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