Ryo Yonehara is the 30-year-old president of Tabi-ji, a Nara-based company making and selling tabi (traditional Japanese split-toe footwear).
Now a thriving enterprise, Yonehara says he came up with the idea for his business while pulling rickshaws around Nara for a couple of years in his late teens. Then, as he showed the ancient city’s highlights to foreign tourists, he recalls how he was often asked where they could buy a pair of tabi like the ones he wore.
After doing some market research, including polling a number of foreigners around JR Nara Station, he opened his shop in March 2007. He offers a wide variety of tabi, including a few originally designed lines with plum-flower patterns, and aims to turn what’s typically the footwear of construction workers and farmers into a fashion item for young people.
His store, which moved last month to the bustling Mochiido shopping street close to Kintetsu Nara Station, is busy with shoppers, thanks in part to ads he’s placed in the Nara Explorer, the city’s only English-language tourist-information magazine — which Yonehara founded in 2008.
Though he had no previous experience in the clothing business, he learned the ropes through trial and error, Yonehara says — adding that he has never thought of leaving his hometown, because he “can’t stand commuter-packed trains.”
Also, despite being heavily involved in inbound tourism, he doesn’t relish the thought of floods of foreign tourists in Nara — partly because he knows how Nara is, both physically and psychologically, ill-equipped to serve a massive influx of visitors. But he does believe that Nara should be more hospitable to outsiders.
“Nara is still unknown to many people,” he says. “Few tourists have heard of the Tegaimon Gate (a 1,300-year-old wooden gate that is the only remnant of the Tenpyo Era on the grounds of the famed Todaiji Temple), for example.
“The city of Nara and the prefectural government are trying to increase the number of events held here at night, but I actually think we should leave it alone at night. Nara is quiet and that’s what makes it such an attractive place.”