In my pursuit of all things old and handmade in Japan, I’ve come across an abundance of opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills of the oba-chans and oji-chans (grandmothers and grandfathers) in this area.
Making handmade Japanese sandals (tezukuri zouri) was one such opportunity. I was gifted with three offers to experience the making of this old style of footwear.
The first person I met who knew how to make zouri was a beginner. She had recently learned from a friend and was keen on making nuno zouri from old kimonos and futon covers. I invited her over to my apartment and we spent a morning making nuno zouri from cotton strips she had brought from home. The process was simple and straight-forward; it only took about 2 hours to make a pair of zouri. Unfortunately, I gave the first pair I made to a friend before I remembered to take a photo…
One tool that made the final stages of zouri creation a breeze was the tate – a piece of bamboo split on one end and sharpened on the other – perfect for pulling those last few strips of cotton through the woven sandal.
If you’re interested in trying to make your own nuno zouri – here’s the instructions we used. Even if you can’t read Japanese, the pictures are quite clear, and with a bit of fiddling I’m sure you can figure it out.
My second opportutunity to make zouri came through a friend that lives in a remote village about an hour from Kawamoto. Her neighbour is an 80+ year old oba-san that has been making zouri for as long as she can remember. She told us that she used to make waraji (rice straw sandals) every day. A pair of waraji would typically fall apart after a day’s use – so they were being made constantly, and those that had the skill could make a pair in no time at all.
The first step in making waraji is to soften a bundle of dried rice straw (wara) by pounding and twisting it.
After the wara is sufficiently flexible, it is worked into nawa (rope). The rope is wrapped around your toes in the shape of a pretzel. Additional strands of wara are woven into this pretzel formation progressively. Eventually straps are added by creating another nawa and working it into the woven sole of the waraji.
The waraji can be made to suit any size or shape of foot. Width, length, strength and thickness are all controlled by the maker.
My third experience with zouri making occured during an unexpected visit to the home of an old man in a friend’s neighbourhood. Upon arriving, we found the oji-chan snuggled under his warm kotatsu, weaving the smallest pair of zouri imaginable – about 1cm long. Upon request, he took out his entire collection of miniature zouri – about 100 pairs in all. He said that he sold miniature zouri at one time due to pressure from a local store owner, but has since recognized that he derives more joy from making and gifting the zouri than having them sold to people he’ll never meet.
Although each experience making zouri was fascinating, I’m most inspired by waraji – due to their simplicity and practicality. My hope is that as summer returns to these mountains I’ll have enough pairs of waraji made so as to be able to wear them every day. My only limitation is the availability of wara – as farmers have moved from harvesting rice by hand to using machines, the amount of workable wara has decreased due to the rice harvesting machine’s tendency to crush the straw and render it too short to utilize in zouri production.