Lifestyle

Step into Sawano Kobo, an unusual mix of sandals and music

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

It’s a December afternoon but an unseasonal humidity has descended over Shinsekai, an iconic commercial district in Osaka that’s been around for over a century. “Shinsekai,” meaning “new world,” seems an ironically fitting title to the area’s graying, retro streets. They proffer a nice contrast to the glittering monuments to high-tech standing just beyond the district.

A woman, elaborately clad in a vintage kimono, takes advantage of the unusually warm weather and sashays down the Shinsekai main market street, while the team of women working the counter at a meat shop cast eyes at her retreating figure before exchanging knowing smiles. Despite becoming an old-school area, Shinsekai still has something dramatic about it, and the locals seem too interesting to be ordinary citizens.

In a narrow alley across from the meat shop stands Sawano Kobo, a store whose history goes back as far as Shinsekai itself. There’s something staged about the shopfront, not to mention a little confusing. The shop’s banner sign informs you that this is a place of “handmade jazz,” yet the wares on display are shoes and sandals, but mostly geta (Japanese traditional sandals).

“My father worked in this shop until he was 86,” says Yoshiaki Sawano, 68. “As his eldest son, I figured I should keep going for another 20 years.”

Sawano, the fourth generation heir of the establishment, and the rest of his family have been crafting geta and other traditional Japanese footwear for decades, which explains the shop front display. But what and where is the “hand-made jazz?”

It’s not until you enter the store and see a wall of CD-filled boxes that all is revealed. Sawano Kobo, it turns out, is also an independent jazz label. The product of personal passion, it deals almost exclusively in CDs, with each album the result of Sawano’s unwavering dedication to jazz.

“Hand-made,” he says, is his personal motto. The albums — mainly collaborative compilations of European jazz artists and reissues of out-of-print recordings — reflect his conscientious choices in musicians and an uncompromising sincerity.

“I’ve failed more times than I care to admit,” he says, when discussing sales. “But I’ve forged a certain relationship with failure. We get along, and I think it’s become part of the appeal of my label.”

It’s a Saturday and the shop is abuzz with activity. Sawano has just returned from a two-day trip to Tokyo, where he hosted a jazz event and appeared on a radio show. His daughter, Kayoko, explains that such public appearances have helped spawn a sudden demand for Sawano Jazz CDs, and the shop floor is now littered with boxes and paper wrappers, as Kayoko and Sawano’s younger brother, Minoru, dart to and fro sorting CDs to pack into plastic cases lined up against a wall. Sawano’s wife, meantime, is at the cash register, tending to an elderly lady who has come to buy a pair of sandals.

“All of a sudden, business is booming,” says Kayoko, laughing. “I’m hoping that with the rise in revenue we can fix our leaky roof. The typhoons over the summer really devastated this building and we haven’t been able to make repairs yet.”

Sawano, who at one point had felt ambivalent about inheriting the family business housed in the ailing building, has always loved jazz.

“For years I pursued my passion for jazz and my father let me do as I liked,” he recalls. “He even told me use the shop floor space for something other than geta. I’m really grateful to him.”

When his brother Minoru went to France in 1980, Sawano followed and he set up an export business for Japanese jazz records, going back and forth between Osaka and France. In 1998, he began producing jazz CDs, and his label earned a modest but dedicated following.

“My criteria for remarkable jazz back then, is as it still is now,” he says. “It’s whether you feel good when you listen to something. If it feels right, then it’s worth selling … and purchasing.”

Running two wildly different businesses, or as the Japanese saying goes, “wearing two pairs of sandals on a single pair of feet,” was not common in Japan, and Sawano has often been asked how he has managed to sustain both for more than 20 years. In response, six months ago he published his autobiography, a volume that primarily focuses on jazz but is also being touted as a self-help and lifestyle book.

Recounting Sawano’s journey, the book provides pointers for people looking for change in their lives, to switch jobs or simply pursue their dreams.

“I don’t think I could have come this far without passion and determination,” Sawano says. “On the other hand, I’ve also been relaxed about it. At the back of my mind, I knew that whatever happened with the label, I still had to run the geta shop. Along with my family, it’s the geta business that has kept me grounded.”

Today, Sawano’s jazz offerings in Shinsekai attract many discerning customers from across Japan. Comments on social media often praise Sawano Kobo as a project that has matured into a trusted label. “It’s a little gem in the Japanese music world,” writes one ardent fan in a recent Twitter post.

For Sawano, who has never advertised and has always said no to streaming, the attention is a welcome surprise. Online selling, he says, is the only concession he has made to modern retail.

“A newspaper in Hokkaido wrote about this shop. Can you imagine? Hokkaido! It’s so far away,” he says with wide-eyed wonder. “I never thought I’d be hugely successful or anything but I’ve always valued contact and interaction with my customers, and I’ve always tried to make albums that I myself would love to listen to.”

He looks thoughtful for a moment.

“People ask me how I managed to get where I am,” he says. “But honestly, I just followed my heart.”

For more information on Sawano Kobo, visit www.jazz-sawano.com.

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