Out of a love for hiking and a piqued interest in sawanobori 沢登り(Japanese stream climbing, a type of mountaineering that involves traversing and ascending lakes, streams and falls), we set off on a quest to find the right multi-purpose shoe. The new “technologies” advertised in modern day footwear and the purposes they supposedly support: ultra cushioning, barefoot-simulating, for day hiking, backpacking, trail-running, long-distance journeys, mountaineering etc. The list of labels these marketing bulls come up with is inexhaustible!
Why do we need all that fancy-schmancy padding over our feet when we can just do it like how they did in the old days: with woven straw rope sandals!
Waraji 草鞋 are traditional rice straw rope sandals, the most common type of foot wear in the Edo era. It was di rigueur for commoners, samurai and soldiers during the feudal period to wear them. The thong toe tapped on acupressure points and that was believed to assist the body’s daily functionalities. Commonly worn with tabi socks, the toes are supposed to jut out, the shoe sole in close contact with the foot, and the back to wrap around the Achilles tendon.
It should not be confused with straw flip flops called warazouri 藁草履 though they are made of the same material. Besides, the shape of the sole, the design concept and method of wearing clearly have different objectives.
There is also a winter version called fukakutsu 深靴 that kinda looks like straw Uggs! This was widely used in snowy areas before rubber boots were introduced. The rice straw acts as an insulation layer between the foot and snow, providing both water resistance and thermal insulation.
— たまき ひろと(オトロディ応援) (@TAMAKI_Hiroto) 2015年6月9日
Waraji was used for everything from walking to long-distance hiking to mountaineering as it provided a firm grip on rock, moss or other relatively treacherous surfaces. Sometimes even horses used them.
In the past, roads were not paved. Dirt and soil on the ground filled the holes in the straw soles, reducing additional friction and thereby increasing the lifespan of the sandals. However, they still did not last very long and people had to have an extra pair hanging on their belts just in case of such a wardrobe malfunction. Nevertheless, they were cheap and easy to mend.
But I guess the convenience and extended durability made possible by modern technologies are what caused the demise of such works of art.
Sadly they are not as popular these days and are only worn during festivals, cosplay, events, school lessons, or if you are a street host for a chain izakaya (Japanese tavern). They may also be ordered online, though reviews on their performance seem to be abysmally bad. And of course, the fun lies in the surprisingly therapeutic process of measuring, cutting, weaving, and finally tying them on!
Learning guide: How to weave waraji
Dasoku 蛇足 (icing on the cake): Here are some idioms that reference waraji!
- 二足の草鞋を履くNi soku no waraji o haku – To put on two pairs of waraji. It refers to a person’s undertaking of the work of 2 different people, that is incompatible and impractical.
- 仲人は草鞋千足Nakou-do wa waraji senzoku – A matchmaker has a thousand waraji. The matchmaker’s shoes get worn out because he has to keep going back and forth between the 2 families. It refers to hardships involved in an arduous task, but also has the connotation of thoughtfulness and satisfaction.
- 箱根山、駕籠に乗る人、担ぐ人、そのまた草鞋を作る人、捨てた草鞋を拾う人 Hakone yama, kara ni noru hito, katsugu hito, sono matawaraji o tsukuru hito, suteta waraji o hirou hito – On the way to Mt. Hakone, there are people who sit in palanquins, people who carry them, those who make waraji, those who pick up discarded waraji. It means that by circumstance and fate there are people of all statuses and walks of life, and portrays the diversity and raison d’etre of humanity in the universe. It also highlights the gap between the aristocratic, bourgeois and proletarian classes, in that some are born with a silver spoon, and others without.