Visiting a house, apartment or building of someone in Japan is not as simple as you may think it is. Knocking on the door, ringing the bell, or giving a simple greeting is not enough for you to get into someone’s house. They are following a particular etiquette: every house in Japan has a traditional entryway with a Genkan and Getabako.
Genkan: a gateway to profound language
What is a Genkan? A genkan (vestibule) is a traditional entryway and most of the time it is a combination of a porch and a doormat. It can be seen in the main entrance of a house and it somewhat connects the outside world to the inside of the house. The genkan serves as a holding room for guests and this is where they would take off their shoes, coat, and other outdoor wear before entering a house. Paintings, family portraits, and other decorations are also placed on the genkan area because it is considered as one of the admired places inside the house.
During the early days, genkan was not used for houses but as an entrance to a Zen Temple. Genkan symbolizes “a gateway to profound language” and the start of Zen training. During the 17th century, the samurais were the first to build genkan in houses, then it continued to spread and became a tradition in Japan.
Sometimes, if a genkan is huge enough, it may be used for business transactions. Taking off one’s shoes is an old tradition in Japan dating back from the Meiji period (1868-1912) and until now, it is still being practiced.
The genkan is a tiled or stoned surface similar to the outside area leading to the entrance. In front of the genkan, or sometimes surrounding it, is a wooden or concrete elevated floor (tataki). Another purpose of a genkan is to prevent dirt from the tataki or the elevated floor. After removing one’s shoes, they should change to slippers or to an Uwubaki, an indoor wear shoe before stepping on the tataki. Their shoes must also be placed facing the door. For guests, shoes are placed on genkan while for the members of the family in the house, they put their shoes on a getabako.
Getabako: keeping the tradition
What is a Getabako? A getabako is a shoe closet located in the genkan. ‘Geta’ means a type of Japanese footwear and “hako’ means a box. Even with modern houses, the tradition of having a genkan still continues.
Genkan and getabako can also be seen in public and private establishments and facilities like schools, gyms, hospitals, apartments, temples, and shrines. For large facilities like hospitals, it is not required to remove one’s shoes. In schools, each student has his or her own getabako section and it is larger than those found on houses because it sometimes serves as a locker for the students’ belongings. In places like temples and the like, it is necessary to remove shoes and replace it with Uwubaki.
Check out Japanese Style for other authentic Japanese home items.