Set against rolling hills overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, the city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture is many things to many people. For cyclists, it’s the start of the Shimanami Kaido route to Shikoku. Foodies flock here for Onomichi’s famous ramen. Film buffs seek out locations from Yasujiro Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story.
Now, the city has another claim to fame: it’s a beacon for fashionistas.
The Onomichi Denim Shop, located at the quieter end of the city’s retro-looking Hondori shopping arcade, has been making waves since it opened in 2014. From the outside, the shop’s minimalist décor and selection of faded jeans make it look like any other designer boutique in the fashion quarters of Tokyo, Paris or London. But this is denim with a difference: each pair of jeans comes with its own story, making it a very personal souvenir of Onomichi.
Known as the Denim Project, the concept is innovative, if slightly out-there, in its simplicity. Every local who joins the project is assigned two pairs of jeans to wear in rotation throughout the year. Mikihiro Wada, the manager of the shop, and his team collect the jeans every Thursday and put them through a special denim wash that cleans the jeans without removing the stains, before returning them to the participants. After a year, each pair of authentically faded jeans bears the hallmark of the wearer’s specific occupation and life. “Our goal is twofold,” explains Wada. “To promote Onomichi to the outside world as well as draw attention to the region’s denim industry.”
“The thought that you might come to the shop and find a pair that fits perfectly, all the while knowing it’s the only one of its kind in existence, strikes a chord with fashion lovers,” Wada continues.
That was certainly the case for 46-year-old fashion enthusiast and Osaka-based journalist Masaaki Yashiro. He visited after watching a TV programme about the project four years ago. He has been a regular customer ever since.
“You can buy jeans from a normal shop, but these come with a story,” says Yashiro, who has bought four pairs of jeans from the store. “I love fashion that moves me. With the Denim Project, it doesn’t feel like I’m buying a product; it feels like a device connecting me with Onomichi and its people.”
His collection includes pairs worn by a citrus farmer, an izakaya owner, a fisherman and a Buddhist monk. Currently, 120 locals from all walks of life take part in the project. They don’t get paid to wear the jeans nor get a percentage from their sale – just the two pairs of jeans to wear for the year.
“We’re living in an era of fast, disposable fashion, but our approach is the opposite,” says Wada. “Each item comes with its own narrative and takes one year to make. We like to think of this as slow fashion.”
At its heart, the Denim Project is about community. The inherent value of the jeans on sale comes from the local participants. The daily grind of the local fishermen, carpenters and metalworkers is recorded on the jeans. Every blemish and stain tell a distinct story – these are records of life in Onomichi. We meet the people crafting denims that are more than just clothes.
Japan is one of the top denim fabric exporters in the world. Production in the Bingo Region, the eastern part of Hiroshima Prefecture and extending to Fukuyama City, first grew in the 1970s. Falling demand for the region’s traditional indigo-dyed woven fabric, the bingo kasuri, led manufacturers to start producing denim instead. Now, the area is renowned in the fashion industry for making some of
the world’s finest denim.
Shikou Matsuoka, 38, Buddhist monk
Born and raised in Onomichi, Shikou Matsuoka is the 39th master of the 800-year-old Houdoji Temple, located on the rocky Senkoji Mountain overlooking the city.
“I’ve always loved denim, so as soon as I heard about the project, I wanted to be involved. It sounded fun and I liked the vision. I only wish something like this had started in Onomichi earlier.
The other monks are impressed and interested in taking part. Patrons of the temple and visiting tourists also love that I wear denim.
As a temple custodian, I always work to keep the temple clean. The garments we wear on a day-to-day basis are called samue, which literally means “cleaning wear”. The thing with samue is the trousers always wear out first, so denim is the perfect durable fabric for Buddhist samue clothing.
In Buddhist doctrine,
we often talk about how we all live inside a network of connections and I feel my social circle and connections have widened since joining this project. Not just with the project staff but with the other participants as well.”
Ayumi Tanimoto, 31, boat and jet ski instructor
Tanimoto, who has been in the project for two years, works at the Onomichi Marine Institute spending a lot of her time on the water teaching people what they need to know to obtain their boat licence.
