Tag Archives: Japan

Japan Textile Study Tour: November 2020

Japan Textile Study Tour, November 6 – 19, 2020, 12 nights, 13 days, start in Kyoto and end in Tokyo — 7 spaces open

We take you on a textile adventure of a lifetime to the land of the Rising Sun. Japanese style elevates textiles to a fine art form. We go deep into the culture of hand-weaving and indigo dyeing, high fashion and simple garment construction, venturing into old mercantile shops, contemporary design studios and temple markets to discover how cloth defines a people. Along the way, we discover historical sites, eat traditional foods that have ceremonial significance, visit museums and immerse ourselves into a modern Japan that is underpinned with ancient tradition.

Geisha life on the streets of Gion, Kyoto

Japan is an amalgam of ancient craft wisdom that is translated into art as a metaphor for life – from pottery to textiles to knife-making to humble and refined cuisine to garden landscape. We visit craftsmen who were provisioners to emperors. Throughout our travels, we touch on the philosophy that girds the culture – aesthetic sensibility, wabi-sabi (perfection in imperfection), and iki (simplicity, originality, sophistication, spontaneity, refinement).

Vintage indigo stamped cloth, Kyoto antique textile shop
Bolts of beautiful cloth, Nuno Works, Tokyo

You will travel with Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC director, writer, producer and photographer. Our co-leader is Nathan Somers, textile artist, collector, indigo dyer and historian. You will visit many sites Norma and Nathan know from personal and professional experience.

Vintage indigo textile samples

This is a hands-on, slow-savor, deep cultural immersion travel experience for up to 12 active textile lovers. Three people have already registered. There are 9 spaces open.

Handmade, hand-hammered kitchen knives, Tsukiji market

Our itinerary concentrates on the textile culture of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, and Tokyo, once known as Edo, where day-glow neon and phantasmagorical skyscrapers cast a futuristic glow over the old Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Vintage Boro patchwork textiles using sashiko stitching

In Kyoto and Tokyo, we will navigate the city and reach our local destinations using outstanding public transportation – faster and more reliable than private services. Bus and Metro service is punctual, frequent, safe and reliable. This gives us an opportunity to travel with the locals and familiarize ourselves with neighborhoods and the ease of travel in Japan.

Indigo dye vats where the plant ferments

Who goes on the Textile Study Tour to Japan? Artists, makers, educators, life-long learners, writers, textile lovers, historians, photographers and those wanting to learn more about Japan, weaving and natural dyeing there.   

Preliminary Itinerary

F-11/6:   Depart your home city and travel to Kyoto, Japan           

Sa-11/7:    Arrive Kyoto in late afternoon. If you are up to it, join us in the hotel lobby to meet up for an optional group dinner (cost is OYO)

Su-11/8:    Meet at 1 PM for a Welcome Lunch, stroll the Imperial Palace, visit a traditional miso shop and confectionary maker (B, L)

In Gion, Kyoto, naturally dyed silk, linen and cotton — persimmon and cochineal
Satoshi holding court at his Tokyo izakaya

M-11/9:     After breakfast, we will set out to explore the Nishiki Market, meandering the famed fish and food stalls, have lunch, then stroll Teramachi Street where we will visit vintage textile galleries, then transition to the Geisha neighborhood of Gion for more! (B, L) Dinner OYO

Street food at a temple market, Kyoto
Time and space for meditative moments

Tu-11/10:   Shibori Workshop and Shibori Museum. Hands-on session to make your own shibori-designed textile with indigo dye. (B, L)

W-11/11:  Our focus today is on the old weaving center of Kyoto with a visit to Nishijin Textile Center and several shops that dye and make indigo garments.  Afternoon OYO (B, L)

Arashiyama river scene, Kyoto
In the Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Th-11/12:  It’s important to have choices! Take the day to create your own itinerary or come with us to visit Arashiyama where we will stroll the famed Bamboo Forest. You have the option to take a rickshaw ride and meander sacred temples in this more rural Kyoto neighborhood, with optional and traditional keiseki multi-course lunch  (B)

Norma’s boro and sashiko project — in progress

 F-11/13:  Travel to Kawaguchi Lake, overnight at resort hotel with spa (B, D)

