In Japan, Searching for Blue Indigo (Ai-zome)

My quest for Japanese indigo fabrics and clothing took us to remote villages and high-end designer boutiques. I searched old kimono stacked in department store corners and flea market stalls. In the old Geisha district of Gion, two vintage textile shops offer 100+ year-old pieces in varying condition. I traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to the remote thatched roof village of Miyama with blue on my mind. We lingered at the Amuse Museum exhibition of boro cloth in awe of indigo-dyed hemp and cotton patchwork born of poverty.

Indigo is my passion. It’s why I wanted to go to Japan. Oh, and the food. Oh, yes, and the cherry blossoms. Temples. Zen. Gardens. Oh, my.

This indigo vintage undergarment from Gallery Kei, perfect as a tunic

My sister was more interested in Kabuki and Noh theatre, so we negotiated time dedicated to our interests. We attended performances of both and met with a foremost expert on Noh, a US ex-pat living and teaching in Japan for 40 years. We managed to walk blocks that became miles, traveled by bus, train and taxi, all in search of blue, art and food.

We saw the famed kabuki actor (far right) at Kyoto’s Minimiza Theatre

Finding indigo in Japan is not easy. Sometimes we couldn’t locate the address. Sometimes we got lost despite Google maps. Sometimes I would stand on a street corner and call out, Does anyone speak English? to help us get our bearings. (Always, a kind, helpful person came to our aid, even guiding us to where we needed to go!) Sometimes the source was in such a remote area that we couldn’t get there. Tokyo is a vast megalopolis, on a scale beyond my ken. Kyoto, described as smaller, hardly pales in comparison.

The art of dyeing with indigo today is uncommon, as it is in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is necessary to travel twelve hours from Oaxaca City to meet the maker. In Japan, one must also ferret out the dye masters and makers who turn indigo-dyed cloth into clothing. The practice is almost extinct, just like Mexico. And, as with all things made-by-hand, quality comes with a price, when you can find it.

I also noticed construction similarities between traditional Oaxaca huipiles and Japanese kimonos. Both are simple assemblages of cloth squares and rectangles, with hand-stitchedSi seam sewing and no tailoring (ie. no darts). The long, drooping kimono sleeves are merely rectangles attached to the main robe. Hand-stitching for seams and embellishment a standard practice.

Meiji period shibori kimono, vintage and pristine, 100 years old

Few pieces, I discovered, are hand-loomed now. Indigo-dyed ready-to-wear can be designed in Japan and made in India to keep prices in check. I found one amazing Meiji period kimono in perfect condition. Price tag, $1,800 USD. Pass. I’m looking for wearable art and not creating a museum-level collection.

At Chingireya Vintage Textiles, this outstanding kimono, $1,800 USD

What I also discovered is that a focused quest for indigo takes time. Even more than a three-week introductory visit such as the one I just completed. Perhaps another trip is needed to go deeper and wider. Perhaps.

I’m grateful to Elli Sawada, a Kyoto-based indigo dye student originally from San Diego, who referred me to several sources for investigation. Elli is studying with famed master-dyer Fukumi Shimura. Elli and her brother participated in our Oaxaca One-Day Natural Dye and Weaving Study Tour last month.

Vintage indigo cotton cloth, once used to wrap gifts, repurposed as large scarf

I also want to thank Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Tours, Japan Travel Expert, who generously shared her list of Kyoto textile shopping resources with me. I hunted down those most relevant to my interests.

Resist-dyed detail of large cloth, patterns perfectly matched

My friend Madelyn wrote, I hope you found yourself a wonderful indigo garment or textile. Plural, I replied. I filled a duffle bag with blue. Ancient blue. New blue. Traditional blue. Deep, dark, almost black, blue. Kimono with wide, boxy sleeves. Cozy, contemporary long-sleeved jacket with roll-up cuffs. Vintage farmer’s coat with sashiko stitching. All perfect with blue jeans or black skirt. I have satisfied my lust for blue.

Sashiko stitching detail, indigo farmer’s jacket, all hand-sewn,

Sidebar: Barbara and I were flaneuring down the main street of Tokyo’s Aoyama district (which easily overshadows Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive) after visiting the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I noticed a pop-up shop and stepped in to find Yu Design Office featuring hand-crafted indigo clothing.

