A 20-minute walk down the shōtengai, or central shopping arcade — past izakayas, old ramen joints, and 100-yen shops, through sloping alleys and twisted streets reminiscent of Lisbon or Valparaiso — ends at the unassuming Onomichi Denim Project, a boutique with a twist: It sells its premium jeans only after they've been worn for a year by a member of the community.
Onomichi, part of Japan's Bingo Region, the birthplace of the high-end Japanese denim, has long been a center of textile production and indigo dyeing. In homage to its heritage, ODP's line is produced and dyed using traditional techniques that render that deep, vivid hue known as Japan Blue. All new jeans require breaking in before they're at their best, and cultists and connoisseurs know that there is an art to the process of achieving their desired look — when and how to wash, dry, and wear. At the Onomichi Denim Project, the breaking-in process is part of the artisanal product.
The creators found the first group of denim wearers in 2014 via word of mouth, resulting in a fascinating cross-section not only of Onomichi's populace, but in many ways that of rural Japan as a whole. To date, denim wearers have included monks, fishermen, teachers, students, architects, and even Onomichi's mayor.
Convincing locals to wear jeans was not an easy sell. A fifth-generation muskmelon farmer was intrigued by the concept but nervous about wearing denim through the hot summer months. A third-generation iron craftsman was hesitant for safety reasons and wondered if anyone would wear these pre-worn, premium pants. But an architect leapt at the opportunity, as did others who were intrigued or simply amused by the lark.
How does it work? Wearers rotate through two pairs of jeans that they promise to wear almost daily for a year. Every week, the jeans are laundered at a special denim processing facility to retain evidence of each participant's life and work. A pair worn by a fisherman has faded lines left by knee-high rubber boots, a factory worker's jeans are distressed from a year's worth of iron powder penetrating the fabric, and those worn by a wild boar hunter have traces of faded blood.
The analog fashion project is the brainchild of Onomichi denim designer Yoshiyuki Hayashi, textile expert Yukinobu Danjo, and Discoverlink Setouchi, an organization that aims to supports local industry. The concept is simple and smart: Highlight Onomichi's appeal as a destination by drawing attention to its top-quality craftsmanship and its people.
At the end of a year, everything is washed according to color, hang-dried or tumbled, checked for individuality, tagged with detailed descriptions, and displayed on a long platform, gallery-style, in the minimalist boutique. Prices range from ¥24,800 to ¥48,000 (roughly $250 to $500), and the shop offers specialized denim upkeep services, including mending and repair, hemming, and washing. Given the time and commitment that goes into production, the steep price tag is not only understandable but could be justified as reasonable: More than mere fashion, each pair of jeans is a cultural artifact, the ultimate souvenir.