This is the "Shoeshiner's Explorations" series. There are many wonderful shoeshiners in the world! In our tenth installment, we introduce Tomokazu Kishima of Kutsubigaku, a company in Gunma Prefecture. He is one of the best shoeshiners in the world and his humorous personality is full of charm. We hope you enjoy the interview!
How did you get started in the shoeshine business?
I worked as a custom-built house salesman for 10 years at my previous job. Housing is an expensive purchase, so as a salesman, I had to be sharp, so I wore three pairs of Regal shoes around the house.
One day, on a TV show called "Monday Night Late Night" that Matsuko Deluxe was doing, there was a segment about a series of restaurants where you had to wait in line. They introduced various ramen shops and cafes. One of them was Chiba Special (a famous shoeshine store in Yurakucho). I was shocked to see through the TV screen how shiny shoes really are. I was shocked. I had to go there! So I went there on my next day off, just to get my shoes shined. I was so impressed that I went back the next week with a different pair of shoes. I thought, "I should do this regularly for all my shoes. On the train on the way home, I realized that the cost of transportation was more expensive (laugh). So after I got home, I thought about how I could do it myself. If I went there every week, I could use the money to buy shoes.
So I did some research on the Internet. Then I came across a YouTube video by Mr. Okuno, a shoeshine artist, and found a video titled "Shoeshine with only 100-yen tools. I thought, "Well, if it's 100 yen, at least I can stop halfway through." I bought a pair of shoes myself and tried it, and they shined just as brightly. I wasn't on Instagram at the time, but I was so excited that I took a lot of pictures!
That was around 2016, I think. I had to do this (shoeshine)! I had to spread the word! I was still an office worker at the time. I was still an office worker at the time, but I started out by polishing the shoes of everyone around me, my family, friends, and co-workers. Whenever I laid eyes on Kijima, he would polish my shoes.
I was so into shoeshine that I wanted to quit the company, and I was torn between changing jobs or going independent. I decided to start my own business as a housing concierge, which is like the housing version of Kenko no Madoguchi (Insurance Window). It is what is called a matching business, but since I am freelance, I can be located anywhere.
Soon after I started that job, a classmate from high school happened to offer me the use of his store, and I thought, "Oh, I can do shoeshine here," and my first store was set up. At the time, I had just started my own business and was naturally worried about my income. It takes about a year for a housing concierge to make sales, so I decided to start a shoeshine shop as a way to make some money.
The name of the store was "Kutsubigaku" from the beginning, but I had already decided on the name of the store when I was a businessman. The name "Kutsubigaku" was actually decided when I was an office worker.
That was in June 2021, about two years ago. It was the first time for a shoeshine specialty store in Gunma Prefecture, so I did not have high expectations. I didn't know anyone around me who liked shoes, and I thought I was the only one who liked shoes in Gunma, but there were people who brought John Lobb and Alden, so it was a tremendous culture shock for me in a good way. I wondered where in the world I had been hiding.... I was shocked when I opened the store, but soon after the store opened, many of my friends around me and people I was connected with on Instagram at the time came to the store, and I thought, "This is going to work. I thought, "I've already won," but after about two weeks, no one came anymore (laughs). I went from heaven to hell.
I thought I had to do something in this pinch, so I went to a nearby housing exhibition hall to do some sales work. I went there to sell shoeshine and also to provide sales consulting services, such as teaching how to win when competing to sell houses. The company I was working for at the time was the top SUUMO counter sales company in Gunma Prefecture, and I went there to utilize that experience. Then, two shoe polishers came to my door. I was in a tight spot and in a bind, so about two months after opening, I decided to offer a "24-hour shoe shine service" as a desperate measure. I thought, "There is no shoeshine shop that is open 24 hours a day," so I did it. That was the turning point. That was the turning point. We had a lot of new customers at that time.
We were busier at night, with appointments coming in at 3:00 or 4:00 am. I did a 24-hour shoe shine business the other day, but I don't do that anymore (laughs).
(laughs) I did it for a year at the first store I started with a friend. That store was very small, with no restrooms and no parking. I dreamed of moving there for a year, saved up money, and moved to my current store a year later in June of 2022.
Since we moved to our current location, we have become more spacious and have been able to sell a lot more things. Our original brushes, CURE ALL CREAM specially ordered by Mr. Toya, original cloths, etc. are now selling well online. Also, the number of customers has increased considerably. As for product sales, I want to spread the word on the Internet because local areas tend to be eaten up. About 20% of our customers come all the way to Maebashi from outside of the prefecture, and we are so grateful that we offer transportation to and from Maebashi Station if they contact us in advance.
What is your speciality of shoeshine?
I am particular about providing a shoeshine experience that makes people want to go back! I try to provide a shoeshine experience that makes people want to go back. If the experience is not enjoyable, people will not want to go back, so that is the most important thing for me.
I think that if people want to go back, not only do I have to have good technique, but I also have to have a pleasant conversation and a comfortable atmosphere, so I think about the total package. I am very grateful that so many people seem to want to see me.
I talk with customers about saunas, shoes, love, family, and many other things (laughs).
(Laughs.) In terms of technique, I put a lot of effort into removing stains. We know that most of our customers apply too much cream or wax, which often leaves a sticky residue on the leather, so we make it a point to remove it first. I use Brift H's Miracle, M,MOWBRAY's wax cleaner, and BOOT BLACK's two-face lotion as cleaners. I use CURE ALL CREAM and TWTG cream. As for the mirror polish, I aim to make it last longer. Specifically, it is a polish that compresses the mirror surface when polishing. It is a kind of polishing that makes it shine and then hardens the film. I try to do this because it prolongs the life of the mirror surface and improves its transparency.
