by Zoria Petkoska
No look is complete until you put on the shoes, and Japanese fashion is no different. While ingenious stylists do put together fashion-forward looks pairing a Japanese kimono with Doc Martens for instance, if you're going for a classic style you will need traditional Japanese footwear.
The most well-known is the wooden sandal known as geta, but there are many different types of traditional Japanese footwear, and even several types of traditional Japanese sandals. So if you’re looking for the best Japanese footwear for your outfit, here are 12 essential things you need to know!
1. What Types of Japanese Sandals are There?
Making Traditional Geta Sandals
The three main types of Japanese sandal are geta, zori and setta, which are distinguished mainly by the material that they use, and consequently how comfortable they are!
What all three types have in common is a firm base paired with a V-shaped piece of material that sits between the big toe and the others, making them similar to flip-flops. A fourth type of Japanese footwear we’ll cover here is the jikatabi, which is neither a sandal, nor particularly traditional, but is extremely Japanese!
2. What are the Most Comfortable Japanese Sandals?
Setta are the most comfortable of traditional Japanese sandals, and can trace their design back to Sen no Rikyu, the 16th century tea master, father of the modern tea ceremony, and icon of Japanese aesthetics!
The Japanese word, 雪駄, means snow shoes and is said to reflect the fact that Sen no Rikyu took to wearing these wider, flatter sandals to avoid the teeth of his geta being clogged with snow.
The most important innovation in terms of comfort is the material. Instead of the hard wood of geta, or the rough straw of traditional zori, setta are woven with the same soft, smooth grass that is used to make tatami mats. And if you’ve ever walked on a tatami mat barefoot, you’ll know that there’s nothing nicer!
3. Which Japanese Sandals Should You Wear with Kimono?
The short answer is, any of them!
The longer answer is that it depends on formality and comfort. At the most formal occasions it’s more common to wear zori. Geta are more likely to be worn on traditional occasions and for taking photos in kimono outfits, but they can be difficult to walk in. Setta can be comfortably worn in all but the most formal occasions.
4. What are Geta?
Antique Japanese Geta
Geta is written 下駄 in Japanese, and literally means under footwear. They are designed to elevate the wearer from the ground and thus protect the hem of the clothes (particularly expensive kimono) from getting dirty. Fun fact: geta are carved from a single block of wood, with the “teeth” being an indivisible part of the base.
While the geta with two stilts are the most common type (called masa geta), there are also geta with one or three teeth, as well as geta with no teeth but a full base instead, resembling platform shoes. The one tooth geta are called tengu geta, as demons known as tengu are depicted wearing them,. Today they are mostly worn by actors, which is quite the balancing act! In the past, three teeth geta called were worn almost exclusively by oiran, the high-class Japanese courtesans.
5. Are Geta Comfortable?
SHOP THE LOOK | Black Lilies Yukata
Geta are popular to recreate a traditional look, and you will often see them in kimono-dressed photoshoots. However, wearing them takes some getting used to, so are not recommended for walking tours, or a long day on your feet, particularly if you’re new to them.
6. How to Wear Geta?
© Japan Objects Store
The good news about wearing geta is that they are so easy to slip in and out of with no laces, ties or fasteners. As kimonos are all about tying knots, it is a relief to not have to bend over to put on your shoes. The difficult part comes after you've put them on, as they require some getting used to.
The higher the teeth of the geta, the harder it is to keep balance, so naturally the lower types (5 to 10 cm) are more common, and the 20cm tengu geta are left to dexterous performers. The trick for wearing geta is to slide forward, and not expect your foot to roll as your footwear bends and follows your step. Actually, geta are the reason for the distinctive small steps of that “kimono-walk”.
Geta do not necessarily require wearing tabi (split-toe socks), but some types like the okobo do call for tabi. When trying on geta make sure your toes do not protrude in the front, but there should always be a bit of space behind your heel, at least 1 cm. If no tabi are worn, you can sprinkle some baby powder between your big toe and second toe to prevent skin chaffing. Finally, it is more fashionable to choose geta with a thong colour that matches your obi-sash.
