A Walk in the Park

A Walk in the Park
Photo by Lucas Sankey / Unsplash

Here in Japan, I am an outsider. People seldom ask me about philosophy or politics. My fellow English professors don’t ask me about the finer points of grammar. The question I am most commonly asked is why I walk barefoot.

"I just wanted to find out what it would be like," I say.

Running barefoot seemed somehow romantic and brave and, well, fabulously savage. Would it feel naked and free, or just be painful?

One day I sat at a counter in my neighborhood pub next to a guy from America. He turned out to be a marathon runner. Sometimes, he said, he ran barefoot, and he showed me his feet, which looked, more or less, like normal feet. He also showed me a picture of his feet blackened and dusty after he had climbed Mount Fuji without shoes. Climbing Fuji, even with shoes, is quite an ordeal. Listening to him recount his climb inspired me.

I decided to try walking barefoot myself.

To avoid the scrutiny of my neighbors, one early morning I set out barefoot from my apartment in Fuji city. I walked a few hundred meters up the road to a nearby park and turned around.

As I returned to my apartment, one of my neighbors drove by. He said good morning and then, noticing I was shoeless, said something like, "What are you DOING walking with NO SHOES?"

That was the first time I was asked this question, and I responded by saying a friend of mine had climbed Mount Fuji barefoot, and I wondered if I could do the same thing. This seemed to satisfy my neighbor, who nodded in the way a person nods when what you say makes sense, even if they don't totally agree with what you are doing.

As I walked barefoot over the next few months something strange and wonderful happened. My neighbors would greet me, even people who had never said hello before.

"How is it going?" they would ask, peering over their garden wall, "climbed Mount Fuji yet?"

I would smile and say that no, I hadn’t yet, and thank them for asking. They would wish me well, and tell me to watch out for broken glass on the road.

My shoeless feet brought me closer to my neighbors. I was happy about this, though I sometimes wondered if they thought that maybe I was not quite right in the head.

Now I still live in Japan but have moved to Shizuoka City, and I am getting to know people in my new neighborhood. I still give the same answer when people ask why I am walking barefoot.

"Well, I was curious and just wondered, you know, what it would be like," I say.

After a few years of walking barefoot, and reading things like the magnificent and surprising Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, I have learned a bit about walking barefoot.

If you run, the shock your body experiences is much greater with shoes than it is if you run barefoot. That is because your body, sensing something between you and the ground, tries to push through the sole of the shoe to reach something solid, increasing the shock of impact.

Your shoes don't fit you well unless you have a generic sort of foot. But your feet probably fit you pretty well.

Now I walk barefoot on a big concrete path in a park near where I live in Shizuoka. Inside the park, there is also a tiny round concrete path, just a few meters around. There is a sign there that says, in Japanese, "Why not take your shoes off and try this path for walking barefoot?" There are patches of pavement with stones embedded in them, there are patches with ridges on them, and there are just plain ordinary patches too.

I suppose if I walked on this path with my shoes on, someone would say, "No, no. You are supposed to walk barefoot." And the helpful person would shake their head back and forth and point to my shoes and make a cross with their hands in front of their faces that in Japan means, "You shouldn't do that."

So my real answer is a secret. It makes me uncomfortable. I really want to say that the reason I am walking barefoot, other than to get really good at it, is that I am wondering why all of us are driven to do things by norms that don't make much sense, rather than doing things based on careful, thoughtful discussion of carefully gathered facts.

But I don't ever give the true answer. When someone says “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why are you walking barefoot?” I do not respond by saying, “Of course I don’t mind. I am walking barefoot to study human behavior. Do you mind if I ask you why you are wearing shoes? Have you ever thought how much better it would be if people stopped buying shoes and just went barefoot? Have you done any research, or do you wear shoes just because everyone else is wearing them?”

I want to be accepted by my neighbors, so I usually just smile and give the answer that I think will make most people comfortable.

"I just wanted to find out what it would be like."