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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo's 'tabi' socks support professionals' feet in many walks of life

Craftsman Yoshikazu Ishii is seen putting the finishing touches on a tabi sock by stretching out and beating the material at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- At the foot of Tokyo Skytree, Japan's tallest tower which lights up brilliantly at night, is the Mukojima area. Once a prominent "hanamachi" entertainment district, up until just after World War II Edo culture continued to be passed down here, and geisha in elegant kimono could be spotted throughout the area.

    In a corner of the district that still offers a glimpse of the time's charming atmosphere lies Mukojima Myogaya, a traditional "tabi" sock shop established in the last year of the Edo period (1603-1867) which recently marked its 155th anniversary. When the Mainichi Shimbun stepped into the store, we saw a sign reading "Custom orders welcome," beneath dyed drapes indicating the kanji characters for "tabi," literally "foot bag" in Japanese.

    "Customers' feet all have different shapes. There are even differences between each customer's left and right foot. Our job is to make comfortable tabi socks suiting each person's feet," said Yoshikazu Ishii, the 70-year-old fifth-generation head of Myogaya who was born and raised in the local area.

    While Western-style socks are mainly worn in Japan today, traditional kimono is accompanied by "oka-tabi," or split-toed tabi socks, which separate the big toe. Unlike 'jika-tabi' (tabi socks with rubber soles) which have direct contact with the ground and are commonly used by construction workers, "oka-tabi" are worn with clogs and sandals, and can also be worn alone indoors. As Western culture was introduced into Japan from the Meiji period (1868-1912) onward, demand for kimono-related items fell. However, Myogaya lived on in the Mukojima area where geisha quarters remained.

    Today, 70% to 80% of Myogaya's products are made-to-order. Customers primarily work in classic theater and performing arts including Noh and Kyogen, as well as traditional Nihon Buyo dance, Japanese tea ceremony, rakugo comic storytelling and sumo wrestling. These professionals all wear traditional attire as a general rule, so they have particular requests regarding the special footwear. How are the custom-made items produced?

    Tabi socks are made of high-quality domestic cotton. Products are completed after the material is cut to fit the shape of each customer's foot, sewed together, and slightly adjusted. At Myogaya, Ishii, his wife, and their 45-year-old son Kensuke, who is training to be the shop's sixth-generation head, create the products while splitting the work amongst themselves.

    The first step is measuring the customer's foot. A wooden T-shaped ruler is used to measure the length between the big toe and the heel. Then, a thin measuring tape is wrapped around the heel and instep, or the arched upper portion of the foot, to confirm its circumference. Various other measurements are taken, including ankle thickness and the big-toe-to-pinky-toe circumference.

    A wooden T-shaped ruler used to measure the length between the foot's big toe and the heel is seen in Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "Apart from these, we measure the big toe's length and thickness, as well as the shapes and lengths of toenails, and check 30 elements in total. Then, we create data incorporating more notes on the customer's preferences, like if they want their socks tight or loose-fitting," Ishii said.

    The binder he held was filled with records on feet characteristics only the tabi craftsperson's eyes see. Based on this data, paper stencils of the sole as well as the inner and outer sides of the foot are created, and the cloth cut accordingly. Ishii uses a special knife for this process, and the curved blade's edges brushed along the paper stencil, slicing the cloth bit by bit.

    The entire procedure's most challenging task, which requires great mastery, is sewing the part covering the toes' tips. While envisioning the complete 3D form of the cloth enveloping the toes and giving extreme care to each stitch, Ishii operates a large German sewing machine made over 100 years ago. "This work's nature is so profound that a satisfactory result can only be attained through a lifetime's dedication, perhaps two lifetimes," Ishii said jokingly yet solemnly.

    Throughout the process, Ishii pictures his customers' activities while using the footwear. Thus, he works to minimize the burden on the foot, and to as best he can make the tabi socks easy to move around in.

    By spinning the large disc with his right hand, Yoshikazu Ishii carefully moves the needle of a 100-year-old German sewing machine used for sewing the toe tips of tabi socks, at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Ishii says he is most grateful when customers tell him, "When I tried them on, it felt like I wasn't wearing anything at all." He said, "Words like those are the greatest reward for a craftsman like me." The sense of unity provided by the socks, which even let wearers forget their presence, may be a sign of the satisfactory outcome Ishii pursues.

    In Japanese, the kanji character for "foot" is used in the word for "satisfaction" or "fulfillment." A pair of traditional socks borne of earnest work gently support the feet in many walks of life.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    A word of wisdom: The perfect fit is reached through process of extreme care, countless steps

    Do you ever try on socks when buying them? Or do you just look at the labels, find your size and take them to the register without a second thought?

    Craftsman Yoshikazu Ishii is seen putting the finishing touches on a tabi sock by stretching out and beating the material at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    When you step inside Tokyo's traditional tabi shop Mukojima Myogaya, its craftspeople will first ask you to remove your socks off and put your feet out in the open. This surprised me; I've rarely experienced being barefoot in a stranger's presence. But, at Myogaya, 70-year-old craftsman Yoshikazu Ishii will thoroughly and exhaustively examine your foot's every part and direction. He demonstrated this to me with a wooden model -- I was too shy to put out my own, and my wearing tights offered the perfect excuse.

    As I observed his work, I remembered when in my mid-teens my feet were examined at a store selling running shoes -- I kept my socks on then.

    I vaguely recall each foot was measured twice -- once while seated, once while standing. I was asked to make a footprint on a piece of paper to determine where I tend to place my weight when walking or running. After my personal tendencies were explained to me, including that the big toe of my right foot faces upward and doesn't firmly touch the ground and how my feet are arched, the staff brought out a pair of shoes matching my shape. The process, while elaborate, was a bit restless and like a health checkup.

