Vibram’s Furoshiki shoes

Wearing Vibram's Furoshiki shoes is like wrapping a kimono or a Kanjivaram silk sari around your feet

The context

Are shoes the new condoms? Most of us may take a benign view of shoes. We think of them as necessary devices that protect and prevent our feet from the rigours of the rough pavement—somewhat like what condoms do to certain more delicate areas. Body workers take a different stance. They view shoes with the same suspicion and scorn that a narcotics agent might view crack cocaine. I am exaggerating, but only slightly.

Bodywork is a relatively new but sprawling field that encompasses therapeutic massage, Rolfing, Alexander techniques, Feldenkrais methods, biodynamic crano-sacral therapy and other evolving techniques. If you don’t know what these are, I suggest that you look them up. I will have to beg off explaining them because each one demands not just 800 words of deathless prose but an entire book. The point here is that body workers hate shoes. They call it all kinds of derisive names: a bandage for the feet, or worse, a condom—ergo, the movement towards barefoot walking.

The fantasy

The fantasy must have begun with one of the fathers of the study of fantasy. I speak here of Carl Jung, who said, “When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?"

Jung was, interestingly enough, talking about India with respect to this famous quote. And a larger section of his passage is worth reproducing here, not only because it is beautifully stated but also because it is relevant to barefoot shoes:

Said Jung: “It is quite possible that India is the real world, and that the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions… Life in India has not yet withdrawn into the capsule of the head… It is still the whole body that lives. No wonder the European feels dreamlike: the complete life of India is something of which he merely dreams. When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?"

The reality

Barefoot shoes may seem like an oxymoron to most Indians, used as we are to walking around barefoot. But not for those of us who have stepped on dog poop, cow dung, rotting mangoes or any of those organic materials that litter our streets and pavements. Jung may speak poetically of not forgetting the Earth, but he didn’t realize that India’s earth was littered with the dredges of bovine, canine and human innards. That said, gait is a beautiful thing and one that is best seen amongst people who walk barefoot. Look at an Indian villager walk with a basket on her head and you will see the single thing that differentiates our species from our closest primate ancestors: apes. After all, we are called Homo erectus for a reason, and no, this has nothing to do with the contraceptive device that I mentioned earlier.

The product

A friend bought me my first pair of Vibram Five-Finger shoes years ago. They fit like gloves over my feet. They look, shall we say, different. Teenage girls clad in Manolo Blahniks called them “ugly". They invited attention when I walked the streets of India. People stared at them. But as a nearly naked covering of feet, they worked and continue to work brilliantly. I wear them all the time.

Vibram’s Furoshiki shoes are a more sophisticated version of these five-finger shoes. Mine are in a colour called “blue flower", which Indians call “peacock blue". As the name implies, they take their design cues from Japanese culture, which, at the moment, seems to be ruling the design world. In this case, the Furoshiki brand is a riff on the beautiful designs adorning kimonos, silk paintings and screens. Wearing these Furoshiki shoes is like wrapping a kimono or a Kanjivaram silk sari around your feet. The effect is both luxurious and oddly disconcerting.

The best part of these shoes is the fact that they fold like a handkerchief. You fold them in half, stuff them into a beautiful pouch, toss them into your handbag as a spare pair of no-weight shoes for your next trip to the Sahara, Santiago or—appropriately in this case—a Japanese rock garden.

The shoes look simple—like ballet slippers with long wings. You pull these wings and wrap it around the top of your feet and Velcro them to the back of your ankles. This begs the question: why not just use ballet slippers for barefoot walking? The trick lies in the bottom of the shoes, which are sturdy, with a better grip and more durability than ballet slippers. In fact, the whole point of these shoes is to use them over rugged rocky terrain but step as lightly on the earth as a ballet dancer.

The details

Vibram Furoshiki shoes are available online and cost around $100, with significant discounts during sales; some cost $66.

The bottom line

Barefoot walking (or running) is now a worldwide movement that celebrates the gait. It views shoes as villains, no different from other modern-day malaises like screen time and smoking.

Barefoot shoes encourage a different way of walking and running. They reduce “heel striking", which is what happens in cushioned shoes, thus causing knee pain.

Furoshiki shoes aren’t necessarily for running. But as a substitute for sandals, they work beautifully. I use them to (barefoot) walk all over Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru.

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