Sa-11/14:  Morning natural dye demonstration with renowned indigo dyer in the mountains of  Yamanashi. We will take a tour of her studio, where she will demonstrate indigo dyeing methods, and present a private showing and sale of her work. Travel to Tokyo in late afternoon. (B, L)

Geisha in training at the Bamboo Forest

 Sa-11/14:   We love markets and the most famed in Japan is Tokyo’s Tsukiji  Market where we will to early in the morning to take in splendid company of super-fresh oysters the size of fists, sushi and sashimi bites, sake sips, and crispy tempura rolls. Then we are off to Nippori Fabric Town to shop for yardage, with a stop at Kata-Kata or Gallery Kawano (B, L)

Buddhist monk stamps a Goshuin with a calligraphy message
Silk, hemp, linen and cotton shawls with natural dyes

 Su-11/15:   Attend two major Temple Markets — Takahata Market and Oedo International Forum — where you will find old kimono, pieces of vintage cloth including silks, natural dyes and hand-weaving, vintage collectibles such as ceramics, carved wood, figurines, jewelry, art and much more. (B)

Temple altar with prayers and incense

 M-11/16:    We set you loose in Ginza — high fashion center of Japan — for Department Store Shopping and to explore the Basement Food Courts. Department stores feature unparalleled designer boutiques and food treasures. If you prefer, you might like to go to Nuno Works in Roppongi and peek into the upmarket world of Akasaka boutiques. (B)

Bolt of vintage indigo-dyed cotton cloth, once intended to become a kimono

 Tu-11/17:       We discovered Yu Office Design during a no-particular-destination afternoon. They are a new, innovative design studio working in hand-woven cotton, silk and hemp with indigo dyes. We will visit their studio or invite them to our hotel for a show and sale.  (B, L)

 W-11/18:    After breakfast, set out on your own to chart your own course. You might like to visit the Imperial Palace, the National Museum or retrace steps to go back for a treasure that passed you by. We will meet again for our grand finale dinner to say our goodbyes. Dinner (B, D)

Th-11/19    Tour ends and participants depart (B)

*Travel Note: You can arrive to Osaka Kansai International Airport which is 40 minutes from Kyoto and depart from Tokyo Narita Airport.  You might also find more favorable airfares flying to/from Tokyo. Check www.skyscanner.com for schedules and airfares. If you fly to Tokyo, you will take the Shinkansen bullet train (2 hours, 15 minutes) to Kyoto to meet up with the group on November 6. Rail tickets can be purchased in advance online. We will send more detailed information to the group after our travel cohort is formed. You can choose to arrive earlier or stay later at your own expense.

Yep, I ate the whole thing — but not in one gulp!

Your Guides are Norma Schafer and Nathan Somers

Norma Schafer is director of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, writer, blogger, photographer and food aficionado. Her love of indigo has taken her to Mexico, India and Japan to explore the culture of weaving and natural dyes. On this return visit to Japan, she takes you to her favorite textile haunts to meet makers and collectors.

Vintage peasant coat, indigo with sashiko stitching, sourced in Kyoto

Nathan Somers is an educator, textile artist and vintage Japanese fabric collector who lives in Durham, NC. Nathan teaches indigo resist throughout the southeast United States, and making guest presentations at spinning an weavers’ guilds. His primary area of study is Japanese textile traditions.

Nathan Somers with a textile from his collection, found at a temple market

In 2016, Nathan was the subject of a Japanese television show that came to Durham to film his collection. The producers then tansported him to the Island of Amami Oshima, Japan, to study with an indigo dyer. 

How did it all begin for Nathan?

In 2007, Nathan found himself rummaging through a box of Japanese textile scraps at a Portland, Oregon, antique sale. The fabric, with its hand spun threads, uneven selvedges, complex patterns, and deep indigo inspired him, but at the time he didn’t understand the techniques that had been used to make the textiles.