“My bosses invited me to join. Initially, I thought it was slightly off-the-wall, but the school wanted the instructors to wear similar work clothes, so I joined.
I was sceptical at first, so I was surprised when my first pair sold. The buyer was a Korean lady. She even wrote me a letter saying how she felt a connection between her work and mine.”
Hiroya Imaru, 45, metalworker
Imaru is a third-generation metalworker who prides himself on being able to do anything with metal. Based in Onomichi City, he creates his own designs and does all his own cutting and welding.
“I made the metal counter inside the Onomichi Denim Shop. But I didn’t take part [in the project] when it started, the main reason being that denim doesn’t tear easily. In my line of work, we try to wear material that is easy to rip, in case our clothes get trapped inside the big cutting machines or presses. But when I finally tried a pair, they felt so good and looked so cool I decided to join!
Being part of the project connects you with so many people. I even had the chance to meet someone who bought my jeans.
He was a tea-maker from Kyoto, in his thirties. It was eye-opening because he was wearing my jeans but wearing them with style. It was a chance meeting – I wanted a break from work, so I dropped by the shop. That’s when staff told me he had just bought my jeans.
I have a small waist, so a lot of the people who buy my denims are women. All of them have sold in the four years I’ve been involved – so eight pairs!
Hiroyuki Mihara, 66, and Tsuyoshi Kiso, 68, fishermen
Mihara and Kiso belong to the same fisheries cooperative located on Mukaijima island. Mihara has been fishing for 20 years, Kiso for 10.
Kiso: “We’ve been involved with the Denim Project for three years. At the beginning, only the head of the cooperative and one other person were taking part but they soon got the rest of us involved. Now, 17 of us are wearing the jeans.
I used to wear denim a lot anyway, especially Levi 501s, so it was great to be involved. I wear mine every day for work. Fishing and denim is a good combination because the work is tough. I get dirt, salt, fish scales and all sorts [of detritus] on the jeans. But these jeans are really good quality and should last a normal wearer a lifetime.
The project has also brought us together in the cooperative. Usually, we’re
all out at sea, but because of the project, we meet and chat with other members when we drop off and collect our jeans.
Mihara: “I never thought that my jeans would sell, so I was really shocked to hear two of my jeans sold. I was even more surprised when I heard that both customers had been women!”
To help engender a sense of togetherness there are events for the project members. The jeans they help fashion are only available from the shop. That way, staff are able to impart the detailed provenance of each pair to would-be buyers.
Yuta Shiomi, 29, carpenter
Shiomi lives in neighbouring Fukuyama City, but commutes every day to Mukaijima island to work at Yoshihara Construction.
“I started working in this company a year ago. My boss was involved with the project from the start and the first thing he asked when I joined was my trouser size.
I can confidently say I leave my jeans more damaged than anyone else involved in the project! The first pair I received had holes after two months and then I made holes in the repaired patches. The ones I am wearing are only two weeks old.
When I put in flooring, I’m kneeling all the time. Usually, it takes a year to get enough wear and tear on the jeans to sell. In my case, it only took 10 months!
I think it’s a wonderful idea to get craftsmen to create a unique pair of jeans. I’m excited when I think about someone buying the jeans I helped to create.
I don’t know if my first pair has sold yet, but it should be easy to recognise. It’ll be the pair with all the damage and paint splatters.”
Shoso Ogawa, 67 and Haruna Ogawa, 26, citrus farmers
Shoso Ogawa is a 14th generation farmer on the island of Konejima island, located in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea.
“I joined the project in October 2016 and my daughter started last year. My friend told me about it and I jumped at the chance to join. I always wear denim to work in the fields, so it was a perfect fit.
The fact that they come and collect the jeans is so helpful. It always used to be lots of work to wash my jeans; they got so dirty. Initially, I felt embarrassed handing back my dirty jeans, so I tried my hardest not to get them too messy. I even used to hide them in plastic bags when I gave them back! But Wada-san told me to feel free to get the jeans as dirty as possible.
Through this project, I have been able to meet lots of new people from other professions in this community. Also, whenever I see someone being interviewed in the media in relation to this project, I feel a connection with that person, even if we’ve never met. I feel like I’m part of a team.”