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Walk in Tradition with Geta Sandals
You don't see traditional Japanese footwear very often these days, as it is usually only worn with other traditional clothing. Geta shoes are raised wooden shoes worn with the informal yukata.
Geta are most often seen on the feet of sumo wrestlers these days. You will most likely hear them before you see them, as they make a distinctive clattering sound when the wearer walks. This is sometimes mentioned as one of the sounds that older Japanese people miss most in modern life.
Japanese Sandals Origins
As in many other aspects of life, the fashion of the early Japanese nobility was heavily influenced by Chinese culture and so they wore shoes or boots.
The origins of the geta lie in the Heian period (794-1192), a time when a more "native" culture developed.
Geta are made from a flat piece of wood on two lasts (called ha or teeth) that raise the sole part 4-5 cm off the ground.
This is enough to protect a kimono from dirt, although ashida (rain shoes) have slats about 10 cm high. Some sushi chefs even wear geta with ha that are up to 17cm high.
These "platform shoes" were revived in a brief fashion trend in the late 90s, when young girls were seen tottering around on atsuzoku (thick heels).
While geta have become quite rare, the shoe cupboard in the genkan (entrance hallway) of every house is still called a getabako (geta box).
When you enter the genkan, you have to take off your shoes and the formal etiquette is to leave them neatly aligned and to the side, facing inwards.
The host turns them around and places them in the middle before you leave. Younger people tend not to care about these niceties.
But when entering shrine or temple buildings and many Japanese-style restaurants, you are expected to remove your shoes.
Many restaurants and houses provide slippers for their guests, but they should be removed when entering a room with a tatami mat floor. There is also a separate pair of slippers that must be put on in the toilet.
Geta designs vary greatly depending on their use. Pokkuri geta are for young girls and have indented bottoms that make a nice sound when used; koshi geta are used in the rain; yuki geta are designed not to catch or hold snow; niwa geta are for use in the garden; nori geta are used by seaweed harvesters in water.
Different Types of Japanese Sandals
- Ashida (足駄): A geta variant according to the scheme described above, in which the bars of the sole are higher than in ordinary geta. It was worn from the Heian period to the Edo period and was specifically intended for use in rainy weather. They were also part of school dress in high schools in the first half of the 20th century, making the wearing of high geta in combination with a coat and worn hat firmly associated with college students.
- Yama-geta (山下駄): A variant in which both soles and footbed are seamlessly made from the same piece of wood. It was made and offered by carpenters especially during the Edo period. Very often the footbed is rectangular in shape and made from the wood of the bluebell tree.
- Yoshiwara geta (吉原下駄): Largely similar to the yama-geta described above, but made of sickle fir wood. The strap is made of bamboo fibers. These geta were lent to patrons by establishments in Yoshiwara, Edo's entertainment district, during the first half of the Edo period when rain fell.
- Pokkuri geta (ぽっくり下駄): Geta, which were especially worn by the courtesans of Yoshiwara and Shimabara. Teaching geishas (maikos) also wore this geta variety during their training. It is still generally worn by young girls today. Pokkuri geta are quite high and painted black or white on the bottom, sometimes covered with tatami material. They are also referred to as okobo, koppori, and kobokobo.
- Robō (露卯): Geta with differently shaped soles that show the nails used to fasten the soles on the top of the footbed. They were worn in the early Edo period.
- Yanagi geta (柳下駄): Geta in which the footbed is made of willow wood, the sole is made of magnolia wood.
- Ba-geta (馬下駄): The immediate ancestor of today's geta: square footbed with differently shaped soles and made of sickle fir wood. The name ("horse-geta") comes from the sound the slanted soles make when they touch the ground.
- Koma-geta (駒下駄): A further development of the ba-geta, which are designed for use not only in rainy weather but also in dry weather. They were worn by both men and women as everyday footwear in the early 17th century. Until the beginning of the Meiji period, they represented the most common geta variety.
- Kiri-geta (桐下駄): An expensive geta variant made from the wood of the bluebell tree (桐, kiri) that emerged as a luxury item shortly after the introduction of the koma-geta. Initially they were painted black, but later they were mainly offered in their natural state.
- Odawara-geta (小田原下駄): A variety that originated in Tokyo's fish markets in the early 18th century, and the archetype of the later dry-weather geeta. Their soles could be replaced exceedingly easily when they wore out, and the leather-made strap gave them captivating elegance. Because of their value as status symbols, they were preferably worn by the merchants of the fish market.
- Ipponba-geta (一本歯下駄, "single-tooth geta"): While geta generally have a two-part sole, there is also a variant with only a single transverse bar per shoe, such as tengu wear. Originally, these geta were worn by street performers and acrobats to show off their sense of balance. In modern times, this model is enjoying new popularity in the wellness and chiropractic fields, as this geta variation is said to be beneficial to one's sense of balance, body balance, as well as leg muscles.
Popularity and importance of Japanese Getas
Nowadays, geta are most often worn on traditional occasions along with the yukata and by sumo fighters. A peculiarity of the shoe is that it is usually heard before it is seen. The wooden footwear makes a typical clacking sound with each step the wearer takes.
Sometimes it is said that it is this sound that older Japanese miss most in modern life. On the other hand, it is the sound that any sumo fighter will miss the least, since wearing geta is mandatory only in the two lowest leagues. Moreover, geishas wear these shoes in winter. Future geishas ("maikos") wear other shoes, called okobo.
Geta in usageA Japanese proverb says: You don't know until you wear geta. This saying is used in the meaning that one cannot know the outcome of a contest before it ends. Because wearing geta makes a person appear taller due to the high sole, wear geta has a figurative meaning: it is used to express that something appears larger or more extensive than it really is upon closer inspection.
Or: a fight isn't over until you put your Geta back on. Since walking quickly and safely in geta is difficult, and wood slips on many surfaces, in the feudal period of Japan the geta were taken off by two duelists before the fight and one fought in tabi or barefoot. Only when the fight was clearly decided, one had time to get back into the geta.