Hand-spun, hand-woven Japanese cloth, textural beauty

Nathan began to study all he could about how these fabrics were produced and what their designs were meant to convey. Nathan’s textile collection comes from Japan’s temple and shrine markets and through contacts with dealers. The collection spans the late Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. He focuses on Tsutsugami (freehand paste resist), Katazome (stencil paste resist), Sashiko (mending or reinforcing stitch), Zanshi (waste thread fabrics) and Boro, (repeatedly mended and patched textiles). These textiles heavily inspired Nathan’s own work, which focuses on the Katazome stencil paste resist technique.

Fresh grilled octopus — skewered for eating while strolling

            In the years since first finding that box of fabric scraps, Nathan has researched traditional Japanese fabrics to best understand their production and design. He has traveled to China and Japan to deepen his knowledge about dyeing and weaving. Nathan experiments extensively, grows cotton in his home garden that he weaves and dyes, and also works with foraged fibers like Kudzu, wisteria and hemp – all essential parts of fabric production in Old Japan. 

            Nathan is an outstanding resource to guide us on this textile adventure, explaining dyeing, weaving and design processes as we travel, helping us to identify cloth origins, quality and value.

What is included?

  • A total of 12 nights accommodation
  • 12  breakfasts, 6 lunches and 2 dinners as outlined in the itinerary
  • Hands-on indigo dye workshop
  • Textile fabric shopping – vintage and new
  • Natural dye, weaving and stitching demonstrations
  • Market and gallery tours that encompass textiles, food, culture
  • Visits to cultural and historic sites
  • Shinkansen Bullet Train tickets or luxury van transportation from Kyoto to Tokyo
  • Intra-city metro and bus tickets
  • Entry fees to museums and galleries as part of the itinerary
  • Comprehensive pre-trip planning guide
  • Knowledgeable tour leaders – Norma and Nathan
Shark skin wasabi grater, of course

What Nathan says:

            I am so excited to have this opportunity to co-lead this tour.  Japan is an amazing country and regardless of where you travel you have a strong connection to the past and to the Japanese concepts of mottainai (make the best of what you have) and wabi sabi (beauty through imperfection). I am excited to share with others my love and appreciation of Japan and its traditional textiles. The beauty and simplicity of the fabric is plain to see, but by learning about the complex way in which they are made offers a greater appreciation for the intricacies and aesthetics of this textile tradition.

You can see Nathan’s work on Instagram: @nsomersnc  and on his website: www.nathansomerstextiles.com

What is NOT included:

  • Round-trip international airfare from your home country to Japan
  • Gratuities, taxes
  • Travel insurance
  • Meals not included in the itinerary
  • Local transport you may take OYO, such as taxis
  • Personal supplies and incidentals
  • Alcoholic beverages at group meals
  • Airport transfers (transport from airport to/from hotels)

Check Skyscanner.com for best schedules and fares.

We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Cost • $5,895 per person double room with private bath (sleeps 2) in top-rated deluxe accommodations • add $985 for a single supplement

Hand-woven ikat with indigo dye

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $750 non-refundable deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in four equal payments – on December 22, 2019; March 22, May 22, August 22, 2020.  We accept payment using online e-commerce only.  If for any reason, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC cancels the tour, a full-refund will be made.

We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. If you cancel on or before August 22, 2020, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date (less the $750 non-refundable deposit). After August 22, 2020, there are no refunds.

If you register after December 22, 2019, you will owe $750 plus 1/4 of the balance due. If you register after March 22, you will owe the non-refundable $750 fee plus 1/2 of the balance due. If you register after May 22, you will owe the non-refundable $750 plus ¾ of the balance due. If you register after August 22, you will owe 100% of the balance due (if there are openings).

Old Japan is still very much present and alive

How to Register: Send an email to norma.schafer@icloud.com

Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room (single supplement). We will send you an e-commerce invoice for $750 by email that is due on receipt.

Who Should Attend: Artists, makers, educators, life-long learners, writers, photographers, textile lovers, historians and those wanting to learn more about Japanese art, textiles, culture and history.   If you love First World Exotic Travel and the inspiration of the best of Asia influences, this trip is for you.

Selection of sake at a Tsukiji market tasting stand

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health insurance that includes $50,000+ of emergency medical evacuation insurance. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure.

In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen!

