Cultural Significance of Removing Your Shoes in Asia
I made a major cultural mistake early on in my Asia adventure. It was in Thailand and I started blazing across the foyer to the reception desk in our small off the beaten path lodging. It had been a long day and I was more than ready to claim my room and curl up for a long night sleep. A bustling grandmother behind the counter quickly came running to block my path, utterly in shock at my onset.
You see I still had my sandals on. I had crossed the barrier of the lobby still wearing my chacos.
Much to my surprise, the older host of the house requested that our shoes be removed outside. It suddenly dawned on me that in my haste, I had passed a small group of shoes outside on the steps leading into the hotel. Slowly a memory of someone commenting about shoes and customs in Asia came to the forefront.
I went to slide my sandals off, still holding them in my hand but proceeding barefoot. Strike two. While our host was friendly and accommodating, she was committed that my shoes remain outside.
Confessions time. I have an obsessive relationship with my chacos. By far the most expensive shoes I’ve ever owned, far surpassing even the shoes for my wedding, I live in these shoes (to those who know me well, it’s quite the ordeal). When I realized that my shoes were spending the night outside, I instantaneously had visions of them meandering off never to be seen again.
I wish I could tell you I comfortably adhered to the custom and easily left them outside. While they did spend the night with the other shoes, I was very hesitant about putting them down.
Don’t worry. They were still there in the morning. I might have felt a little silly about my hesitancy. In fact, at every single traditional lodging, we’ve stayed at, everyone’s shoes are still right where they left them til morning.
Luckily now I have adopted the custom of removing my shoes all throughout Asia. I also research cultural etiquette before arriving in each country we visit. I’m committed to sidestepping rookie moves such as failure to know about shoe customs.
In case you are new to this custom, here is a little history about removing your shoes. As I’ve found the practice to vary by country, I’ve also included a breakdown of the practice and beliefs throughout Asia. Hang with me as I break it down for each country or click through to the specific country you are interested in.
Cultural Background: Removing Shoes
This custom stems back to ancient times when homes were built above the ground. The elevation provided ventilation, also separating the home from the ground. The act of stepping up symbolized entering someone’s private space. Guest removed their shoes before stepping up to the main house.
Even today throughout Asia you’ll discover most homes with either steps up to the main lobby or a small entryway below the main area.
A lot of the emphasis stems back to cleanliness. Shoes separate your feet from the dirt and grime outside. Wearing them in the home only tracks in the dirt across the floor. In Asia, much of daily life is centered around the floor. You’ll frequently see families sitting on the ground, chatting, enjoying a meal or even sleeping on mats.
Each country I’ve visited has approached this custom a little differently.
Removal of the shoes isn’t solely about tracking in dirt. Thai view the head as the most revered part of the body. The spirit lives in the here. The feet, clear at the end of the body, are the most removed from the spirit. Bottom line, the feet are considered dirty. By extension, so are the shoes.
While we can’t leave our feet outside, the shoes are simple to remove. Pretty simple when you think about it.
The key places you will be asked to remove your shoes are in Thai homes and temples. Many hotelkeepers live on the first floor of the home. As I discovered, this makes the lobby their living space. Some small shops will also request you go barefoot. Also, if you are sitting down with other guests, try to transfer them away out of sight or tuck them under your legs.
One benefit is that sandals are widely accepted as typical fashion. Sandals make it easy to slip shoes on and off, not to mention they are more comfortable in the heat.
Of all the countries we visited, Thailand was the lenient about removing your shoes. Perhaps it is due to the dramatic influx of western tourists. Either way, only small number of hotels, all the temples, and one shop requested that we go barefoot. Thailand was also great about having signs queuing tourists to take off their shoes.
Similar to Thailand, guests exploring Vietnam’s lush and vibrant countryside will be
paired with sliding off your shoes outside homes and many lodgings. Vietnamese hotels accustom to large amounts of tourists might lax on slippers occasionally. Smaller accommodations or homestays will request shoe removal when entering the lobby area, which is easy to spot due to the accumulation of shoes outside the entryway. In both countries, it’s not uncommon for innkeepers to reside on the first floor of the hotel. In turn, the lobby is their home’s entryway.
I finally got the hang of sliding off my shoes at the entrance at the door and walking in barefoot when Japan’s new custom adjusted my routine. Rather than removing shoes outside the home, most Japanese homes and accommodations have a small entryway for removing shoes called a genkan. Following Asian tradition, it is lower than the rest of the house. Here you’ll find a small cubby where guests switch out shoes for slippers provided by the host.
Many hostels provided small cupboards to keep shoes. Slippers came in giant boxes. While I did fine with most of the slipper sizes, my husband Nathan struggled….
While shared slippers might not be everyone’s ideal version of cleanliness, this practice retains the integrity of keeping dirty shoes off of living spaces. Even with the influx of western furniture in many homes, many Japanese still eat meals while sitting on tandoori mats and sleep in rooms where they roll out mats on the ground.
While camping we saw this practice still carried out even when entering a tent. In fact, some of the tents were even specially designed with an area outside the main tent to remove shoes.
Here’s the other unique aspect about Japan. You don’t encounter just one pair of sandals, you encounter two.
Yes, there is a separate pair to be worn in the bathroom. This continues the emphasis on hygiene, keeping all the germs from the bathroom where they originated. Make sure to never wear these bathroom shoes out and about in the house. That’s just not cleanly.
South Korea followed closely in line with the customs of Japan. We were greeted by the small entry way called a hyeon gwan along with a shoe cubby and indoor slippers called sil nae hwa. For the curious, we also encountered bathroom slippers. At our first hostel, these were quite small which made for an interesting dance for my large footed husband.
This tradition is deeply engrained in all practices. While in a concert in the park, locals enjoying the ambiance removed their shoes before sitting on a blanket.
A fascinating piece of Korean history we encountered revealed ancient homes with heated floors. Yes! Heated floors. Touring these incredibly advanced palaces, reconstructed from the 14th century, all I could ponder was why didn’t we this practice until today?
Olden day homes and palaces heated the floors through an innovated venting system. Fires at the entrance of a piping system below the home pushed smoke to warm all the floors. Clever. That definitely makes taking your shoes off more appealing.
Cambodia & China
While my adventure didn’t include a trek across either Cambodia or China, other travelers recounted similar shoe removing practices with the occasional slippers in China. Slippers are always provided by the host, so you’ll never be caught unaware. That being said, sounds like they also ran into the small slipper large foot conundrum.
Learning the Customs Before You Visit
Hopefully, this epically long post helps you avoid the rude (and downright poor) action that I did in Thailand. Before you visit a country, make sure to research the customs, traditions and major faux pas. As a visitor, you are a guest in a new country. Be mindful of their customs, celebrate what makes their country beautiful and enjoy embracing new cultures.
Have you ever done a faux pas in another country? Because we’ve all been there, and we can take comfort in hearing from others, share your story below in the comments!