You are also a sauna enthusiast.
I go to the sauna about five times a week. I started going in 2020, right before Corona.
It all started when my boss at my previous job got me hooked on sauna and told me that I should definitely go to a sauna, so I went by myself.
At that time, I was not very good at taking a water bath, so I could take the sauna, but I was shaking in the water bath, and even though it was in the middle of summer, I turned on the heater in the car on the way home (laughs). (Laughs.) At first I had a hard time getting in shape, but I really wanted to know what it felt like to be in shape, so I went for the third time and finally got in shape. At that time, I felt good and thought, "So this is what it feels like to be in tune with the body. So I gradually became addicted to it. As one might expect, after going about five times a week, there was a time when I fell into "tonnoiips," a condition in which I temporarily lost my tonnoi. But I've gotten over that. I used to go to the sauna with time on my mind, but I got over that by just facing myself and going to the sauna.
I think everyone has this image of me promoting sauna to my customers, but I'm actually not that much of a sauna pusher. Maybe (laughs).
(Laughs.) I'm always talking about saunas and saunas, so people seem to be curious about them. People ask me, "Is it that good? I like to tell people about something and I am good at it, so I go with customers who ask me to show them how to use the sauna. Many customers, especially those from out of town, consider sauna and shoeshine as a set, and I often accompany them to the sauna since they come to stay with me (laugh).
(Laughs) One thing that sauna and shoeshine have in common is that there are many misunderstandings in the world. When I say "I polish shoes," people imagine a shoeshiner sitting on the street with his back bent. Many people have the image of shoeshiners who wax their shoes from the start. I feel that people don't know that he does it stylishly at the counter and have a misconception of what he does.
In sauna, many people think it's like an old man's endurance contest. Many people think that it feels good to sweat in the sauna, but they don't know that the true essence of sauna is to take a bath in the open air from the water bath. I think the lack of correct recognition is a common point with shoeshine.
There is a lot of information available thanks to the Internet, but I wonder why shoeshine and saunas are not properly recognized. I am 35 years old now, so I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to correct this misconception. I told him that's not what I'm doing (laughs).
(Laughs.) About 90% of the people who try both are happy with the results, so I would like to communicate the appeal of both so that they can be conveyed even more.
Are there any customers who have left a lasting impression on you?
It was a Gucci shoe with the letter "G" stitched on the toe. At first the stitching was black, but after removing it with a cleaner, the orange stitching came out. I spent two whole days removing the wax, using wax cleaner and other tools, but I was so conflicted during the process (laugh). Little Kijima would whisper to me, "Is this enough? But on the other hand, he would say, "No, no! If I quit at this point, the customer will end up wearing the wax I've accumulated! I was so conflicted. Looking back, I realized that I could have easily removed the wax by other means without damaging the leather. Then I made a phone call to the customer and asked if I could have an extra charge because of the amount of wax, and he agreed, so I completely removed the wax.
But when I handed it over, the customer didn't really seem to notice that (laughs).
But that's okay. I think it's all about being able to feel that we really did something for the person and for the shoes, without getting caught up in the customer's reaction alone.
About the future of Kutsubigaku
For the time being, we have no plans to open other stores or increase the number of staff. For the time being, we are planning to increase the number of items that are usually hard to buy.
For example, we now carry trousers by MOVER GARMENTS and custom-made belts made of leather by Mr. Toya's Kansabiru.
It is something like a select store Kijima. I want to create a store that only carries sauna goods, shoe shine goods, and other items that Kijima thinks are good.
A customer once said to me, "You can't go wrong with what you recommend, can you? I want to sell only what I can recommend with confidence.
On the other hand, I am very happy that many people have come all the way from outside of the prefecture to visit us online, and that many of them want to meet us, but on the other hand, I feel sorry that I have to ask them to visit us because our location is not very accessible, so I want to go around the country. I would like to travel around the country.
There are many places in rural areas that do not have shoeshine shops or sell leather shoes, so I would like to go to those places myself. I would also like to go to areas where there are many online buyers and meet them. It is difficult to do so for a long period of time because I have a store, so I think it would be good if I could tour the regions once a month or so. It would be like a comedian's regional sales tour (laughs).
Mr. Hasegawa once said, "No matter how much I polish shoes, I can't make all the shoes in Japan shine. I think so too, and I want our customers to be able to polish their shoes themselves, rather than me polishing them. It may sound arrogant, but I want them to become independent.
So I would like to increase the number of people who can polish shoes by continuing these activities, such as holding personal shoe shine lessons and workshops, as well as training for companies last year.
However, we would like to increase the number of people who can polish shoes, knowing that there are people who buy time for money, people who don't like shoeshine, and people who come to see Kijima.
What do you recommend in Brift H's products?
Yes, my favorite is THE SPRAY for Water proof. I use this waterproofing spray myself, and it is also well received by our customers.
When I spray it in front of them and then drizzle water on it, the way it rolls around in a ball is like something you would see on a mail-order show (laughs).
The overwhelming sense of water repellency is very reassuring, and it is convenient because it can be used on fabric products other than leather shoes, and customers say that the water repellency lasts for a long time.
Am I the only one who thinks it is also good for sauna hats?
Another good thing about this spray is that it does not lose its gloss if the shoes are cream-finished!
It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Kijima is the most popular shoe polisher in the world today. I am convinced that his dynamism and humor have touched the hearts of many people. We hope you will experience the charm of Mr. Kishima, who will participate in the shoeshine competition to be resumed this year, in person!