Chef’s choice — this array of dinner selection is not unusual

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept online e-commerce payments only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Fitness Level – Moderate Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy:  Tour participants must be able to walk two miles, board buses and trains, carry their own luggage unaided, and navigate uneven surfaces including stairs. We may walk more on some days. We recommend you bring a walking stick if you need something to lean on! If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.

On a rickshaw ride through the Bamboo Forest

Japan Regrets Sale: Sake (or Mezcal) Cups

While these are sake cups, they can also be used for mezcal or any sipping liquor or cordial. That’s what I had in mind (mezcal) when I bought them.

This first group includes three hand-wrought pewter sake cups bought in Kyoto, Japan from Seikado Studio, the venerable workshop making these things since the Imperial Edo Period (1838). The studio is located on Teramachi street, close to the original Imperial Palace.

It was their hand-made-ness that captivated me. Each piece is original and hand-hammered, true to the Japanese wabi-sabi life. There are slight differences between the matched pair. The upright cup is a one-off. Each comes in its own handmade box personally calligraphied by the maker.

Two cups on left: 1-5/8″ high x 2-2/16″ diameter
Cup on the right measures 2″ high x 2-1/2″ diameter.

The two on the left are sold as a pair for $265 plus $8 mailing. The one piece on the right is $145 plus $8 mailing. I will ship USPS Priority Mail.

Send me an email if you want to purchase along with your mailing address. I will send you an invoice.

The two cups below are hand-blown studio glass that I bought in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Perfect for mezcal or sake, or any sipping liquor or cordial.

The blue measures 1-3/4″ high x 2-3/4″ diameter.
The gold leaf glass on the right measures 1-7/8″ high x 2-1/4″ diameter.
The pair is $145 plus $8 USPS Priority Mailing

Wouldn’t any of these also make a terrific wedding or housewarming gift?

Send me an email if you want to purchase along with your mailing address. I’ll send you an invoice by email to pay with a credit card. Thank you.

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.

Train to Miyama, Indigo and Thatched Roofs

It was a pilgrimage to the Little Indigo Museum in Miyama Chokita, Nantan, Kyoto Prefecture. After two trains and a bus, after two hours of travel, we arrived in the thatched roof village that is a national historic site.

Scenic does not sufficiently describe what it is like to be in Miyama
Old boro jacket is part of the museum collection

Hiroyuki Shindo has been living here with his wife and family for 40 years. Born in Tokyo, art schooled in Kyoto, he wanted a more pastoral life to create an indigo workshop that would fulfill his passion for blue.

Mr. Shindo shows us his indigo shibori cotton scarf
Indigo dye vats heated to keep a consistent 90 degrees

It is hard to get good water in the city, he tells me. The pH of water is everything for creating the finest indigo dye. It is pure here, mountain water, and the color he gets equals the finest in Japan.

Traditional thatched roof farm house, once prevalent throughout Japan, now a relic
Even this basket turned blue

There is plenty of ash, too, from the wood fires used for heat and cooking. Ash is added to make the dye pot alkaline. The plants come from Kobe Prefecture, sukimono composted leaves.

Skeins of silk and hemp, dyed with indigo

The Little Indigo Museum is an attraction in this tourist town where big buses bring travelers looking for a quaint view of Old Japan. We were there for the indigo rather than the atmosphere. However, it was a wonderful surprise to spend a couple of hours in the village to explore the gardens, the nearby river and join locals in a delicious soba noodle lunch at the diner.


The museum is filled with Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo’s personal collection. It is housed upstairs under the steep thatched roof, supported by bamboo. Each bamboo support beam is lashed for strength. Shibori and hand-stamped indigo on silk, cotton and hemp are displayed, along with related artifacts.

Old farm tools rest against a wall
A thousand knots are tied before the silk is submerged into the indigo vat.

Mr. Shindo’s son works with him. The cotton cloth, above, is prepared with a paste resist that will repel the dye when the cloth is submerged into the indigo dye vat.

It’s colder up here than in Kyoto. The cherry blossoms were yet to bud, but there was still plenty in bloom for early spring in Japan — late March 2019.

