Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Shoes, Culture, Customs, and Stinky Feet

When I lived in Japan each of the three apartments I occupied had a list of house rules. The number one rule in all three was to remove shoes in the entryway before entering the apartment. All 3 places provided slippers for convenience. I thought it was really quaint and since I was totally sold on living as much as possible in the Japanese way I complied. In one year there were maybe 4 times when I walked in having to pee so bad that I ignored it. Japanese homes ALWAYS have an entry vestibule equipped with a shoe storage cabinet. Shoes are not kept in the bedroom closet but in this cabinet. If a workman comes into your home they take off their shoes immediately. If you are shipping 8 boxes back to the states before you move back the delivery company man takes off his shoes, walks 6 feet to grab two of them, walks to the door, puts his shoes back on, and repeats this four times. One simply does not wear shoes in the home.

I asked a co-worker about this and the explanation is that it keeps street dirt from entering the purity of the home.

Japan has a very high suicide rate and what I found interesting is that suicides always remove their shoes before jumping in front of the train. I suppose they don't want to carry the dirt of this world into the next. In an odd and bizarre way this makes complete sense to me. They can tell the difference between accidental deaths and suicides because of the empty shoes on the train platforms.

When I returned to the US I brought this custom back with me. (The soe thing not the suicide thing) Mostly it was because I had gotten in the habit. I keep a pair of slippers by the door and when I come in the shoes come off and the slippers go on. I still haven't found my perfect Japanese shoe storage unit yet but I'll keep looking!

After almost 2 years back why do I do this? OK - here are a few scenarios. You put on some sneakers and go to the ball game. During the ball game you go to the bathroom maybe twice. By the time you get back to your house you have walked through engine grease in the parking lot, spit (or worse), pee, dropped kleenexes, snot, pesticides, pollen, etc. Your sneakers have deep waffle soles. Do you really think WIPING YOUR FEET a few times on the doormat will remove all the bacteria, germs, DNA, etc? You walk through your kitchen, living room, up the stairs, and deposit the shoes in your closet. That stuff is still in the soles of those shoes, now closed up in your closet where all your clothing lives.
The next time you wear them you're on your way out of the house and track around your bedroom getting ready. Then you have to pee so you track them on into the bathroom where next time you get out of the shower all warm and damp and relaxed you will walk around picking all that stuff back up on your bare feet!

No I am not a germaphobe. I don't even own a bottle of hand sanitizer. I let my cats drink out of my water cup. I tend to mop my kitchen about a week after it really needs it. I'm not obsessive. But this removing the shoes thing makes such total sense to me. I've done a bit of research and it is the absolute norm in Japan, China, Thailand, Korea, Russia, Scandinavia, and part of the US where things get muddy and boots are required. Not so weird.

There is the awkward thing about asking guests to remove their shoes. Providing a little basket of bootie socks is a necessity in this situation. I have few visitors but in the case of those who have been here since I replaced my entry/mudroom/kitchen flooring I will admit I have really wanted to ask them to remove their shoes. I am thinking of making this an absolute rule.

Which bring me to stinky shoes. When I finally throw away a pair of shoes it isn't necessarily because they are worn but because they are stinky. My feet don't stink (I think) but when I have worn a pair of shoes for 17 years (kidding) they start to stink. Foremost among the stinky shoes is my Birkenstock sandals. Last week, having just thrown away three pair of good leather shoes that had a little more life in them only because they were stinky, I read something. Take a pair of stinky shoes, put them in a zip-lock bag (not necessary to close) and put them in the freezer for 24 - 36 hours. The stink will disappear for months until it builds up again. My beloved Birkenstock sandals are now in deep freeze and I will test them and let you know the results.

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