Putting the right foot forward in Japan
Distinguishing between indoors and outdoors is ingrained in Japanese culture, and wearing shoes into someone's house is tantamount to spitting on their living room floor. To avoid getting off on the wrong foot, here are some guidelines.
Japanese homes and guesthouses usually have a foyer, called a genkan, specifically meant for changing in and out of shoes. Footwear that slips on and off easily is best. Leave your worn, holey socks at home to spare yourself embarrassment. In the genkan, take off one shoe and step with that foot into the main part of the house. Then remove your other shoe, never letting your bare feet touch the genkan floor. It's polite to align your shoes neatly off to one side, with toes facing outward. Guests are often offered slippers to wear around the house, although they're not required.
In Japanese homes, the toilet--which is almost always separate from the bathroom--usually has its own set of slippers. Leave your regular slippers at the door and put on the special toilet ones. Switch slippers again when you exit the bathroom, or you will simultaneously amuse and horrify your hosts.
Some homes and restaurants have rooms with traditional rice-straw flooring, known as tatami. Guests should remove their shoes or slippers and sit directly on the floor in tatami-mat rooms, which are furnished with low tables and cushions. Think of tatami as plush, white carpeting that you would only dare touch with stockings or bare feet.
Many temples, shrines, historical buildings, and even museums require visitors to take off their shoes before they enter. If you see a basket filled with ugly plastic slippers near the entrance, that's your cue--which for many big-footed Westerners may mean flopping around with their heels hanging off the backs.
When you dine out, what you do with your shoes depends largely on the type of restaurant. If there are Western-style tables and chairs, keep your shoes on.
At traditional Japanese restaurants with tatami-mat floors, shoes are not allowed. The rules confuse many outsiders, so be patient. When all else fails, just follow the lead of locals or simply ask someone.