Cropped tunic, hand-woven by Yu Design Office, similar to the Oaxaca blusa

Yu Design Office was founded by artisan Hiromi Yamada and her architect son Yuji Yamada. They use natural indigo dye from Hanyu City, Saitama, employing a traditional kimono-making technique called itajime from Mizuho City, Tokyo, and fine cloth from Hachioji, Tokyo. Combining indigo, persimmon juice and pitch black, the wool-silk scarf they make takes on a deep greenish blue hue. The cloth is folded and stacked and pressed between wooden boards to give it texture.

Yuji Yamada showing us ai-zome from Yu Design Office

Recommendations for hunting down Japan Blue:

Konjaku Nishimura Old Textile Arts, Gion, Kyoto, Nawate Street, Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto. Email: info@konjaku.com

Indigo ikat remnant, now a scarf for Barbara, at Konjaku Nishimura Textiles

Chingireya Vintage Textiles, Gion, Kyoto, Nawate Street, Higashiyama-Ku.

Textiles Yoshioka, exquisite, all natural dyes, mostly scarves, shawls, accessories, Gion, Kyoto.

Aizenkobo, indigo workshop and gallery, Kyoto. Third generation workshop, producing traditional garments, scarves, yardage. People love it. I was underwhelmed.

Little Indigo Museum, Miyama, Kyoto Prefecture, is operated by Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo. In picturesque town of thatched-roof houses, this is a full-day trip. Small souvenir indigo samples and scarves are for sale. shindigo@cans.zaq.ne.jp

Indigo dye vats at The Little Indigo Museum, Miyama

Gallery Kei features vintage textiles and is operated by Kei Kawasaki on the famous Teramachi Street (671-1 Kuoinmae-cho Teramachi Ebisugawa-agaru), just south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. At our visit, she had vintage boro from Northern Japan, garments and cloth fragments of hand-woven natural materials (hemp, linen, cotton, silk) and dyes. Write to confirm they are open. gallerykei@live.jp

With Kei Kawasaki at Gallery Kei. Shawl was once mosquito netting. Hemp and indigo.

Gran-Pie, also on Teramachi Street between Ebisugawa-dori and Nijo-dori, is a contemporary clothing store with garments designed in Japan, dyed and made in India.

I can’t publish this post without mentioning NUNOworks Fabrics in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. On our last afternoon in Japan, I went bonkers over the bolts of fabrics, and sewn-on-the-premises clothing. Delicious scarves. Beautiful garments. Outstanding design. Reasonable (by Japan standards) prices. Though few pieces are naturally dyed.

Department stores like Isetan (Kyoto Station), Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Matsuya Ginza feature contemporary Japanese designer boutiques, including Issey Miyake, Comme de Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and others. Some use indigo and other natural dyes, and are priced in the stratosphere.

Exquisite creativity is boro, from northernmost Japan

Where to Stay in Tokyo: the b roppongi hotel. Loved our stay here. Convenient to metro, restaurants, fair price, excellent service.

Where to Stay in Kyoto: we loved the YADO Hotel in Arashiyama. Book room #308. Recommend also staying in Gion area for more central experience.

17 responses to “In Japan, Searching for Blue Indigo (Ai-zome)

  1. Hi Norma! Sounds like you enjoyed a lot in Japan!! I don’t even know all of them you saw. It is impressive. I’d like to hear more from you in parson sometimes, and I will send you email about my plan to visit in Oaxaca later! xx

  2. Thank you for sharing Norma. I dont know if I will ever make it to Japan but I loved sharing it vicariously through your explorations. So much blue and so lovely.

  3. I’m planning a Tokyo/Kyoto trip in the next several months. Did you use the tour guide you mentioned, Nancy Craft?

    Also, are you planning any one-day Oaxaca tours next winter? My husband and I will be there then.

    • Hi Betty. Nancy is a friend. I highly recommend her. We schedule one-day textile tours in Oaxaca based on traveler requests. Let us know your dates and we will do our best to accommodate. Thanks, Norma

  4. Gorgeous! And lots o’ great info!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your incredible trip with us! Japan has long been on my bucket list! I thoroughly enjoyed my taste of Japan through your eyes!

  6. What an exciting adventure! Your photos are beautiful as always. Doubt I’d ever go there but it’s nice to have a peak through your eyes. Hope I get to see some of your purchases sometime. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi, Chris. It’s a long way to go for BLUE. Oaxaca is so much closer. But, it’s fun to explore the world. A magnificent offering of life on this amazing planet. Makes me think about how important conservation is!

  7. Excellent article! I love indigo too!

  8. Looks like a very memorable trip. Thanks for sharing all your experiences.

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