Plain Talk


Shoe Culture in Japan by David Alexander S. Dial

While the Japanese word for “shoes” is kutsu (靴), there is a specific word used for shoes worn outside − dosoku (土足), which is written with the characters for “dirt” and “feet”. Because we wear these shoes outside, and trample on any number of dirty objects (sometimes even dirt itself), the shoes themselves get dirty. The home is no place for dirt. The outside is a lowly place; the home is held in higher regard. This is further illustrated by the fact that, when someone greets you at their front door and invites you in, while they may use the verb for “enter” (hairu, 入る), they will often use the verb agaru (上がる), meaning to come “up”. In the old days, this actually involved stepping up to a higher level than the ground; however, even when the entranceway is on the same level as the rest of the home (as in the case of an apartment), Japanese may still use the verb agaru.

The “inside is higher than the outside” belief also presents itself in Japanese schools. If you’ve watched a lot of anime, you probably noticed that through high school, Japanese change their shoes, from dosoku to uwabaki (上履き), upon entering the school. Uwabaki are light, comfortable shoes to be worn only indoors. The first character in uwabaki means “up” or “above”, and the rest comes from the verb for wearing something on the lower body. When compared with dosoku, the attitude toward the outside vs. the inside should be clear. It should be further emphasized that indoor shoes and outdoor shoes have their places, and one should never be placed where the other is used. I had this pointed out to me on my very first day in Japan.

I studied Japanese for two years before coming to Japan. I had my survival Japanese down, I could read and write simple Japanese, but I was still in a state of culture shock. I was enrolled in a homestay program, and had just arrived at my host family’s home. This was my first experience with a Japanese home, and I noticed several things right from the start.
First of all, the front door swung outward. In America, doors almost always swing inward. Stepping into the home, there was a small area of concrete flooring. Some shoes were placed neatly in this area, with the toes pointed toward the doorway. More shoes were housed in a small cabinet off to the side. I learned later that this cabinet is called a getabako (下駄箱), and means “box for geta (traditional Japanese platform sandal)”. Spots in the cabinet that did not have shoes held indoor slippers. The entranceway, or genkan, of the home was on the same level as the outside, and there was a distinct step up to get inside the home.

I of course knew that shoes are removed before entering a Japanese home, but no one told me there was a special way to remove your shoes. I never even thought about it. I figured, you take off your shoes and walk in. I was wrong. Any surface that is touched by the soles of our shoes is considered dirty by the Japanese. Standing with your socks/barefoot on the same surface as you had worn your shoes immediately dirties your socks/feet. Even if you wear slippers in the home, stepping on the “lower” level without shoes is frowned upon.

The most common way to remove your shoes at the genkan of a home is to slip your feet partly out of your shoes to the point where you can easily pull them out, then without stepping on the lower level, step “up” (figuratively −remember, whether or not the level is physically higher, the outside is considered lower) into the home. It is then customary to adjust your shoes so that they are close together and facing toward the door, so that you can easily slip them on and go. If there is actually a raised level in the entranceway, as in my host family’s house, it is acceptable to sit down to remove your shoes if it is too difficult to do so standing up (e.g. when removing long boots). As long as your feet never touch the lower level, you are fine.

Mine did. So, immediately upon arrival at my new home, I had made the mistake of stepping on the ground while removing my shoes. Embarrassed by my error, I made sure that the wheels of my suitcase did not touch the floor. I lugged it up the narrow staircase, up to my new bedroom, and immediately laid it on its side so that the wheels would not dirty the floors. I began to unpack, placing my clothes on the bed and my change of shoes on the floor.

My new host-mom peeked into my room to see if I was okay, and freaked out. I had no idea why she was so up in arms, but she ran downstairs and came back with a sheet of newspaper. She picked up my shoes (that I had not worn), placed the newspaper on the floor, and then placed my shoes on top of the newspaper. It did not matter that I had not worn the shoes outside. They were dosoku, and were dirty by definition.

As you explore this new country, you’ll find that there are some cases where shoes are removed even outside the home. Many washoku (Japanese cuisine) restaurants will similarly have you remove your shoes prior to entering. Depending on the establishment, there may be lockers (sometimes locked using a small piece of wood) or small plastic bags will be given for you to place your shoes in, and ensure that they never touch any part of the inside of the restaurant.

Another place where you might not expect to encounter the concept of levels is in a clothing store. If you choose to try on an item, you will find that the dressing rooms are carpeted, and shoes are taken off before stepping inside. This is to prevent your feet from touching the same surface as your shoes, in case you were trying on bottoms. If you don’t turn your shoes around, the store staff will conveniently do so for you while you are inside the booth.

There are many other places where you may or may not have to take off your shoes. Your best bet is to follow the lead of the natives. Also keep an eye out for signs that say “土足禁止” (dosoku kinshi − “ outdoor shoes prohibited”), or “土足厳禁” (dosoku genkin − “outdoor shoes strictly forbidden”). They should be, but not always are, accompanied by some kind of illustration.

If this is your first visit to Japan, you are in for a treat. Japan is a beautiful country with a wonderful language and culture. The Japanese people are, as a whole, inviting and friendly. You will most likely enjoy your experience immensely. However, there is one thing you must accept.
Your shoes are by definition dirty.

