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If you’ve been to Kyoto before, it’s likely you may have passed by Gion Naito, an unassuming shop only recognizable from a display of traditional footwear presented in the window. Located in the city’s renowned geisha district, Gion, the sandalmaker has been servicing Kyoto’s geiko (the term used for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) since 1875, meticulously constructing each shoe by hand in the Japanese made-to-order approach of atsurae. Their 146-year legacy currently sits in the hands of its owner and fifth-generation craftsman, Seiji Naito, who not only continues the tradition of zori and geta sandal-making, but is now innovating with new styles for the modern wearer.
Walking through Gion Naito’s sliding glass doors, a feeling of intimidation is understandable — Kyoto holds a historically private and reserved culture — yet now its vast history is one that relies on a more open future. Naito-san continues the techniques and artisanry of their handmade sandals, known in Japanese as hakimono (literally, “something to wear on the foot”), which range in price from the hundreds to the thousands, utilizing unlimited materials, including silk to handmade paper and stone. A modern twist of innovation has now brought new styles into the picture — resonating with contemporary lifestyles and collaborations from Swedish brand Eytys to Australian clothing brand MAN-TLE.
On our visit, Naito-san greets us in front of the store’s charming concrete and timber facade. As a kyo-machiya — a Japanese wooden residence that was traditionally used for both daily life and business — it retains an overpowering and nostalgic timber smell. Inside, it’s an architectural marvel. Sublime details include intricately woven wood cabinet doors (a carpentry technique known as ajiro) and modest lighting fixtures made from Japanese handmade washi paper that filter a soft and warm light into the space. Gion Naito’s family crest (kamon) in the shape of a traditional tsuzumi hand drum can proudly be seen throughout the entire store, from curtains to their imprint on the soles of sandals. An array of sandals for indoor use are displayed on shelving, while outdoor-use sandals sit on small, white stones resembling a stone garden. A hand-painted mask of Ebessan, the god of sales and commerce, overlooks the goods.
“When my father asked me to take over the business, I was just very much in awe, as I had a lot of respect for the actual business,” Naito-san reminisces. “Even though I was very young and wasn’t fully aware of what I was getting into, I just understood the fact that this business had been existing for such a long time was a valuable thing.” Growing up in the store, Naito-san recalls that even as a child, he would run errands across Gion and discover the hidden depths of the enigmatic geisha district. “When I was in elementary school, I was just given a package to deliver. It ended up being the house of the maiko and geiko dance master from the Inoue school, one of the most honorable houses in the Gion area.”
At 6 a.m., Naito-san is usually found methodically constructing a zori sandal before the shop opens at 1:30 p.m. Everything is handmade and hand-sized here, comprising two main elements — the dai (sole) and hanao (strap); key tools include steel scissors (hanakiri hasami) normally used for cutting bonsai and flowers. Speaking with Naito-san offers a high-speed deep dive (or more of a free-falling descent) into a glossary of Japan’s profound history.
“The geta and zori sandals actually developed around 2,000 years ago along with a lot of farming,” Naito-san explains. “It’s very much related to the need for a convenient tool for the hot and humid environment.” Their form is led by ancient health benefits that involve balancing your hallux (big toe) and placing the center of gravity on the lower abdomen to help develop an arch — a basic technique also used in dance and martial arts. “At the part between your toe fingers, there’s a pressure point that’s very good in traditional Chinese medicine,” he says. “Now that people are living much longer to 100 years or so, it’s very important that we create these shoes that help people balance feet in a healthier way.” Each sandal is sturdy, intended to last a lifetime. “The teaching I’ve received from my older ancestors is to create things that we don’t need to throw away. It’s almost mandatory that it’s repairable, simply from how it was developed and the roots and history of it.”
In 2012, Naito-san introduced a new contemporary range of sandals under the title of “Mana Project,” a casual line developed for daily wear. With three styles — JoJo naitou, Kappo, and kodori — the series references Japanese custom, history, and tradition in their forms, reinvented for a modern context. “We aimed to create something that we can use in the future, utilizing all of the materials, technique, and cultural background that we’ve gained as shoemakers.”
The new styles are made with materials that reflect high-tech modernity. They sport a cork insole with a high-compound tire rubber outsole, and are defined by a large toe piece made from blended silicon. Like Gion Naito’s traditional sandals, they too are intentionally required to be worn with the heel extending over, activating the body’s abdominal core. Naito-san’s reverence for the preservation of both his family history and traditional Japanese culture is undeniable. “When we think in terms of ecology, if something goes extinct, it actually has a big ripple effect on the surrounding environment. In the same way, I think about our footwear, how to not lose the aesthetic and ideas around what we find beautiful in this simple form.”
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