Gear Review: ZemGear Terra Ninja Split Toes

by Editor on July 23, 2012

Ariele M. Huff   At 62, I run, play, and live barefoot and in minimal shoes.  Aside from running and walking, I play some outdoor sports like basketball, do yoga daily, and some martial arts. Those activities are done either barefoot, in Vibram Classic Frescas, or in minimal tennis shoes. I’ve never owned split toes but like their look and have wanted to try them.  I plan to use them for outdoor and some indoor training and games.

The Zem Terra Ninjas immediately appealed to me because of their Jika-tabi appearance. (“Tabi boots” are the Japanese transition from split-toe indoor tabi socks to outdoor split toes—though they extend up the leg, unlike the Zem shoe.) I immediately thought of them as appropriate for activities that require a bit more protection—“rugged environments” as their box proclaims. 


The Zems have a lot more tread than anything else I use so they’re good for gravelly walking situations and flatter rock climbing. I absolutely can see myself using them in snow or icy conditions.

For me, the thicker soles make them less good for barefoot style running than my other choices—a bit rigid in the arch for tiptoeing. However, the snug fit is something to count on in quick movements like martial arts or games. The reflective striping across the upper adds extra protection for things like kick boxing and games where balls, bats, and other people’s feet can inflict strikes.

My really high arches make full top-of-foot coverage less than my favorite, but the Zems’ uppers are flexible enough to accommodate even my feet. I won’t wear them in hot weather where any swelling would make them tighter.

One of the things I especially like about the Terra Ninjas is the heel loop grip. It’s got the kind of nylon sturdiness that promises to last as long as the shoes. (Broken heel grips are one of my pet peeves.)

The split toe aspect is comfortable and seems a nice option for people who don’t do well with a full glove, five-finger minimalist shoe.


Whole sizes are used for the fit of these Zems. As a more slipper-like shoe, this seems adequate.  There are no “slippage” points in any of the parts of my pair, partly due to the nature of the stretch fabric comprising the whole shoe except for the sole. The split toe area is a bit softer and thicker than the vamp and sides—a nice choice for comfort that eliminates any of the kind of rubbing that flip-flop separators are famous for causing.


When the Zem Ninjas arrived, my martial artist husband clapped his hands in glee. They truly look at home with our Asian furnishings and dojo lifestyle. Since judogis and karategis (judo and karate uniforms) are now the height of fashion, so too are the Ninja split toe. I have already worn them for everyday use—stores, errands, etc.—and they receive no more notice than any other shoe I’d wear. The black and silver are elegant choices that “go with” any colors or kinds of sporty clothes. The small accents of turquoise on the heels, soles, and sole sides are tastefully discreet.

Road Test

If I wasn’t already a devoted fan of running barefoot or in Vibrams, I might well have adopted the Zem Terra Ninjas for that purpose. I tried them for three different runs on grass, concrete, and gravel. While they are certainly far better than standard running shoes with heavy built-up soles, I do not find that they are not as good as running fully barefoot, or in barefoot shoes with a more flexible sole. People who don’t tolerate running entirely shoeless or in five-finger shoe gloves may really like the compromise of these soft yet protective split toes.

The Zems have several uses for me. They are great for some martial arts training, including kicking a heavy bag. Do NOT kick a heavy bag in lighter shoes or bare feet. (Yes, I’ve tried it. Ouch.) I also especially like them for added traction on gravel or during outdoor team sports on grass. Dancing is another place where I’ll use these shoes since I’ll be sharing a floor and prefer something between me and the occasional misstep to my toes or arch. Even for quotidian activities like shopping at Costco, the Zems are an excellent choice.

With the Terra Ninjas, my feet do get some hot spots after extended wear or on hot days. Unlike the Vibram Five Fingers Fresca, I find the Zems are great for specific uses, but less practical for wearing for extended periods. That’s the way I feel about most shoes. In fact, I seldom wear “most shoes,” so the Zems have it “all over” most shoes.


  • Soft toe pockets
  • Strong
  • Classic look while not attention grabbing
  • Protective


  • A bit tight over the arch
  • Somewhat stiffer soles than some minimalist shoes—a trade-off for more protection

Final Impressions

The Terra Ninja split toe Zems are a great addition to a limited shoe closet. They bridge the gap between minimal and heavier shoes, especially for those of us who do multiple sports and who, by in large, eschew the normal shoe! (And, they do look perfect with a gi or kimono.)

~Ariele M. Huff

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ariele M. Huff August 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I’ve had the Zemgears for a few more weeks, and I’m using them a lot! They are so easy to put on and have more flexibility than I’d initially thought. I’m running in them and they are a great choice for my most constant place that needs some protection: the dog park where there’s gravel on the paths, pine cones in the grass, and dog poo remnants.
Aside from that, they have become my go-to shoe for shopping. Unlike the toe gloves, these don’t attract undue attention.
Plus, I’ve come to really enjoy the reflective stripes in the dark.
Yes, the Zems have really grown on me, and that’s saying something–since I prefer being sans shoe. These are definitely the shoe I’m wearing most now.

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