There is a peculiar space in Japanese houses called the “genkan.” Although “genkan” sounds like a Japanese English abbreviation for Genghis Kahn, the genkan has little to do with conquering and more to do with barriers. The genkan is the welcome pit just inside the front door that serves as a gathering place for shoes, spiders and guests.
When you enter a Japanese house, you leave your shoes in the genkan and proceed into the rest of the house in slippers. Unless you live in an apartment. In this case, the genkan is probably so small, you can’t even see the genkan floor for the heap of shoes. Upon entering, you trip over the heap, which conveniently launches you out of your shoes and into the apartment. Forget the slippers.
Spiders like the genkan. Since spiders have eight legs, it’s not surprising that they’re barefoot and fashion-starved. They enjoy living in the genkan, where they can try on all the different shoes. Most genkans have a resident spider.
The genkan is also a holding spot for guests. It’s like a waiting room — standing room only. Many people are clearly not comfortable crossing the barrier into your house. You invite them, but they steadfastly refuse. I suppose that’s why the genkan has a built-in shelf for ikebana and a wall space for a hanging scroll — to make the wait as pleasant as possible.
When my neighbor Kazuko comes over, she always stands and talks to me in the genkan. After five minutes I invite her in, but she usually declines. After 10 minutes, I’m feeling I should be serving tea in the genkan. After 15 minutes, hors d’oeuvres. My genkan can accommodate up to four people comfortably. I really think we ought to have genkan cocktail parties — no need to clean the house.
There are genkan rules, not all of which I have figured out yet. I have been chided for stepping on the genkan floor in my bare feet. (Oh, the sins I’ve committed! It’s so easy to do wrong in a country with so many rules. Every day I thank God this is a Buddhist country and I don’t have to go to confession).
As well as a place for receiving guests, the genkan is a place for business transactions. The newspaperman collects his fee in the genkan and the postman leaves the mail on the genkan step. From the genkan, I even pay the men who come once a month to clean out the holding tank of my nonflush toilet:
“Was it a lot this month?” I ask. “I thought it was more than your neighbor’s,” he says. “Ah! Naked feet!” he says, pointing. “Oh, is that bad?” “No, not at all,” he says, fearing he has been rude.
Another day the bug sprayers, men in blue jumpsuits holding cans of biological weapons for natural insects, came to my door. “We’ll be spraying the trees behind your house,” they said. “By the way, can we have our picture taken with you?” We lined up outside the door. “Give the peace sign,” the cameraman said. “Cheezu!” Then one man said, “Ah, naked feet!”
Another day, the Buddhist priest’s wife dropped by to give me a thank-you gift. I took the gift and said, “Thank you.” “Oh no, it’s nothing,” she said of the 10,000 yen box of grapes. “Ah! Naked feet! You should put shoes on.”
Sometimes undesirable things pass through the genkan barrier, such as wild cats. These cats stalk my house, waiting for an opportunity to enter through an open door. Once inside, they dash into the kitchen and steal bread loaves. They’re so fast, I often don’t see them — I just hear a noise, look up, and the bread is gone.
One day, while I was standing in the kitchen, I heard a cat sneaking in. I rushed to the genkan roaring and waving my hands to scare him away. And boy did I scare him! The postman, that is.