Plain Talk


Foreigners’ hair and how to look after it in Japan by Olga Kaneda

Foreigners in Japan encounter all kinds of unexpected things when it comes to their hair. Sometimes these things are unpleasant, but there are some good ones. Off the top of my head, the water is much softer here in Tokyo, and my hair appreciates it. It is shinier and has significantly less split ends now. Here is a short list of 《hair challenges》 you may face when you start living in Japan.

Choosing an appropriate shampoo
Not only you live in another country now and they don’t have your favorite brand of shampoo and other hair products. To add insult to the injury, the labels are mostly in Japanese and most shampoos and many other beauty products are designed for Asian hair/skin. You can always go to National Azabu or Costco to buy imported shampoo that is actually suitable for foreign hair. The options are limited and the prices are often too high, but your hair will definitely thank you. I have chosen Burt’s Bees shampoo and conditioner at a reasonable price in Costco, and more expensive products by L’Oreal at a local hair salon to use when I want to give my hair a special treat.

Finding a good hair stylist and communicating with him/her
It may be challenging to find a perfect hair stylist even in your own country. Factor in the language barrier and experience in working with foreign hair, and sometimes it seems that in Japan you will always have to stick a simple hairstyle. Cutting your hair at a 《sorry, we don’t speak English》 salon is like playing Russian roulette. They may guess what you want, but then again, they may not.

These days more and more new salons have English-speaking staff. It just takes time, effort, and money to reveal a real gem. My English-speaking hair stylist works in a salon from Australia. He knows how to work with my hair and understands what I’m saying, but it doesn’t mean that he always does it precisely as I ask. I let him tweak my haircut because he is more experienced in creating hair styles, and usually I get satisfied with the result.


母国を離れると自分の好きなブランドのシャンプーやヘアケア製品がない。そのうえ、ラベルはたいてい日本語表記だし、シャンプー、ヘアケア製品のほとんどが、アジア人の髪/肌にあわせたものだ。National Azabu か Costco に行けば、外国人の髪用の輸入品が見つかる。選択肢は限られ値段も高いが、髪にとってはいい。私は、Costcoで格安な値段で、Burt’s Bees のシャンプーとコンディショナーを購入している。自分へのご褒美をあげたい気分の時は、近所の美容室でL’Oreal の高級品を購入する。



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Tokyo Voice Column


My trip in yokohama by Jelena Pejic

It was my first time to visit Yokohama, except when a couple of weeks ago when I went there for a business meeting, which left me with the believe that Yokohama is a "manufacturing" city. A city where all major manufacturing companies have their headquarters. Nothing else. It took me by surprise when I figured it is way more than that. Yokohama offers a broad range of activities and is made for everyone; couples, singles, families, kids, elderly people, and so on.

Arriving in the train station one notices the modern construction and the vast choices for shopping and eating. I was with a group of friends and we wanted to head to the redbrick warehouse to visit the Indian "Holi Festival". We took the metro and two stops later we got off near the harbor. We walked past the ferris wheel and soon saw the ocean with the many ships and boats in the pier. It was already when I fell in love with this city. After about ten minutes walking we arrived at the festival and spent an afternoon watching Indian dancers and random people throwing powdered color at each other, walking around like they have been pushed in a giant bathtub full of colors.

We decided not to get any paint on our bodies and walked along the seaside to Chinatown. It was a whole different experience and it immediately felt like being in China. We ate dumplings, bought some random Chinese souvenirs and went to see the temple and shrine.

On our way back we couldn't resist but get a well deserved drink in one of the bars in the Landmark tower where we could overlook the ferris wheel and the amusement park. With a blanket around the shoulders, a glass of sparkling wine in our hands and resting feet underneath the table we let the evening fade away. What a beautiful day in Yokohama! I will definitely be back.





Strange but True


Trend of 2016 (UK)

Decorative pineapples and white trainers were among the products people could not live without over the past year, a study reveals. Besides the obvious such as trendy water bottles, wireless headphones, the Dyson Supersonic hairdryer and designer light bulbs, who knew ornamental pineapples and flamingos would be found widespread popularity within British homes. Research revealed sales increasing by 200% and flamingo-themed wallpaper, fairy lights, cushions and mugs all selling well. The avocado also had its moment in the spotlight showning searches for avocado slicers were up 62% in May and avocado beauty products increased in popularity. Among the items to fall out of favour were tablecloths, down 10%, Valentine’s Day chocolates, laptops with disc drives, CD and DVD storage and selfie sticks, which saw sales drop by 50% on the year before. Shoppers have been increasingly drawn to bigger and bolder trends, with clashing colours and prints, copper hues and even pink flamingos proving exceptionally popular.“2016 has also proven to be the year that customers truly mastered the art of jumping seamlessly between online channels and shops to best suit their needs and mood."

What's the most popular food for 2016? (USA)

Every year, Google releases a report about the foods Americans are thinking about ― or really searching for ― the most. Report uncovered something that's actually pretty amusing. “Pasta Comeback.” The gist is that online interest in pasta is growing ―and fast. However, although people are showing interests in pasta online does not mean its sales had been jumping up. People are searching more and more for pasta just as they’re eating less and less of it. The first is the rising popularity of carb-free ― or at least carb-light ― diets doesn’t exactly help pasta. It isn’t necessarily that people don’t want to eat more pasta ― it’s just that they feel like they should probably cut down. And in that light, the rise of pasta window shopping seems to make a little more sense. Perhaps people are Googling recipes and contemplating pasta dinner outings online more often to compensate. Maybe they’re trying to make the most out of each pasta meal, now that those meals are a touch less frequent.


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