The rule is simple, wear outdoor shoes outdoors and indoor slippers indoors. What constitutes outdoors and indoors is not so simple. Generally, if slippers are provided, you are expected to wear them.
I will set out what worked for us:
When walking outside
Wear any shoes, but preferable ones that can easily be taken off or put back on. Always wear or carry a pair of socks with you.
Inside 'Modern' hotels
You can wear your own shoes in lobby areas, and anywhere outside your room and also inside your room, if no indoor slippers are provided. Often, hygienic slipper liners are provided, you should use these!
Inside 'traditional' hotels or ryokans
When entering the hotel, you can wear your own shoes until you get to your room, but should then change into the slippers and robes, if provided, (usually a special yukata or top and trousers) and wear this everywhere in the ryokan, including the restaurant, for the duration of your stay here. Note that the special robes are not the same as your dressing gown, which is also provided, this is considered pyjamas and are not to be worn in any public areas. In addition to the indoor slippers provided in the hotel room, there was also a pair of outdoor slippers at the entrance to the balcony in the ryokan we stayed in.
|Robes for wearing in the ryokan|
|Wearing of robes not compulsory, but most of us did|
|Hygienic slipper liners|
|Indoor shoes/ slippers provided in the hotel|
You can wear your own shoes in most restaurants, but if there is a shoe rack or a pile of shoes near the entrance of the restaurant, then you need to take your shoes of. We had lunch one day in a Japanese style restaurant, there were no shoes by the entrance and everyone had their shoes on as we walked through the restaurant, but when we got to our table, which was in the Tatami room (we were put here because there was 6 of us and all the other tables only seated 2 or 4 people) we had to remove our shoes and sit either with socks on or barefeet on the cushions on the tatami floor.
Entering rest rooms
You can mostly wear your own shoes, but if slippers are neatly lined up just outside or inside the door, you need to take your own shoes of OUTSIDE the door and replace them with the slippers INSIDE the rest room. Please do not step inside the rest room to change your shoes as you will be contaminating the area. Likewise, do not step out of the rest room with any part of the Inside slippers! Wearing the slippers and leaving your shoes outside is also a sign that the room is occupied, as doors do not always lock!
|Slippers provided for wearing in the rest room|
Visiting shrines or temples or museums
You can mostly walk around in your own shoes, but when entering inside areas or areas with very old wooden floors or tatami matting, there will be an area by the entrance where shoe racks are provided. Be very careful to not step over the boundary with your outside shoes or putting your outdoor shoes down on the inside floor area. You need to take your shoes of on the outdoor floor area and step one foot at a time onto the indoor floor area. You then can put the indoor slippers or shoes provided on, on the indoor floor area and carry your outdoor shoes (be very careful not to put your outdoor shoes on the indoor floor space!) to the racks provided, sometimes they are numbered and you will be asked to put your shoes in a specific number, at other times there may be no shoe racks, but you will be provided with a plastic bag to put your outdoor shoes in. Just line them up nicely with all the other shoes, they will be perfectly safe until you return, or you can carry them around with you.
Remember to step out of the indoor slippers on the indoor floor area (not putting your outdoor shoes down on the indoor matting) and then step into your outdoor shoes on the outdoor floor area. This sounds so simple, but on every occasion, someone in our group did the unmentionable. Also, quite often the outdoor floor area is down a step and if you are not too young or very young, you might need to sit down to take off/ put on your shoes and the sitting down benches might be a little way from the designated floor area. In this case it is preferable to walk in bare feet over the outdoor area to walking in indoor shoes over the outdoor area.
When at one of the temples, none of the indoor shoes fitted me, they tend to be a standard size for men, women or children. Being an adult size 4, I did not fit into any 3 boxes, so I walked around on my socks, which is quite normal. Beware - you will get VERY cold feet, so if you do not have average sized feet, then wear THICK socks, especially in the colder months.
On tatami matting
You must always take your shoes off before walking on tatami matting. Even if you are in indoor shoes or slippers, remove them and just walk with bare feet or stockinged feet.
|Tatami matting in hotel room|
The wearing of indoor shoes is to prevent contamination of clean interiors with dirt from outside, it is also to preserve wooden floors or tatami matting. Respect your hosts and they will respect you.