7. What are Zori?
SHOP THE LOOK | Tancho Kimono
Where geta are made of wood, which puts them closer to clogs, zori are softer, often covered in cloth, leather or even vinyl nowadays. The name zori , 草履, means straw shoe, reflecting the original materials.
Grass-woven zori were original flat, but modern zori, particularly the formal type worn on special occasions with elaborate kimono outfits, tend to have a thick base, which is often slanted to create a high-heel effect.
Zori are the most common choice for formal kimono-wear these days as they are more comfortable than geta. Even Kyoto’s geiko community have increasingly been switching to zori as hotels and restaurants prefer those in order to protect the floors.
Zori are always worn with tabi socks, which is why they are not usually the choice for a yukata outfit, when tabi socks are not worn.
8. How are Japanese Sandals Made
All types of Japanese sandals are made by threading a fabric (or sometimes vinyl) strap through a sold base, the main difference lies in how the base is made.
For geta, the wooden sole, including its teeth, is traditionally carved from a single block of wood. Zori were originally made from woven straw, although these days, they are usually a fabric-covered wooded block.
These setta are quite unusual in their production as they are designed to be especially comfortable. Instead of a single rope of fabric, the straps are made from three layers of cotton so they the fit snuggly in place and do not rub. The upper sole is made from woven grasses to provide the comfort of a tatami mat on the sole of the foot, but they are also thickly cushioned, and have a deep rubber sole to provide protection from any kind of surface.
You can find these authentic contemporary Setta designs at Japan Objects Store!
9. What are Jikatabi?
Jikatabi by Ki-Yan x Sou Sou
Jikatabi literally means ground tabi socks, and true to that name they are like sturdy tabi socks with reinforced soles, which are worn outside like shoes. The sole is usally made of rubber, the fabric is coarse, they have fasteners on the side, and they are higher than tabi socks.
Although jikatabi are of course unique to Japan, they are not exactly traditional footwear, it might surprise you to learn they were actually created in the 20th century! They are favoured during matsuri festivals, often worn by men with fundoshi loincloth and a happi jacket. They have recently been favoured as sports shoes too, and NIKE even created their own jikatabi model called Nike Rifts.
Jikatabi can be, and are, worn with kimono by fashion-forward kimono-fans, although shouldn’t be worn to formal events, when sandals are preferred.
10. Should You Wear Socks with Japanese Sandals?
The socks worn with Japanese sandals are known as tabi, and are distinguished by the indentation between the big toe and the others, making them perfectly suited to wear with sandals. Whether or not to wear tabi with sandals depends on the occasion, the weather, and personal choice. Tabi are always worn for formal occasions, usually paired with zori, or sometimes geta. They are also always worn in cold weather, because to go barefoot in winter would be silly! Another reason to wear tabi with zori, is that the strap of modern zori is often vinyl coated and would be quite uncomfortable on naked toes!
Tabi are usually not worn with the more comfortable setta, more casual yukata outfits, and generally in hotter weather, so at these times as long as you’re not attending a formal banquet, you should wear whatever your personal style and comfort suggests!
You can find a selection of authentic Japanese tabi socks at Japan Objects Store!
11. What’s the Difference Between Japanese Sandals and Flip-Flops?
The similarity between traditional Japanese footwear and flip-flops (or thongs for antipodean readers) is no coincidence. English speakers have been known to call flip-flops Japanese sandals or even jandals, and in Polish, Serbian and other Slavic languages they are called japonki, japanke or a similar variant. Some wires must have crossed on the way to Russia though, as the flip-flops over there are known as vietnamki!
Japanese sandals, and specifically zori are considered to be to be the inspiration behind the modern flip-flops in the USA, when they were brought back from Japan by American soldiers. However, whereas Japanese sandals run the full range from everyday homewear to the most formal state occasions, flip-flops in the US are considered casualwear only. This is reflected in the design where flip-flops are worn in quite large sizes, with the foot placed in the middle. Japanese sandals conversely are design to be the size of the foot, or even slightly smaller. For geta and zori in particular, the heel is expected to protrude slightly from the back.
12. Can Men Wear Japanese Sandals?
Antique men's geta
Of course! There are men’s geta, zori and setta, which all tend to be larger, flatter, squarer, and in darker colors than women’s sandals.