The Sorachi Plain is an idyllic spot halfway between Asahikawa and Sapporo on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It’s here, surrounded by fields and trees, that Somès -- Japan’s only leather saddle maker -- is to be found. On a clear autumn day, the setup looks almost too perfect to be real: horses frolicking in a lush green paddock next to a cluster of low-slung buildings with pitched roofs.
“We wanted it to look like a training yard in Newmarket,” says company Chairman Junichi Someya. Except instead of the old buildings you’d find in the U.K.’s horse-racing capital, these are in the small rural city of Sunagawa (population 17,185) and were designed by Hokkaido architect Tatsuhiko Kuramoto. These sunny structures house Somès’ head office, factory and a shop that sells equine paraphernalia and leather goods. A carriage sits out front; inside there are horse sculptures and paintings on every surface.
Although the history of horses in the area harks back to the development of Hokkaido by the Japanese in the late 19th century, Somès is a relatively youthful business. It started in 1964 when the area’s coal industry was dying and the local government was looking to create jobs to stem the exodus of people leaving the area. The craftsmen who had been making harnesses for years were already there and so Somès -- then known as Orient Leather -- was established. It was the year of the Tokyo Olympics, when the yen was sky-high and anything seemed possible.
Junichi’s father, Masashi, took over the company in 1976. “He didn’t have any background in horses apart from a stint in the military,” says Junichi. But Masashi was business-minded enough to recognize potential when he saw it. The company was renamed Somès -- a mix of the family name, Someya, and the French word sommet (summit) -- in 1985 and the business started moving more upmarket.
“[Our father] realized that designs had changed and we weren’t keeping up,” says Noboru Someya, Junichi’s brother and the company’s president (his nephew, Naohiro, is senior managing director). Masashi spoke to people in the racing world and took advice about how to improve the company’s products. The result is that Somès is now one of only a handful of makers in the world to produce saddles for both riding and racing, which means it is called upon by everyone from the Japanese Imperial household to European racing jockeys. The team is currently working on an order from the Imperial Palace to supply coach bridles and harnesses for the new emperor, who will take over on May 1. They also have a strong lineup of handmade leather goods, which are designed in-house and sold in shops stretching from upmarket Ginza in Tokyo to Chitose Airport.
Japan’s riding community is small but dedicated, with about 300 riding clubs and horse training centers managed by the Japan Racing Association, which also oversees the country’s racecourses and betting industry. Hokkaido is at the center of this world: The town of Hidaka supplies 80% of racehorses in Japan. Racing is big business here so that’s what most of the 700 saddles Somès makes every year are geared toward; just one-third are English saddles for normal riding and jumping. Somès supplies to names such as Japan-based Italian jockey Mirco Demuro and Japanese legend Yutaka Take, who has 4,000 career wins to his name.
“English-style riding is not a part of the culture like it is in the U.K.,” says Junichi. “We need to build up the scene here. We are not competing at the top level in horse riding and people have to go to Germany or the U.K. to train.” Somès sponsors its own cup, and the family is hopeful that there will be a bounce from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (Japan hasn’t won an equestrian Olympic medal since Takeichi Nishi won gold in Los Angeles in 1932). “If a Japanese rider finishes high up, the media will pay attention and there will be a boom,” says Junichi.
The company’s products are put together using a mix of hand and machine sewing by about 60 people in the factory, plus 40-odd household workers dotted around nearby Sunagawa. Much of the leather for bridles and saddles is sourced from Germany, the U.K. and France, while smaller goods are crafted using a mix of European and Japanese leather.
It’s clear that Junichi knows his way around a skin and he can identify its provenance at a glance. “Hand-sewing is standard in saddle making, so the difference comes in the quality and durability of the leather,” he says. Ten years ago everything was cut by hand on machines, with blades fashioned using the same method as Japanese swords. But Somès has now invested in a state-of-the-art cutting machine, which means the process of designing, adjusting and cutting can be done by computer.
There is still plenty of cutting and sewing done by hand though, some of it by factory manager Toru Onodera, who has been with Somès for 34 years. It takes him five days to make a classic briefcase lined with Somès’ own fabric. There are also fashions in saddles, so the designs are tweaked to reflect those; the factory even makes a saddle for beginners that makes it much harder to fall off a horse. Customers can also send in old products to be repaired.
These days most business is domestic, with some sales to Asia and Europe, but the company is looking to export more. Growth, however, is limited by capacity: “We always have to think about how much we can realistically produce at the quality we want,” says Noboru. “There’s a lot of handwork in our products and that adds value, but it takes time to train the craftsmen. We’ve been recruiting people straight out of school and we have a very young team, so I feel there’s a lot of potential.”
This optimism is echoed throughout the team. “We’re always hoping that Japan will breed a horse that can win top competitions,” says Junichi. “And when it does we’ll be ready with a saddle."
This report first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit monocle.com.