Words & Photography by James R. Petix
I’ve always had a magical love for Japan. Ever since I was a kid, all my favorite things seemed to come from there—Transformers, Godzilla, Nintendo. I was lucky enough to take two years of Japanese in high school when they first offered it. I was even president of the Japanese Club! My first trip was to visit a friend there in 1998. I went back two years later to film my senior film thesis—a 22 minute short about the underground indie rock scene called Tokyo Below. I went again to see the Sakura cherry blossoms bloom in 2012. This Spring, I returned for the Sakura but I had something else I wanted to explore while I was there…Japanese Denim. You may have heard before that Japanese go nuts for American blue jeans. This is kinda true and there are amazingly curated vintage stores all over Tokyo that do sell old Levi’s. But the real story is that, like a lot of other borrowed culture, the Japanese have taken denim, perfected it and made it their own.
The common myth among denim-heads is that when Levi’s upgraded their manufacturing after WWII, they sold off their old shuttle looms to Japan, who continue to make selvedge jeans in the old-school way. Selvedge refers to the self-binding edge of a piece of denim made on a shuttle loom. You can tell this from the colored lines on the out-seam of the jean. Different manufacturers have different color code selvedge lines. You can check out this cool little doc from Levi’s about the Japanese denim revolution here:
The other thing Japan has perfected is dying indigo. They’ve been doing it since Samurai times. The color is so synonymous with the country, it’s often called “Japan Blue.” So let’s just say when you combine Japanese indigo with old-school shuttle looms, you’ve got a match made in heaven.
A modern fad in jeans is raw denim, meaning when the jeans are made they don’t go through a final washing process after they’re dyed. This makes the jeans much more dark and rich in color. You’re not supposed to wash them right away either, instead waiting six months to a year before getting their first bath. This makes a unique fading pattern that you’ve totally created yourself by wearing them in (as opposed to those fake whisker lines you see on a cheap pair of Levi’s that were probably airbrushed on.)
I’ve only been getting into raw denim for the last seven years or so and I’ve never had the budget to really delve too deep into it (the most I’ve paid for a pair is around $250.) It started with Nudie Jeans from Sweden, then I had custom jeans made here in LA with Japanese denim. But I’ve never had jeans actually made in Japan…until now.
My first stop was the neighborhood of Daikanyama. This district is very cute and up-and coming—filled with boutiques, coffee shops, cafes and vintage stores.
Evisu The Tokyo
The first store I visited was Evisu The Tokyo. When you first walk in the door, you know you’ve entered another world. It looks like the den of the world’s most stylish man—complete with a line of golf accessories and fishing lures. It was also very expensive. Jeans went from $300-$400. I drooled after a raw denim jacket that cost about $500. Evisu was one of the first brands to embrace the modern selvedge movement. As you look at the jeans, you see that each one of them is a little different—from hand-painted logos on the pockets or variations of their seagull logo embroidered on. The staff must have sensed that I couldn’t really afford to shop here and, in turn, they completely ignored me. It’s a shame because I would have loved to try some on.
The next store, UES, was much smaller and friendlier. They had a wall of vintage American-style hand-dyed t-shirts and some beautiful classic denim. My married friends whom I was staying with ended up buying a matching pair of their first raw denim jeans for about $250 each. They really enjoyed the experience. The staff explained raw denim to them and how to wash and care for them. Alterations were made later that day and they said they would repair the jeans for free in the future.
Okura was my favorite store in Daikanyama. All indigo everything from jeans to kimonos to socks to sweaters—everything here was in some shade of blue. This funky building looks straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie. They had both men and women’s clothes (make sure you go upstairs.) They sold the softest indigo t-shirts you’ve ever felt and each one was hand-dyed and unique. I got a pair of $115 jeans that were very soft for raw denim. There’s also a super cute organic coffee shop in the basement I would recommend. I could have spent all day here.
Blue Blue Denim
Blue Blue is a chain store that carries a house brand as well as others (like Okura.) They had some really great denim shirts for around $140.
Vegetarian friendly lunch option: Urth Cafe
I was surprised to see this Los Angeles-based cafe in Tokyo, but I was glad I did! They have a number of vegetarian sandwiches available and some delicious boba tea as well.
Right down the street from Daikanyama is the charming neighborhood of Naka-Meguro. During the cherry blossom season, this is packed with street food vendors and tourists looking to eat and drink next to the sakura-lined canal.
Nigel Cabourn’s The Army Gym
Nigel Cabourn’s The Army Gym is a really awesome store worth checking out. Not especially known for their denim, their designs are based on actual vintage British military gear but with a modern flare. I’m still kicking myself for not buying a denim blazer I tried on.
Snack spot: Baja
Turns out the cool kids in the neighborhood hang out at this punk rock themed Mexican bar and restaurant. There’s only a handful of seats inside but you can order tacos and nachos that are actually pretty good.
Ebisu is an older district in Tokyo that has a really fun bar scene. I hadn’t been there on my previous three visits, so I was happy to check it out. The main denim attractions here are three stores by Kapital. They’re all within walking distance of each other and each one has its own unique thing. Make sure to visit every floor. I ended up buying a pair of basic selvedge denim jeans for $150 at Kapital Leggs. The staff was very accommodating and answered all my questions–they even took some photos of me trying on pants!
Drink spot: Bar Trench
Bars don’t open until around 7pm here, so I ended up walking around for a while. Try and time your trip here in the late afternoon so you can snag a seat in one of these amazing tiny bars when you’re done shopping. Bar Trench is exactly what I wanted in a craft cocktail bar. They had all types of exotic whiskeys and aperitifs all made by a super cool dude with a mustache. I highly recommend the Tom Waits themed “Get Behind the Mule”. Although I’m sure anything you order here will be amazing.
Cat Cafe: Cafe Melange Cat Cafe
If you have time to kill between your denim shopping and the bars opening, check out Cafe Melange Cat Cafe. These aren’t the super fancy exotic cats you may see in a Shibuya cat cafe, but the cats are cute and friendly and the cafe is a great place to recharge.
Other Places to Explore
If you’re searching for cool clothes, there are two more neighborhoods that you should definitely explore that I didn’t go into great detail about because they’re not denim specific. The first is Shimokitazawa, which is a super hip district with a ton of boutiques and a world-class coffee shop called Bear Pond Espresso. The second is Harajuku, which is a very popular fashion district and tourist destination. Towards the bottom of the hill, there are a bunch of smaller boutique shops and vintage stores where you can find some real gems.
One More Thing
One cool thing about the Narita airport is that it has a shopping mall built into it. This is a perfect place to spend any leftover currency you may have accumulated on the trip. I was very excited to find out they actually had a Blue Blue shop there and I ended up getting an amazing hand-dyed scarf for $40. They had many things from the Okura store there too, so if you were on the fence about something before, this is your second chance to get that t-shirt or pair of jeans you’ve been thinking about all week.
Scoundrel supreme James R. Petix is a filmmaker and director of It Came From Detroit, a feature-length documentary on the rise of the garage rock scene in his home town. He now lives with his Instagram famous kitty @finforthewin in downtown Los Angeles.
Watch the trailer for James’ Detroit music doc ‘It Came From Detroit’: https://vimeo.com/2664007.
Watch James’ Japanese indie music doc ‘Tokyo Below’: https://vimeo.com/1520249.
Follow James on Instagram: @jamesrptx.
Follow Fin, James’ Instafamous cat, on Instagram: @finforthewin.
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