By Shu Xie
I can’t decide if they should be called sandals, slippers, or slides, but when I first saw them, they appealed to me immediately. It was a Saturday afternoon of white skies in Bangkok. I had just stepped out of the BTS station to walk into a mall when I spotted a Japanese man in this thonged footwear, above which hung Comme des Garçons low-crotch, pinstriped pants. While the get-up would not be out of place among Japanese fishing folk, there, in the covered toe-to-heel bustle of down-town Bangkok, those feet by themselves were nearly pornographic. I didn’t forget those sandals.
As if arrangements had been made, a month later, I saw the same pair in a Taiwanese magazine and the caption read: “sandals by Montbell”. What a surprise. Montbell, a Japanese outdoor gear label with very little brand recognition in Singapore unless you’re into camping by a river or skiing in the mountains, isn’t quite known for its footwear. Founded in Osaka by mountaineer Isamu Tatsuno (who was the first Japanese to climb the North face of the Eiger in Switzerland), the brand makes terrific kit for outdoor sports and adventure travel. I am a huge fan of their gadgets such as carabiners and mobile solar packs, but I have never taken notice of anything for feet.
Not long after, I had scheduled a vacation in Hokkaido. It was my first visit to the northern most of Japan’s islands. On the first day in the capital city of Sapporo, a blizzard was blowing through the downtown. Walking away from the JR station, I spotted from across the street a Montbell store. I had to pop inside—the sandals immediately came to my mind and delight gladdened my heart. But, alas, it was winter, and feet-baring shoes would hibernate in the warehouse until the warmer months. Although I did leave with a couple of stuff, including an extremely useful pendant affixed with thermometer, compass, and a magnifying glass, I was rather disappointed that the footwear I had hoped to see was on seasonal sabbatical.
It was made known to me at the store that my obsession is called Sock-On Sandals. What sets them apart from anything I have seen (including Teva river sandals and the luxury versions that inevitably pop up in the spring/summer season) is what Montbell calls “thongstraps”. These are akin to those seen on traditional Japanese wooden sandals, geta—originally a Chinese design. Montbell has adapted the idea—their thongs are made from a tubular knit with firm but supple stuffing—for the sandals. The thongstrap is embedded into the insole at each end and fasten to looped canvas tabs that sit like ceriphs on the outsole. To wear them, slip the foot under the thongstrap from the rear, adjusting it as you go along, until it sits over the base of your toes and the back of the metatarsal. You can, in fact adjust the thongstrap to rest anywhere on top of your feet that you feel most comfortable.
Last week, I finally found the Sock-On Sandals. When I tried them on, it was more of a slide to me. What struck me most was the comfort level: they embrace the feet like socks. That was what I thought gave the sandal its moniker, but the shopkeeper was keen to tell me that these were designed to be worn with socks. Still, it was superbly comfortable without them. There isn’t any flip-flopping when you walk in them as the sandals hug your feet very snugly. Looking down, I thought the curvy shape of the thongstrap gives the bare skin of the feet a sweep of calligraphic elegance.
The Sock-On Sandal comes in S, M, L, and XL, not unusual of Japanese sizing, but it does pose the problem of perfect fit in terms of the feet over the length of the sole. Good thing is, the thongstrap can be adjusted so that you won’t feel the sandal will slip off: perfect for those of us who do not want the extra effort of clenching to the toe grip of standard slippers.
Montbell Sock-On Sandals, SGD39.90, is available at X-Boundaries@Velocity, Novena Square. Product photos: Montbell. Main illustration: Just So