By Rachel Muenz
Most people in Toronto put on high-heels, polished oxfords or running shoes when they go to work. Matthew Wright puts on a pair of tabi.
Tabi are a traditional type of shoe worn in Japan mainly for festivals and are essentially like mittens for your feet, keeping the big toe separate from the rest of your toes. They also happen to be the favoured footwear of ninjas.
Wright has been making training tools and fixing swords for people who practise ninjutsu for about three years.
“I’m very lucky with my profession that I get to say I’m a full-time professional ninja,” he says. “It’s very awesome.”
He says he finds wearing regular clothes strange because he is used to wearing his ninjutsu uniform all the time at work.
“When I go out, I feel I’m putting the costume on. I put the jeans on. I put a shirt on and I look in the mirror and I think I look very funny,” says Wright, who has practised ninjutsu for two years. “I don’t put Gators on, I put my tabi on.”
The shoes look cool but there is more to them than that.
Greg Tremblay, a full-time ninjutsu instructor at Kageyama Dojo in western Toronto also wears tabi every day to work. He says these unique shoes give a ninja’s balance a boost with their split-toe design.
“The big toe is absolutely of prime importance for balance,” Tremblay says, tugging on his own toe that is poking through his well-worn tabi. “It’s where all your balance comes from and so having that toe separated from the rest of them adds to that feeling of balance.”
You wouldn’t think so, since the cotton tabi tend to slip, but this actually helps with a ninja’s training, says Tremblay who’s at the rank of seventh dan in ninjutsu and bears the title of Shidoshi.
With Canada’s icy winters, training with tabi help simulate a situation where you might be fighting on a slippery, snowy road, says Tremblay, who opened Kageyama in 1996 and has been doing ninjutsu since the early 80s.
The easy-slide fabric forces ninjas to concentrate on their balance instead of taking it for granted.
Wright agrees cotton tabi improve a ninja’s stability.
“They allow me to grip surfaces that are uneven,” he says from the beige mat in one of the dojo’s training halls. “I can feel the terrain so it allows me to really work on my balance.”
Tabi are also easier to clean than other shoes.
“You can throw these in the washing machine and wash them,” Tremblay says, clapping a hand on his tabi-clad foot. “They’re just kind of like really thick, convenient socks.”
There are also more durable, rubber-soled tabi called jika tabi, which ninjas use mostly for outdoor training. In Japan, this type of tabi is used by construction workers.
Wright says jika tabi are excellent for training on hardwood floors because they grip much better than cloth tabi. Jika tabi also make it easier for him to train with his problem knee.
“With a rubber sole, my foot doesn’t slip so I can really feel where the pressure is on my knee,” Wright says, gesturing to his left leg. “It allows me to have a lot more power and accuracy.”
Some moves can only be done wearing tabi.
Amon Kage, who’s been training in ninjutsu for three years but has only been at Kageyama for a week, says he wears tabi just for one type of strike.
“The only reason I actually use them is because of the toe kick,” Kage says. “That’s the only footwear you can effectively use [for the kick].”
This move is a kick with the big toe to any target on an opponent’s body, says Kage, a literature student at the University of Toronto. The split toe is what allows a ninja to pull it off.
When buying tabi, Wright says he wants ones that don’t bite between his toes but have a seam that fits tightly to his foot. He says he still needs some space in the toe area for movement, but not a lot.
“If there’s too much space . . . it doesn’t hold nicely and it’s like wearing a loose sock and you’re trying to move,” he says, running his hand along his new-looking navy tabi. “It’s just uncomfortable all the time.”
Both Wright and Tremblay say it’s best to buy directly from a supplier rather than the Internet. Tremblay finds it easiest to get his tabi directly from Japan, which he visits often.
He says they cost about $15 to$20 Canadian and the larger sizes are around $30 to$35 and last three to nine months before they wear out, depending on how often they’re used.
If you have to buy tabi over the Internet, asking questions is important to make sure you get the right type and best quality, the two ninjas say.
“Ask if they’re Velcro,” Wright says. “If they’re Velcro that’s usually the first sign that they’re not good tabi.”
High-quality tabi have metal tabs at the back that can be adjusted for a better fit.
While Tremblay wears tabi as often as he can, the navy blue ones for ninjutsu, the black jika tabi for outdoor training, and white ones for doing Japanese archery, he avoids wearing them in public. He wore a pair of rubber tabi similar to rain boots when he went out only once.
“I wore them one time on the subway and everybody noticed,” he says with a smile. “It’s totally not something that a ninja would actually wear because then everybody knows you’re a ninja, right?”