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The big and small of it — slippers that fit the feet of Hibagon

by Amy Chavez

I live with Bigfoot. Don’t tell anyone though, or the media will be all over it.

Bigfoot is not as hairy as you might expect. He’s not even as big as you’d expect. But he does have a big foot. Bigfoot is my husband.

Like many other foreign men in Japan who have a 31 cm foot (or larger!) there is no getting around being an anomaly here. But at least even the biggest gaijin is probably tiny compared to American Shaquille O’Neal, who is 2.16 meters tall, weighs 147 kg has a foot 40 cm long.

The Japanese are fascinated with bigness, meaning basically, anything bigger than they are. Shoes that are bigger than a bread box — or if you prefer the local vernacular, bigger than a rice cooker — are indeed astonishing.

The Japanese point and marvel at big shoes in the same way we point and marvel at the little purple Komatsu excavator or that tiny singing garbage truck. We marvel at how, in Japan, we can walk down a narrow alley and duck in through a small door that leads into a tiny bar with just a few tables and drink beer served in diminutive glasses accompanied by an itsy-bitsy portion of nuts on the side.

The Japanese are quick to point out “You’re tall!” or “Your feet are huge!” But as a friend corrected me once when I asked her why the Japanese so freely comment on someone’s body, weight or foot size, she said: they’re making an observation, not a judgment.

Bakano o-ashi” (stupid people have big feet), says my neighbor, in an attempt to teach me a new Japanese phrase. Since I have very small feet, perhaps between my husband and I, our feet average out to being completely ridiculous.

If you’ve got a bit of the Yeti in you as well, forget trying to buy shoes in Japan. You may as well buy a pair of small kayaks instead. And if your foot is narrow and bony like my husband’s, you can’t buy shoes online either because most likely even the narrowest shoes will not fit. As a result, he is forced to buy shoes when he goes back to his home country where he can try them on before buying. Then he hauls them to Japan, paying excess baggage fees and fuel surcharges.

Once in Japan the schlepped shoes, which by now have reached sacred status, must be made to last as long as possible. That’s why his current sneakers are being held together with duct tape. “I can’t give them up,” he says in defense. “They’re so comfortable!”

Duct taped shoes are not something the Japanese readily understand. Most laugh, point at his feet and say, “Look at your shoes!” (just an observation, of course) referring to the bulky rings of duct tape wrapped around them, each layer representing a year of extended shoe life, like the rings in a tree trunk that tell its age.

When we checked in to a Japanese ryokan recently, the other guests were so fascinated with the gargantuan shoes resting in the genkan like a pair of dachsunds, that soon a crowd had amassed. Whispers of “Hibagon!” the Japanese version of Bigfoot who roams Mount Hiba in Hiroshima Prefecture were unmistakable.

The sheer size of my husband’s foot sent the ryokan owner into hyper overdrive as she scurried around trying to find him appropriately sized slippers, which of course don’t exist. This did not stop her from searching, however. When she found a pair of extra-large size slippers, she brought them over and crammed them on to his feet. Only his toes would fit inside them, but no matter — he was now shod!

He moved around the ryokan in an ungainly manner, producing a ker-thump with each step as he fought to keep the slippers on his toes while hobbling across the wooden floors.

If it were up to him, he’d just leave his shoes in the genkan and not use slippers at all. Stocking feet would be just fine. Even in Japanese homes, stocking feet are acceptable. But this is somehow not good enough when going into a ryokan in Japan, where shunning slippers is equal to showing up at a high-class restaurant in the West without a tie-and having to be provided one.

The woman led us up the wooden stairs, ker-thump, and showed us to our room, ker-thump, where there was an ensuing kerfluffle regarding the length of the futon and if it would be long enough for Bigfoot.

She was eager to warn him not to hit his head on the low doorways. We assured her that none of this was any problem. He’s used to ducking. And waddling in slippers that are too small.

When leaving your house in Japan, putting shoes back on is required. There’s no going barefoot in Japan. Only on beaches do I ever see people barefoot, and even then most will wear flip flops and the women will be in sandals with heels. Only at the water’s edge will they take them off.

Just try walking out of your house barefoot one day. The observations begin immediately as people point at your feet, chuckle, and say, “Ah, naked feet!” So you can’t simply go barefoot to get a break from the wretched prisons of podiatry.

Just the other day when I was out in the yard washing a window screen in bare feet, my neighbor came over, looked at my feet, and said, “Naked feet!” Oh, the pornography of it all!

The upside to all this is that if Hibagon ever visits our house, he’ll have slippers that fit. Indeed, we’d welcome any hominid cryptids who just need an appropriately sized house to lounge around in for the day.