1 of 2
Japanese shoe making 1 homePhotos by Bela Zecker
2 of 2
Japanese shoe making 2 home
From above, Hiro appears to be doing yoga. With the balls of her feet pressed together, her legs forming a perfect 90 degree angle and biceps flexing, her muscular tension is matched only by her pointed concentration. She is making a shoe.
"More precisely, it is a slipper," she says in articulate Castilian, "meant only for indoor use." A closer look reveals fabric woven between toes, slowly forming a firm sole with each vigorous tug, as the modern cobbler talks of the slipper's (reminiscent of a large woven flip-flop) history. "People have been wearing these slippers in Japan for 500 years. Before, ladies would carry them around the street and then change when they went inside." Hiro's conversation is uninterrupted by the intricate task her body performs, a second-language eloquence many of us can hardly master over coffee. "I really wanted to learn how to make them when they became popular again a few years ago and it took me some time to find someone to teach me since it is an ancient practice. It turns out that my aunt knew how, so going home one year for a visit I learned it from her."
Hiro has been living in Barcelona since 2004. "I like it here. I love the weather," she says. When asked how it compares to life in Japan she seems less sure. "Life back home is more stable and safe. It's easier to get good service and Japan has a comfortable lifestyle. But there, I often found myself overwhelmed with stress. I'm more relaxed here."
For now making the shoes, called zōri, is just a hobby for Hiro but one she would like to expand into a profession. In the meantime she lives an eclectic lifestyle working in various jobs and enjoying the city. "I don't really attach myself to the Japanese community in Barcelona; my friends are from all over the place," she says. "People here are curious about the shoes and they ask a lot of questions about what they are for and the tradition linked to them."
In a time when we are becoming increasingly environmentally aware of consumption, from what we eat to what we put on our backs, this Japanese tradition was prophetic of the modern ethical sourcing craze. "The soles used to be woven out of corn, straw, or bamboo fibres," Hiro explains. "The textile scraps we use these days are recycled from worn-out bedsheets, plus a few decorative pieces from old dresses. Some of the printed fabrics come from Nunoya in Barri Gòtic and some are from Japan; my family brings them to me when they come to visit."
Family is indeed at the crux of the hobby for Hiro. She opens binders full of photos of her parents' work in a basket-weaving atelier in her native village Tochigi, where they still live. "These are my family's kimono pieces, from our collection," she says, piling them on the floor. "They're useless now, nobody will ever wear them, so I use the pieces to make the slippers. Some of them are too old to use, they fray and fall apart," she says, pulling apart an orange silk garden of owls and tatami roofs. "Take pieces if you like them," she says.
Barcelona, a city fiercely proud of its traditions must surely approve.
Hiro's slippers sell for about €30 a pair and you can find them in:
Nunoya, C/ de la Palla 6, Barri Gotic; www.nunoya.com
Keboniko, Penedès 3, Gràcia; www.keboniko.com