On the Hunt in Tokyo for ‘Authentic’ Denim

TOKYO — The best souvenirs tell a story. The jeans in Japan provide a walking history lesson.

Levi’s landed in Japan about 75 years ago, and since then, Japanese manufacturers have combined their centuries-long tradition of indigo dyeing with their love of the Levi’s 501 style to craft some of the world’s most meticulously constructed high-end denim and classic jeans, according to W. David Marx, cultural historian and author of “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.

We met over coffee in Tokyo to discuss what makes Japanese jeans such an appealing purchase for a traveler who likes to shop.

“The stretch denim, anything that’s too skinny, too tapered, too wide, is going to look ridiculous in five years, but all these really classic 501 straight leg model jeans will look as good now as they will in 20 years, because they’re just the classic archetype for what jeans are supposed to be,” he said. “Designs change and art changes, but really nice materials are really nice forever.”

Japan’s love affair with denim — especially bluejeans — began with World War II, Mr. Marx said. During the postwar occupation of Japan, used jeans, mostly Levi’s, found their way into shops after being bartered by American soldiers. At that time, people in the United States devalued jeans so much that they would rip them up and use them like tissue paper in packages. In Japan, shoppers valued them so much that stores would stitch these scraps back together and sell out.

Over the next decades, Japan went from embracing the bluejeans style to perfecting it.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this capital city with a day to shop and yen to spend, you can find a concentrated selection of the country’s best high-end denim just a short walk from the central Ebisu station, among the side streets, shops and bakeries of the Daikanyama neighborhood, often called the Brooklyn of Tokyo.

“Daikanyama is all the chic Brooklyn retail without the edge of Brooklyn,” Mr. Marx said. “Everything is very dainty, artisanal and calm.”

To start your day, head to its stylish bookstore, Tsutaya Books Daikanyama, for a quick denim education. In the fashion section, aside from Mr. Marx’s book, you’ll also find “Jeans of the Old West: A History” by Michael Harris and a book whose title translates to “Who Made the 501XX?: The Unspoken Levi’s History” by Aota Mitsuhiro.

Flip through pages of vintage photos and diagrams while sipping coffee in the adjacent Anjin Library & Lounge to start to understand how the jeans you’re about to try on came to be. You’ll begin to understand why you might step into a shop and, while surrounded by jean jackets, flannel, patches and trucker hats, feel as if you were in a vintage Marlboro commercial right in the middle of Tokyo.

When I visited the UES shop in Daikanyama recently, I felt as if I could have been in Nebraska but for Asami Makino kneeling to measure a hem while chatting in Japanese with a customer buying his first pair of their jeans. As she sat down at a Union Special midcentury sewing machine, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” wailed in the background.

“Levi’s started it all and definitely we have had a lot of inspiration from Levi’s,” she said, “but we tend not to follow anyone and try to have our own originality.”

When she folded over the edge to form the hem, rather than ironing the crease, she tapped it with a wood-handled hammer. To finish the job, she took out a branding machine and seared the date of purchase into the leather patch, a detail that made them a fabulous souvenir if you can afford to spend the 23,800 yen, or about $218, for a pair.

The post-World War II model jeans lifted off the shelf as if folded around a cardboard insert. But no. The stiffness was because of the raw denim in this model. These starched jeans haven’t been prewashed, because the best way to get the desired high-contrast fades is to wash them just once, said Ms. Makino, then keep wearing them like this, unwashed, for at least six months.

“They are uncomfortable at the beginning, as the material is really quite stiff. And also because in the waist you buy them quite tight at the beginning, about one inch,” Ms. Makino said. “But if you can bear with them for a while, they get really well-fitting and you can just wear them every day.”

The development that pushed Japanese denim to be worth this kind of sacrifice started in the 1970s, when labor strikes in American factories disrupted fabric imports, according to Mr. Marx. To make their own truly domestic denim, Japanese manufacturers had to forget much of what they’d learned in a millennium of dyeing with indigo. If the color went all the way through the fabric, the jeans wouldn’t fade. They had to dye the threads more shallowly, maintaining a white center that would start to show over time.

Hidehiko Yamane, a vintage shop manager, decided to make jeans “just like I bought at surplus stores when I was in middle school,” he said in his book “Tateoti: Evisu the photobook.” He started a brand called Evis, a play on Levi’s, and painted a sea gull-shaped logo on the back that looked similar to Levi’s stitching. Evis eventually became Evisu.

At Evisu’s Daikanyama location, Evisu the Tokyo, among the denim-coated motorcycle helmets, a sweet selection of denim fanny packs and golf accessories, I found Saito Yasushi, a shop worker, bent over a pair of jeans, hands tinted indigo blue, painting dots and swirls in a huge sea gull pattern over the back of a pair of jeans, turning them into a creation no one would mistake for Levi’s.

“Evisu was the brand who really broke replica denim,” Mr. Marx said. David Beckham wore them and Jay-Z name-dropped them in a song. “But then it also caused a backlash with his employees, who were like, ‘No, we must make the purest perfect copy of the 501.’”

Brands branched off with different levels of dedication to strict tradition, from the copper rivets to the chain-stitched hems to the classic cut to the selvage denim, which signifies that the fabric was made on small-batch looms.

“It comes from this really Confucian idea,” said Mr. Marx, “that there is a perfect iconic pair of jeans and it is the Levi’s 501 from the ’30s to the ’60s. It’s the idea that there was perfection in the past, and we lost it, rather than some Western idea of progress, which is that you can always make a better jean. It’s like this race to make a better version of the thing we lost.”

After you check out UES and Evisu, head to Gohanya Isshin Daikanyama for a lunch of sashimi and tempura. If you skip the pumpkin crème brûlée here, you will have made a grave mistake. Afterward, the garden of the Former Asakura Residence, a traditional Japanese home from the early 20th century, serves as a quiet place to sit before heading off again.

Walk east, where you’ll technically cross into the Ebisu neighborhood to visit Warehouse & Co., a brand whose founders used to work at Evisu, but now focus on “faithful reproductions of vintage garments.” These jeans satisfy the purist.

“We replicate vintage jeans with no compromise,” explained Masaki Fujiki, the manager of sales and public relations at Warehouse & Co., over email. The brand, which is approaching its 25th anniversary, never changes its production process, he said, from the yarn to how it’s spun to the indigo dyeing method.

Warehouse & Co. reproduced its line, the Duckdigger, from work wear found in the 19th century in a ghost town in the American West, Mr. Fujiki said. Its jeans, overalls and coveralls cost between $200 and $300, and it sells its own brand of denim wash.

“Beware of imitations,” the labels say. Around the Warehouse website and catalog, a word often leaned on is “authentic.”

“So how do you make authentic jeans?” Mr. Marx asked. “If you can make the jeans authentically to how they used to be made, then you have a claim to authenticity, and that’s what Japan has done.”

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