Tokyo Shoemakers: Kiyo Uda

Tokyo Shoemakers: Kiyo Uda

This is Part 1 in a multi-part series on some of the shoemakers I was able to visit on a recent trip to Tokyo. Click here to view the summary post. 

Kiyo Uda, full name Kiyonori Udagawa (@Kiyo0127 on Instagram), may be unfamiliar to some shoe enthusiasts. This has little to do with his skill level, though. Unlike many other bespoke shoemakers who name their brands after themselves, his brands go by other names, he rarely posts on social media, and his workshop is in his home about an hour north of Tokyo in Saitama. In fact, if it had not been for a fellow shoemaker in Australia, Josef Selway, training with Uda-san last fall and posting the day-to-day progress, it would have never occurred to me to reach out. His low profile is a deliberate choice, however, because between his own brand, CraftArts, a brand he shares with Nayuta Takahashi called Tweed & Mouth, and bottom making for other brands, he has plenty of work to keep himself busy. 

Uda-san's journey is similar to many you'll find in Japan. He started with a two-year course at Saruwaka Footwear College in Asakusa, more recently known as Guild of Crafts, before moving to the UK, where he spent two years working for George Cleverly. He then moved back to Japan and began to transition his workload toward his own brands. Though he worked mostly as a bottom maker* while in the UK, he retains some distinctly Cleverly influences, particularly in the use of lasts that are twisted at the waist, which supposedly makes walking more comfortable. Although I initially thought Uda-san was just a bottom maker because that's all he teaches, he actually does last making, pattern making, clicking (cutting of leather upper pieces), and closing (sewing the upper) as well. For example, the black quarter-brogue in the featured photos above is just one sample he made entirely by himself. This was one I was particularly enamored by, in part because of the exceptional closing. Notice how close and consistent the two lines of stitching are at the seam joining the vamp and quarters. Close double stitches are something I find difficult because the sewing machine's needle tends to follow the path of least resistance, occasionally entering through an already sewn adjacent hole rather than staying on the intended line. 

*Bottom making refers to the role in shoemaking after the lasts and uppers have been made. The bottom maker's duties include insole preparation, lasting, welting, bottom filling, sole stitching, heel building, and finishing. 

Some outwork Uda-san was doing for a well known UK shoemaking firm. The tar felt as filler in the forefoot is something often found in traditional "West End" bespoke shoes. Uda-san favors cork for his own shoes.

Uda-san's lasts and patterns are generally English style classic and elegant, free of overly sharp lines, but not wholly devoid of the sleekness that one implicitly associates with Japanese made bespoke shoes. Rather than catching one's eye through exaggerated details such as excessively sharp, narrow chisel toes that tend to overshadow the rest of the design, Uda-san's shoes impress when viewed as a whole. Excitement from one or two striking details tends to fade when the time actually comes to put the shoes on and walk out of the house. His shoes, by contrast, have a calming effect through simplicity and flawless execution. Indeed, without such distractions, flaws have a harder time hiding. The more I look at these, the more I think every stitch and every curve is right where it ought to be. It's a design made to impress the sober, experienced shoegazer that intends not only to admire but also to wear their shoes often and without pretension. 

This brownish-red derby in grained leather was the most recent sample made by Uda-san and Takahashi-san at the time of my visit. In this case, Uda-san did everything except the bottom making. One particularly interesting detail is the square, yet still narrow waist. Typically, bespoke shoemakers will sew what is called a blind waist to hide the sole stitches under the shoe and allow for a more narrow waist. Blind waists have their own challenges, but since they will be hidden, they don't need to be executed to absolute perfection. The alternative, a square waist, has visible stitches, and usually means that the waist must be wider to allow the shoemaker adequate room to make those stitches cleanly. This example, however, still has a very narrow waist, which Uda-san said can be very difficult to do cleanly. 

The photo above highlights one of the more important reasons I traveled all the way to Japan to train - finishing. Those triangles on the top of the welt mark where each stitch securing the outsole is. That detail is made with a tool called a fudge wheel, and it's surprisingly difficult to do sharply and cleanly as in the sample above. You'll also notice the consistent thickness throughout the sole, the smooth, shiny edges, and the line on the corner of the edge. Many small details like this that separate good from great shoemakers are ones that can achieved through self teaching, but not on time scales conducive to a career in shoemaking. Furthermore, many other issues often go unnoticed until someone more experienced brings them to your attention. 

I scheduled twelve days of training, which turned out to be just enough time for me to complete the bottom making of my future wedding shoes, which I'll post once I receive them back from the shoe tree maker. Those days did include a few late nights, but fortunately, the ramen shop on my way to my Airbnb was open late.  

Since it's customary to take off your shoes when entering someone's home in Japan, Uda-san provided some workshop slippers. I got a kick out of these. Josef, if you're reading this, let me know if these were the same slippers you wore during your stint with Uda-san. 

Uda-san's workshop shoes. I didn't realize Puma made Lazy-mans!

While most of the time I spent with Uda-san was in focused silence, we also had plenty of time to get to know each other. In addition to shoemaking, Uda-san also competes in table tennis, taking after his parents. In fact, he met his wife through one of his old teammates. He also loves music and DJ-ing, as is clearly evident by his turntables and vinyl collection in his workshop. His taste in music was a perfect backdrop for 12 days of non-stop shoemaking. 

I feel exceptionally lucky that Uda-san was willing to share his workshop with me. Hopefully my luck will continue, and I'll be able to apply what I learned toward my own clients' shoes. 

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