Sayonara, Levi Strauss: How Japan stole the title of world's best denim jeans from California

If we are in any doubt that we're entering Japan's denim capital, it is dispelled the moment we arrive at Kojima train station, in Okayama prefecture on the main island's west coast.

There are displays of jeans everywhere, including a giant pair affixed to the wall of the entrance hall, beneath which we dutifully pose, fashionista-style. A 10-minute car ride later and we're outside the two-storey log cabin that houses the Betty Smith Jeans Museum. 

I usually have as much interest in garments and fashion as I do in crocheting or being prime minister. I go clothes shopping once a year and it's over in an hour maximum. So I cannot imagine how this Betty Smith and her jeans are going to arouse anything other than cursory interest in me.  I'll go in, say "yes nice threads" and then exit to find something more fascinating – like hot coffee - in the branded vending machine outside. 

Once inside, there are, you've guessed it, jeans, hanging up as exhibits. One of them is even a replica of the prototype for Levi's 501 range, supplied by the US manufacturer itself. 

While several others in my group gaze at the exhibits and chatter excitedly, I drift into an historical dream. 

In it I am mining in mid-19th century California, hoping to strike gold and make my fortune.  

However, my clothes are too flimsy for the grinding labour or too hot for the West Coast conditions. 

What I need is a brand new tough but comfortable fabric to wear.  

This is where Levi Strauss, a German-born, San Francisco-based Jewish businessman and Jacob Davis, a Reno-based tailor, come in.  

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Seeing the gap in the market, they produce the first pairs of jeans, in 1873, made from a canvas-coloured denim.  At first they appear with rivets or buttons for flies, as zips are yet to be invented. 

Levi Strauss and co have struck gold, and in a way that will last far longer than California's supply of sparkling nuggets. 

With its collection of vintage sewing machines and yes, replica jeans, from down the ages, it is this quirky museum in a Japanese town that has induced this daydream.  Not only that but it's taught me a thing or two. 

Such as why Japan adopted the US garment – after James Dean's appearance in a pair in the movie Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 – and then ran with it at production houses in the traditional textile manufacturing town of Kojima, making them on imported heavy-duty sewing machines from America.  

After a slow start in the late 1960s, Japanese denim and the country's skilled workers made jeans a must-have luxury fashion item, as that ever reliable website, highsnobiety.com, explains: 

"In short, Japan's obsession in recreating the American jeans they crazed over led Japanese denim manufacturers to become the world's best in terms of knowledge and production. From then on it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on to the craftwork behind Japanese denim." 

Among the Japanese brands that made their mark were Big John, Bobson and Betty Smith. Betty Smith still produces all its jeans by hand, here in Kojima, with French and Italian fashion houses among their customers. 

Some of the heavy equipment used in that jeans-making process, including original sewing, cutting and washing machines form another part of the exhibition. 

Although the museum has tricked me into showing interest in jeans and how they are made, I draw the line at the second floor salon, where it's possible to order a pair custom-made from a dizzying array of buttons, zips and different coloured denim.  Apparently, these jeans can be shipped internationally. 

Nor am I tempted by the possibility of making myself a mobile-phone strap in the nearby workshop or of making a purchase – while several in my group buy big – from the purses, eco-bags and even denim yukatas (casual kimonos) at the factory outlet shop.   

But hey, Betty Smith, whoever you are (or were), you've broken down at least part of my fashion resistance and your museum is clearly a hit, attracting 50,000 visitors a year to Kojima in search of the perfect jeans. 

TRIP NOTES 

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

Jnto.org.au

SEE

Betty Smith Jeans Museum and Village is at 5-2-70 Shimono Town, Kojima, Kurashiki City, Okayama, on the west coast of Japan's main Honshu island.  It opens 9am-6pm daily, admission free.  TEL- +81 (0)86 473 4460. See Betty.co.jp

Daniel Scott was a guest of the Japan National Tourist Office 

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