Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Meditation: Shoes and Cleanliness

Shoes and Cleanliness:

Let me start this with two anecdotes from Tokyo. First, the Narita airport security does not make you take your shoes off. DB thinks that this is because the Japanese would have some sort of visceral reaction if they had to walk in their socks on an unclean airport floor. The second: when we are done eating at Honmura-An and talking to Kobari-san, the thing that I thank him most sincerely for is that his place does not require you to take off your shoes in order to eat there. He of course laughs, he lived half his life in the US.

I think there is a strong connection between the removal and putting on of shoes, slippers, clogs, socks, mock-socks, and the fanaticism in all the different versions of toilets and bathrooms we find. The strong connection is that I put a ton of pictures of the bathroom fixtures and signs in the blog and talked at length about the folly of the shoe on and off procedures. Ohhhhhhhh, maybe there is another connection?

So, first the shoes. Protecting tatami mats, a big expense and a handsome floor, yep, maybe going in socks is a good idea. How about all the other floors, that not a single one looks like it needs protecting. It is just varnished wood (at best). Or the time you take off your shoes and lock them up (like someone might steal someone else’s shoes in Japan, not gonna happen), then walk in slippers to sit at the counter (when you sit, your feet don’t touch the floor) or at low tables where nobody ever sees the bottom of this pit the table sits in, never. Or switching from bedroom slippers to generic slippers or bathroom slippers (all of above as you walk around, switching, switching, switching. Or providing size 3 slippers for all guests, which means anyone over 4’6” has their heels flopping out the back (and maybe touching the floor…I hope not!).

An old truism: don’t let logic get in the way of tradition

Now the cleanliness. First, there are almost zero trashcans in public areas, which doesn’t seem to be a security thing. Second, every public area is spotless, people do not discard their trash on the ground, ever. Even teenagers clean up after themselves. We get a wet “towel” to wipe ourselves before we eat (and not just in places where we might be eating with our hands). That happens more often than we get napkins to lay in our laps (and keep our clothes clean, something just as important for us).

Lastly, the bathroom innovation is considerable, the toilets look harder to work than a VCR (which I know some of you have not mastered yet, or ever, maybe that’s why there is On Demand now!). They post instructions on the walls (yes, complete with pictures of bare bottoms and spray types, this is a visual society). Every room comes with slippers, sometimes multiple sets so you can keep the hotel bathrooms extra clean (something tells me this is not the reason, the customers demand the slippers). And, the hotels supply toothbrushes and razors everywhere, you don’t have to bring your own. Even the inexpensive hotels provide bathrobes, too.

So, with the focus on shoe changing and cleanliness, maybe this is all of a part: something “untouchable” that is not supposed to come in contact with body parts. My favorite of course was the train ride where a guy near us wanted to take off his shoes so he spread out newspaper on the area under his seat so his socks would sit on the newspaper instead of the train carpet (not linoleum, carpet). Now, most of us would not want newsprint on our socks, this guy did not want his socks on carpet that just might have come in contact with someone’s soles.

So, why this segment. I found the taking on and off of shoes remarkably inconvenient. I am not a limber guy, and I found myself contorting into odd positions to just avoid putting my shoe-clad feet in the wrong spot or my sock-clad feet in a cold spot (less improper). And, since you aren’t allowed to put your shoes on the surface you’re leaving, often the two are at different levels, with the shoes being on the lower level. As an accommodation, therefore, I often found myself sitting on the “step” to put my shoes on or take them off. How can rubbing my ass on the step be considered good manners? How can getting dirt on my pants be considered a clean way to approach life? The funniest moment (at least for her): when G-san’s wife was walking behind me and noticed (announced by much giggling) that I had white dust all over the tushy area…I guess I was one of the rare guests that couldn’t do the shoe thing without sitting down, in an area where there was lots of potter’s dust.

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