Culture | Japan's mecca for blue jeans fans -- and those with deep pockets
Denim dreams. Photo: Said Karlsson

Japan’s mecca for blue jeans fans — and those with deep pockets

Photographer Said Karlsson took a trip to Japan's denim capital of Kojima and came back with the pictures, if not the threads.

February 20, 2017 7:57 AM (UTC+8)

Kojima town in Japan’s Okayama prefecture, about a 90-minute flight west of Tokyo, should be top of the bucket list for any blue jeans or otherwise denim-fan heading to Japan.

This town of about 15,000 people is home to a disproportionately large portion of Japan’s denim manufacturers, or about 200 companies involved in jeans production and related industries.

Photo: Said Karlsson
Hanging around:  The jeans that greet you at Kojima station.
Coin Lockers with motifs of jeans. Photo: Said Karlsson
A closer look reveals coin lockers at the train station with a jeans motif.
Photo: Said Karlsson
Godzilla jeans.

Why is this part of Japan all about denim jeans?  Partly it’s the chemistry of the soil.  The area was once under the ocean, which left high levels of salt in the earth, making it ill suited for growing rice.  In need of another crop, farmers in and around Kojima started producing cotton several hundred years ago. By the Taisho Era (1912-1926) the region was filled with factories and artisans specializing in textile production. Back then, it was mostly school uniforms churned out by the weavers in Kojima.

In the post-war period, factories started producing work wear, until come the 1960s when the fashion conscious in cities like Tokyo and Osaka wanted blue jeans, Kojima was glad to oblige.

Photo: Said Karlsson
The bottom parts of an urban cowboy.

Jeans bus

Kojima Jean Street is less than half a kilometre long yet is jammed with around 30 shops and factories specializing in denim clothing. The street is about 15 minutes walk from the train station, but there is a shuttle bus dubbed “Jeans Bus.”  And yes, the interior of the bus and the seats are upholstered in denim.

Photo: Said Karlsson
Decked in denim.
Photo: Said Karlsson
The bus mascot in denim.
Photo: Said Karlsson
And more denim…

Momotaro jeans

Since 2006, Momotaro Jeans has made its namesake product here under the slogan “Made by Hand, Without Compromise.”  Their top of the line jeans, dubbed Kintan, are so time consuming to make they only produce about 20 pairs every year. Despite a price tag of 190,000 yen (US$1,700), demand far outstrips supply.

Photo: Said Karlsson
The best jeans in the house.
Photo: Said Karlsson
A pair of Japan Blue jeans
Photo: Said Karlsson
Handphone pouches sporting different Momotaro designs.
Photo: Said Karlsson
A pair of entirely handwoven Kitan jeans
Photo: Said Karlsson
A Kitan label purchase means not much change from US$2,000.

Weaving

The fabric used to make the Kintan jeans is entirely woven by hand and Momotaro on average produces 80 centimetres in one day. About 250 centimetres is required for one pair of jeans. The most challenging part is to keep the pressure constant so that weaves do not end up varying too much in size, said Kazuki Ikeda, who started operating the loom at Momotaro’s flagship store four years ago.

Photo: Said Karlsson
Kazuki Ikeda checks his denim weaving handiwork.

Hand weaving makes the fabric significantly softer than the rolls of denim coming out of automated factories, as more air is allowed between the threads, he explained.

Photo: Said Karlsson
Kazuki Ikeda at work on a hand loom.

Photo: Said Karlsson

It might seem like a boring job to weave for 8 hours every day, but Ikeda said he enjoys making something special.

Hand-woven

Coloring

The thread Ikeda uses is coloured by hand next door, using a technique that dates back to the Edo-period (1603-1868). Back then, it was used to colour kimonos worn by the Japanese elite.

Indigo leaves used for dyeing jeans. Photo: Said Karlsson
Indigo leaves used for dyeing jeans.

The raw material for dyeing is Japanese indigo leaves, and just like the weaving, this coloring process is entirely done by hand.  Yuko Miyake has been working here for 12 years, and said that despite her experience, making sure the threads get just the right nuance of color is a challenging task.

Various types of blue. Photo: Said Karlsson
Gradients of blue.
Photo: Said Karlsson
First you wring it…
Photo: Said Karlsson
..then you lay it out.
Photo: Said Karlsson
Yuko Miyake checking the color of the fabric.

“Factors such as the age of the indigo pigment, the outside temperature and humidity as well as the alkalinity of the water used in the solution all affect the outcome,” she said.  “Such details are recorded every day, and based on the numbers I adjust the dyeing process, such as the time I keep the threads in the coloring bath.”

Sewing

The jeans are then finally assembled at a small sewing factory, also located on Jeans Street, where half a dozen employees make sure that stitches are straight and strong enough to cope with years of wear and tear.

Photo: Said Karlsson

Photo: Said Karlsson

Photo: Said Karlsson
Right on the line

Photo: Said Karlsson

Photo: Said Karlsson
The rivets that help keep it together.
Photo: Said Karlsson
Inside the finished product.  All that’s needed now is a credit card and the time to wait.

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