Japan fills its boots with bespoke shoes

Japan fills its boots with bespoke shoes

When  Yohei  Fukuda  left for England more than a decade ago to learn his trade as a master leather shoemaker, he could hardly have imagined that his native Japan would one day become a leader in this traditionally European art.

"The number of bespoke shoe workshops has been booming in Japan in the past few years," explained the elegant-looking bald and mustachioed 37-year-old, sporting a smart shirt and tie under a dark-blue work apron.

"There are at least 40 in Tokyo today and maybe as many as 100 in Japan,"  Fukuda  said.

Bespoke leather shoemaking has historically been dominated by European artisans but Japan developed a taste for the luxury footwear at the beginning of the 2000s and local manufacturing classes quickly took off. Fukuda's own workshop is located close to the upmarket area of Ometesando in Tokyo, often described as Japan's answer to the grand Champs Elysee avenue in Paris.

A narrow staircase leads up to his old-fashioned workspace that smells strongly of leather and glue, the basic tools of the trade.  There is not one machine in the whole place -- everything is done by hand, from the precise measurement of a client's feet to the delicate business of attaching the soles to the shoe.

"Each pair of shoes takes between 120 and 140 hours of work and we produce around 80 a year," explained  Fukuda.

He does not want to go at a faster pace: "I want to make good shoes," he stressed.

Fortunately, his customers are in no hurry and willing to pay a hefty price for the bespoke quality -- a 100%-made-to-measure pair costs $4,200 at least.

"A foot is something very special. Each foot is unique, like each piece of leather. When making bespoke shoes by hand, the challenge is to get close to perfection by bringing together these two imperfect but magic elements,"Mari Yamaguchi, who teaches this meticulous trade in a private school, said.

Maybe Japanese people think about shoes more than in other cultures because most people put them on and take them off several times a day.

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