatories, I was amazed to find a porcelain urinal on my maiden voyage to the bathroom at my wife’s family’s house. This was the first time I had encountered one in a private home, and I initially thought it represented the high status of the male in Japanese households. On later reflection I wondered if it wasn’t actually beneficial to the lady of the house, who was also usually the toilet cleaner, and whose job must have been a lot easier because of it.
Back into the lounge room, and the biggest difference you’ll notice between a western and Japanese layout is often in the choice of furniture. It is not uncommon for the room to contain no chairs. Often a low table is located in the middle of the floor, and people sit on cushions around it. This table may be in the form of a kotatsu, the underside being an electric heater which, doubled with a quilt draped over the table and the legs of the people seated, serves to keep you warm during the harsh winter months.
The general lack of chairs, high tables, couches etc. can actually work in your favour as you set up a new home. Often in the past when I’ve shifted around from one short-term dwelling to another, my rooms have felt bare and lacking in furniture, but here in Japan, it doesn’t look as obviously temporary when a room is devoid of these things. Also, I’ve quite gotten used to the luxury of lying down immediately after eating, without even having to leave the table!
Another bonus for the thrifty newcomer are the amount of household items discarded every month by Japanese people. The modern age mentality of discarding, rather than repairing or recycling, along with the general lack of space in most homes and the absence of charity shops, means that usable goods in working order, and sometimes looking like new, can be found on the days designated for the collection of large rubbish items. In fact a couple of my apartments have been almost entirely furnished with other people’s discarded tables, bookshelves, mirrors, a folding bed, TV cabinets, and even a stereo. Not to mention a fleet of bicycles, which often required little more than a puncture repair and oiling of the chain. For those not too particular about “knowing where it’s been”, this throwaway society can be a blessing.
As mentioned, the tatami room is often used as a bedroom. Although western-style beds have become popular in Japan, the futon is probably still the most common place to sleep. Rows of the thin cotton mattresses can be seen hanging out to air from balconies on sunny days, and the sound of them being beaten with a bamboo tool designed especially for the purpose is a common one in the late afternoon. When not in use, the futon is usually folded and stored away in a cupboard, and this allows the tatami to breathe, as well as making the space available for other uses during the day. Ironically, it’s my wife who speaks wistfully of the day when we’ll own a bed. Although the relative hardness of the futon mattress did take some getting use to, I actually think I prefer sleeping on the floor nowadays. Is it because it summons up unconscious positive recollections of camping (after all, it’s not that much different from rolling out a swag) or crashing out at a friend’s house after a party? For nocturnal action though, it’s a case of “your place or mine?” because the futon invariably comes as a single set. This might be a bonus if your partner moves around a lot while they sleep and keeps you awake at night.
The main difference between the kitchen in a Japanese home and an Australian one, is size. In a house this room will, in most cases, be separated from the others and also serve as a dining room. In a large flat the cooking will usually take place in what is essentially the same room as the lounge/dining room area, although these may be separated by sliding doors. In a small apartment, the kitchen will be little more than a space between the front door and the single room, with a sink, and a small counter on which to put a gas cooker. I’ve never seen an oven in an apartment.
After dinner then, it’s off for a wash, but wait, don’t go getting in that bath yet! Unlike Australia, even the humblest of flats tend to have a bath of some description. However it is utilised solely for soaking, the scrub down being done beforehand next to the bath, usually while sitting on a tiny plastic stool. This nightly ritual is very much a part of the Japanese lifestyle, and can be encountered at one of the numerous public baths (sento) or hot springs (onsen).
For a more bizarre bathing experience, you can try out the “super sento”, a veritable city within a city, where the baths themselves form only a part of the overall complex. Here you can eat dinner, drink with friends, play Japanese board games such as go and shogi, watch TV or movies on reclining chairs, or go to sleep in a bunk bed. The sense of surrealism brought on by wandering around barefoot on the carpet amongst hundreds of dozing, lounging, and smoking bodies, giving the place a feeling of one giant lounge-room slumber party, is enhanced by the fact that everyone is wearing a one-size-fits-all kind of bathrobe that is given out at the entrance.
It’s easy to see how some of these cultural differences can cause confusion, and even offence, if visitors aren’t aware of them and adapt accordingly. However, most Japanese are well aware that their customs can be different from those in other countries and will tolerate their guest’s faux pas, even though they may be inwardly shocked. It’s also surprising how quickly people can get used to the customs, and even adopt them as permanent changes or improvements in their lives. Whenever I return to Australia, I still can’t bring myself to wearing my shoes inside, no matter how clean they look. Now, if only there were more big slippers around…