On our second day in Japan I learned why old people walk so slowly: because of their damn slippers. The flimsy plastic shoes offer little or no protection or support and some don’t even stay in place — like every pair of slippers that exists in Japan.
When we arrived in Kyoto we checked into a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with public baths, no beds and nothing to eat besides fish. The moment we stepped inside a Japanese man came charging towards us. I thought he was going to tell us that the building was on fire. Instead he just wanted us to take off our shoes before entering the hotel.
The Japanese are obsessed with taking their shoes off as much as American women are obsessed with thong underwear. In Japan there are cubbyholes everywhere for people to leave their shoes before changing into slippers. Sometimes you have to take the slippers off again to sit down for dinner or go into the public bath. You’re even expected to change into a different pair of slippers just to sit on the toilet.
We all took off our shoes at the entrance and put on the troll-sized slippers that forced us to walk at a slower, more humble pace.
And I hated it just as much as I hated being forced to wear slippers when I was a kid.
Growing up, my stepfather Stuart always insisted that we wear slippers in the house. He claimed that the sweat from our feet dirtied the carpets. I thought we could solve the problem by turning on the air conditioner because, after all, we lived in South Florida. But Stuart said it cost to much and instead splurged on $3 slippers from Payless for all of us.
Whenever we heard Stuart coming down the hallway at home, his slippers slapping against feet, we would run and hide in the nearest bathroom or closet so we didn’t have to endure his wrath. He is an older man, very set in his ways and never cared much for children or friendly greetings. If Stuart is ever made into a pull string talking doll, his phrases will include: Go to your room, Clean the dishes, and Where are your slippers? Whenever my sisters and I had sleepovers, he would impose his tyrannical rules on our friends, too. I remember one sleepover when my friends and I were running around the living room hopped up on sugar. Stuart came storming into the room and just stared at us with disgust. He stood there, sucking on his teeth before noticing that we were all barefoot. We’d just finished giving one another pedicures, but he didn’t care. His nostrils flared and he started yelling at all of us to put slippers or socks over our disgusting feet. We spent the rest of the night sweating in our red-stained socks, terrified that he would yell at us again. Most friends never returned.
That night in the ryokan, after relaxing in the onsen in the public bath, I fought off the urge to walk barefoot back to my room. The slippers were so tiny and uncomfortable and I kept slipping and stumbling as I made my way through the quiet halls. It didn’t take long before I started walking with a slight hunch just like Stuart. I placed my hand on my lower back because I was afraid to fall and break my hips or something. And even though I tripped a few times on my way back to my room where I was to sleep on the floor, I fortunately never hit anything because the Japanese are even too humble for furniture.