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Saturday, Dec. 4, 2004


Roller Derby Queen swishes to hospital

When I walked into the hospital, I thought I had by mistake walked into a skating rink. The first thing I saw was the skate check. Women stood behind a long counter taking people's shoes and exchanging them for plastic slippers with large numbers painted on them. Rental slippers? Not exactly. The people coming out of the hospital were giving their slippers back and exchanging them for their shoes. This was a huge hospital, and the biggest shoe exchange in the world was going on right here. Or the biggest foot fetish in the world. Someone call the Guinness Book of Records!

I reluctantly handed over my shoes. This is the thing about Japan -- you go to the trouble to buy nice shoes, and you never really get to wear them. Your nice shoes spend most of their lives in the "genkan," in a shoe cupboard or behind a counter while your feet are forced to don cheap plastic slippers. The woman handed me a pair of green plastic slippers with the number 543 painted in large yellow numbers on the top. They better not lose my shoes, I thought, or I'll have to wear these damn slippers home on the train.

It makes you wonder, why would such a large hospital go through all this trouble of the Great Shoe Exchange? Perhaps it's a new safety precaution against shoe bombers. Airlines take heed -- we may soon be flying barefoot. Japanese people say using slippers is more hygienic than walking around the hospital in your dirty shoes. But wearing communal plastic slippers doesn't seem very hygienic to me. Think of all the kinds of foot terrorism people could engage in by spreading such maladies as athlete's foot, warts and sock lint. People who walk to the hospital may have blisters, which contain blister water, which may burst inside the slipper. Yuck. Face it, the feet are a place of smelly toes and ingrown toenails. They are a breeding ground for creeping crud and the itchies.

And what about people who come to the hospital for the specific purpose of having themselves cured of contagious foot diseases? You can bet they wear these same slippers. And who, may I ask, is going to approach the woman at the Great Shoe Exchange counter and say, "Sumimasen ga, okii na foot disease motteiru yo!" No one. Don't get me wrong. I'm not worried about catching other people's foot diseases, I'm worried about giving mine to them.

When I walked into the main lobby of the hospital, all I could hear was the swish-swish sound of an entire roomful of people shuffling around in slippers. They were gliding across the room in that way that only Japanese people can do. It was an "all skate." I half expected the lights to be dimmed, the disco ball to appear and a D.J. to come over the loudspeaker and say, "OK, choose a partner."

I shuffled around awkwardly finding my way from department to department. When I was asked to step out of my slippers and onto the scale, the nurse wiped off the scale before and after I stepped onto it. On to the next department and so on. When I was finally finished, I was feeling pretty much like the Roller Derby Queen, and thought I'd just glide into the bathroom before I left.

Once in the bathroom, I was confronted with -- another shoe exchange! No attendants this time, though. You just step out of your plastic slippers in front of the stall, and into the wooden cloglike slippers designed to be clunky and uncomfortable to assure you won't spend too much time in the toilet. When you come out of the stall, you slip out of the wooden ones and back into the plastic ones and continue gliding.

Just double-check the number on the slippers to make sure they're yours, or you may end up with someone's leopard-print spiked heels at the skate check when you leave.

Amy's Dollar Book Store: www.mooooshop.com

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