    A somewhat similar scene unfolded at the traditional tabi shop in Sumida Ward. Ishii does at least 30 different measurements to ensure a close-to-perfect fit. There are common points to look out for, such as leaving extra space in the big toe area for people with ingrown toenails, and making sure to create a shape that conceals a bunion bump at a big toe's base. However, he says there are also foot characteristics he jots down based on intuition from what he "felt with the hands."

    Though Ishii produces the custom-made socks in accordance with his detailed notes, he sometimes receives complaints about particular parts being too tight or too loose, and is in a constant cycle of readjusting, getting more feedback, and making further improvements.

    Cloth material is cut to create a traditional tabi sock at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    He said emphatically that while making the paper stencils is tough, sewing cloth together to form the tabi is another level of difficulty. "With this craft, one plus one isn't simply two. If making paper stencils is 'one' step, and sewing it together an additional step, these two processes demand we take at least four steps in all to achieve a close-to-perfect fit."

    "Even one stitch requires extreme care and can make all the difference," Ishii said. Foot shape is not the only element craftsman must keep in mind when tailoring footwear. "There's also the customers' personality and their needs."

    For performers and practitioners wearing tabi as part of formal "uniform," he often creates two separate pairs -- one for professional use and the other as casual loungewear. While the former is made around two sizes smaller and tighter to value beauty, the latter is loose-fitting and prioritizes comfort.

    As a finishing touch, Ishii used a wooden mallet to lightly pound on the seams inside the tabi and flatten them so they don't make the wearer's foot itchy.

    After I bought the running shoes, I remember being surprised by how well they fit. Normally I found shoes were either the right length but wrong width or vice versa. Though the new pair were men's shoes, the staff persuaded me they would fit better. Hearing that my legs easily tire jogging on asphalt roads, they suggested a type of shoe with a thick cushion to minimize the burden on my feet. I still use this same pair today, and they fit perfectly.

    Craftsman Yoshikazu Ishii is seen putting the finishing touches on a tabi sock by stretching out and beating the material at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Because Ishii actually creates tabi from scratch rather than choosing a pair to recommend, I can only imagine the difficulties that come with drawing out customers' responses to picture the footwear they seek. At the same time, as he absorbs various details through close scrutiny of bare feet -- perhaps uncomfortably thoroughly -- I can also imagine the fulfilment Ishii and his customers develop upon finally achieving the perfect fit.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    This infographic shows original tabi forms, using sketches provided by Mukojima Myogaya.
    "Han-tabi" socks without "kohaze" fasteners, which are easy to slip on and off and suitable for wearing indoors during summer especially, are seen at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    TABI HISTORY

    According to documents owned by an industrial group, tabi footwear can be traced back to Japan's Muromachi period (1336-1573). Originally worn to stave off the cold, a baglike material was wrapped around the foot and tied with string at the ankle. A split-toed shape was eventually introduced to make the socks easier to wear with "geta" wooden clogs and "zori" straw sandals, both of which have thongs between the big and second toe. The city of Gyoda in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, which flourished as a castle town during Edo, was and is a major tabi socks producer.

    * * *

    TABI CULTURE ACROSS JAPAN

    While tabi socks are traditional Japanese items, there were subtle differences between tabi culture in its east and west. In the western Kansai region, the material was thick and loose-fitting, and many did not discolor after washing and could be worn for a long time. Conversely to these practical socks, Edo tabi used thin material that tended to fit tighter. The dye also faded in washing, making it undesirable to wear them repeatedly. Ishii says this may be a sign of Edo people's chic sensibility.

    * * *

    STEPS TO CREATE TABI SOCKS

    1) Measuring feet

    The foot's size and shape are measured in detail, including for slight differences in the left and right foot.

    2) Making paper stencils

    Paper stencils are created based on the measurements. Three paper stencils -- one for the sole, the others for the foot's inner and outer sides -- are used to make one tabi sock.

    3) Cutting the material

    The craftsman cuts cotton fabric in accordance with the paper stencils using a knife with a curved blade. For the sole, two pieces of firm woven cloth fastened together are used.

    4) Attaching the "kohaze" fasteners

    Handmade tabi socks of various patterns are seen at Mukojima Myogaya in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori)

    Kohaze are thin metal clasps shaped like fingernails. The kohaze and string, which serve as inserts into which the kohaze are tucked to fasten the tabi at the ankle, are sewn onto the cloth material.

    5) Sewing

    Five types of sewing machines, including a straight stich one and a specialized machine for sewing curved seams, are used for this process.

    6) Finishing touch

    The tabi, sewn with the cloth facing inside out, is flipped back with the patterns appearing on the outside. A wooden mallet and other tools are used to stretch out and beat the material, and the tabi is finally complete.

    * * *

    Mukojima Myogaya

    Founded in 1867 near the end of the Edo period, the establishment's roots can be traced to a tabi shop in what is now Nihombashi's Ningyocho district that had been in business since early Edo. Myogaya's first-generation head Choshichi went independent and opened the establishment near Sensoji, a Buddhist temple in Asakusa. After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the third-generation head moved the shop to its current Mukojima location.

    Address: 5-27-16 Mukojima, Sumida Ward, Tokyo

    Website: https://www.mukoujima-meugaya.com/ (in Japanese)

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture dating back several hundred years. The stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, accessible via the link under the right of the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all the texts' kanji characters. The user-friendly text primarily targets elementary school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    In Photos: Tokyo shop's 'tabi' socks keep kimono culture's feet steady

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