March 2020 Where to Shop on Japan’s Jeans Street

Where to Shop on Japan’s Jeans Street

Kamikaze Attack owner Norihiko Kanazawa.
Kamikaze Attack owner Norihiko Kanazawa.
Photo by Ben Weller 
Kojima, Japan, has the edge on the world’s best denim.
Great-fitting, great-looking jeans are something of a unicorn – for good reason. Like a bespoke suit or handmade boots, traditional denim – woven on a shuttle loom out of heavy cloth that’s often stiff at first – conforms to the wearer’s individual shape. But unlike the handful of cities known for custom footwear and suiting, there’s only one spot in the world where you’ll find more than 40 stores selling selvedge denim in one spot: Jeans Street (Kojimaajino) and its surrounding blocks in the seaside Kojima district of Kurashiki, Japan. It’s in Okayama Prefecture, off the typical tourist track, but easily accessible – about halfway between Kobe and Hiroshima, and a well-worth-it day trip from Kyoto via bullet train. (A blue line on the road leads from Kojima’s train station to Jeans Street.)

“Once you wear Japanese denim maybe 25 times, it’s you,” says Kiya Babzani, who, along with his partner, Demitra, in 2006 founded Self Edge, a San Francisco designer jeans boutique that now has outposts in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Portland, and San José del Cabo, Mexico. In other words, old-school denim essentially becomes a second skin – wearing in instead of wearing out. “Specifically, that’s what denim fans chase hard,” he says.
Jeans Street style.
Jeans Street style.
Photo by Ben Weller 
Okayama has served as one of Japan’s clothing epicenters since the 1600s, growing cotton to make a casual kind of kimono and, later, factory and school uniforms. But once hippie counterculture hit Japan, kimonos were hardly cool. People wanted what they saw American GIs wearing on their days off: Levi’s. But in the 1960s and ’70s, few Japanese citizens could afford American denim.

Kojima clothiers realized domestic looms could weave the heavy-duty fabric with a “selvedge” or “self-edge” finish, the same way companies such as Levi’s had done for more than a century. Flip the cuff of a pair of selvedge jeans and you’ll find the self-edge, a bi-color strip of fabric cresting the outseam. It’s a hallmark of higher-quality denim, which doesn’t require a serger stitch to keep the fabric from unraveling at the edges. The slower looms also create a denser fabric with small cotton slubs that give each pair of jeans an individual DNA – and a rabid following.
Master weaver Shigeru Uchida at Collect denim mill (which supplies Momotaro’s denim).
Master weaver Shigeru Uchida at Collect denim mill (which supplies Momotaro’s denim).
Photo by Ben Weller 
Whereas most denim producers forsook shuttle looms for more-modern, mass-market models, Japanese brands stuck to tradition and have since gone on to unseat Levi’s and other brands as the most coveted denim around. “They just went so far beyond where Levi’s ever was,” says Babzani. “And they have continued to innovate, even though most of them are very small production.” While traditional styles command some of the highest prices, dozens of made-in-Kojima labels now offer a variety of cuts, frequently with fantastically patterned linings that echo tattoo art or buttons that look like netherworld coins. Most of these filigrees are purposely subtle, the better to delight the most fervent denim fanatics as they seek small “Easter egg” touches.

None of the wares on Jeans Street come cheap: Though you can pick up a pair for $150 here and there, it’s not uncommon to find price tags pushing $400. However, top brands come with long warranties, up to ten years, and you can ship a pair back for repair. (When was the last time Diesel or Dolce & Gabbana did that for you?) Plus, almost every shop has on-site tailors – not just to alter hems, but to customize purchases with patches or contrast stitching. It’s all part of what makes a Jeans Street find unlike any other souvenir.
Momotaro.
Momotaro.
Photo by Ben Weller

Where to Shop on Jeans Street 

Momotaro
This 1,000-square-foot boutique feels like a transplanted Tennessee shotgun shack, right down to the creaky floorboards and Johnny Cash soundtrack. Momotaro is the easiest brand to find at high-end boutiques from L.A. to New York, but the flagship offers much more than the brand’s signature ultra-rugged heavyweight jeans. The shop carries plenty of more-comfortable, softer jeans, as well as tailored workwear, “shirt-jacs” reminiscent of 1950s L.L.Bean, and a huge array of denim jackets. The label’s name stems from a Japanese fairy tale about an infant boy found floating in a giant peach at the edge of a river, hence the peach (momo) logos stamped on some models’ rivets and on the buttons. 
Kamikaze Attack’s stamp.
Kamikaze Attack’s stamp.
Photo by Ben Weller 
Kamikaze Attack
Like Momotaro, this It label uses primarily stiffer selvedge denim, but the shop itself has a more playful vibe. Kamikaze’s detailing is tremendous, and it often reuses selvedge-stripe cuttings as accents. Embellishments range from vibrant pocket linings and exterior patches to labels that proclaim “Jeans Madness!” It’s a sartorial wink at fans who take their jeans a bit too seriously.
Apple Do founder and designer Satoko Watanabe.
Apple Do founder and designer Satoko Watanabe.
Photo by Ben Weller 
Apple Do
Satoko Watanabe’s label focuses on women. You’ll find jeans in her sunny shop, but also dresses, vests, ponchos, overcoats, and shawls. Watanabe’s work skews more couture (she’s shown on Paris runways), and her lighter-weight, softer fabrics are cut to drape.
Repairing jeans at Big John. 
Repairing jeans at Big John. 
Photo by Ben Weller 
Big John
The closest thing to a “superstore” on Jeans Street stocks everything from heavyweight designs in boxy cuts to cords, stretch and skinny jeans for both genders, and jackets and other accessories. The tourist-friendly staff speak better English than many retailers, and there’s less frenzy than at Momotaro, which can become a bit of a scene. Yet it’s no less authentic – Big John helped establish Kojima’s denim industry in 1965 and will craft, hem, and accessorize purchases on-site.

How to Visit Jeans Street on a Trip to Japan

Go

Virtuoso on-site tour connection Windows to Japan works with advisors to tailor itineraries to specific interests. For example: A ten-day artisan-focused tour from Kyoto to Osaka grants access to a gold-thread studio as well as a potter to learn about traditional Bizen ware. A day in Kurashiki starts at an indigo-dyeing studio, where travelers can tint their own jeans, followed by shopping on Jeans Street and the chance to visit a denim design studio before moving on to a school for traditional textile weaving in Kurashiki. Sightseeing on Naoshima, Japan’s “art island,” and in Hiroshima and Osaka rounds out the trip. Departures: Any day through 2020.

Stay

Kojima is an easy day trip from The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, a 134-room hotel with lovely views of the Kamo River, an option for futons instead of Western beds, and a mixture of Japanese ryokan and European-influences. Its Mizuki Japanese restaurant faces a hypnotizing, three-story wall of water that’s in constant motion just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Another surprise: A traditional 1908 townhome – roof, tatami flooring and all – that once sat on the site is now part of the private dining room at La Locanda, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 hotel credit.