Vintage cloth stamped with indigo designs of fish and butterflies
Our country lunch of soba noodles with shrimp tempura
The tranquility of water, gurgling, sounds of osprey calls from the forest
Indigo kimono, part of the museum collection

What does this have to do with Mexico, you might ask? Few places around the world grow indigo. Fewer families are cultivating the plant that makes this extraordinary blue dye. Some say there may only be ten families around the world keeping the tradition alive. Blue. The color of royals.

Still life of dried indigo plant

Yes, the strain of Japanese indigo is different than the one that grows on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. The preparation of the plant is different. Color intensity depends on many variables.

The family I live with works with indigo as part of their natural dye color palette. The artisan skill required to use indigo dye necessitates a knowledge of chemistry — folk chemistry — recipes learned and passed down. It is an imprecise art and science. An experimentation of sorts.

Felted indigo balls and ikebana, a meditation
Miyama River flows through town

What I see here is the same dedication to keeping the traditions and to innovate as well.

Back to the hubbub of Kyoto Station, a vast transportation network

How to Get There: Get to Kyoto Station. Using your JR Pass, take the JR-Sagano Line (leaving from either Track 32 or 33, check the schedule) to Sonobe. This is unreserved seating. This leg takes about 45 minutes.

At Sonobe, change trains to the JR train to Hiyoshi. It will be on the opposite track. Change time is between 2-4 minutes. Get off at Hiyoshi. Trip from Sonobe to Hiyoshi is about 10 minutes. Using the JR Pass, the trip from Kyoto to Hiyoshi is included in your pass cost.

Exit the station. Go to the front of the building and find the Red Cone marking the spot in the parking lot where the #4 Nantan City Bus will take you to Miyama. The cost is 600 yen and the trip takes another 40 minutes.

The Red Cone is your bus terminal. The driver will show you a photo of the thatched house village and ask if this is where you want to go. Just say, Hai.

The Little Indigo Museum is at the top of the hill from the bus stop. Appointments are recommended before visiting. Telephone: 0771-77-0746. Mr. Shindo speaks English.

As I mentioned above, most of the visitors come to see the thatched roof houses, designated as an Important Preservation District for a Group of Historic Buildings since 1993. Mr. Shindo has a selection of small indigo-dyed gift items produced for tourists. There are a few indigo-dyed shibori cotton scarves, placemats, coasters, etc. and no garments. The attraction for visiting is the scenic route, the adventure in getting there, the stunning setting of the village, and Mr. Shindo himself. Of course, the museum, though small, contains a beautiful selection of pieces he has collected over the years. Definitely worth a day trip if you are in Kyoto for more than four or five days!

Contemporary shibori piece by Mr. Shindo

Four Words and Boro, Japanese Indigo Patchwork

Writing from Kyoto, March 25, 2019. It’s been four days since I landed in Tokyo and I’ve managed to learn four words: konnichiwa (hello), sayonara (goodbye), arigato gozai mas (thank you very much), and oishi (delicious).  I knew ai (indigo) before I arrived.

Mexico and Japan share a common language through indigo.

An indigo chrysanthemum, simple adornment

Everything here is delicious. Economy meals at corner restaurants where you order and pay in advance from a menu machine are delicious. In my view, as delicious as the priciest sushi set. The people are delicious, the kindest and most generously helpful of any I have met. The fashion is delicious. It is pure deliciousness to be under a cherry tree as buds begin to blossom pink. To say I’m in love with Japan is an understatement. 

The asymmetry of patched cloth, worn to tatters and repaired

My sister Barbara and I have filled our days with what my friend Liz Bell calls flaneuring. The discovery is in the meandering, the randomness of what you will find without a plan. Like the pure ai (indigo) coat I found in an off-beat shop hanging on a rack among nondescript clothes, made in the style of a workingman’s jacket crafted from old recycled cloth in pristine condition, redesigned, repurposed. I didn’t buy it but it was a delight to wear, even if for the moment.

Like Mari Ishibashi, a 2013 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who gave me her phone number and said if we need anything, to call her.

Vest, shibori indigo

With intention, we made it a priority to visit the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo, where an incredible textile exhibition of boro was on display until the end of March. Here, we could see and touch an extraordinary exhibition of vintage cloth, saved by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka. The textile is now recognized as a national Tangible Cultural Property. Indigo plays a central role in this story. 

Long underwear, each one elaborately embroidered

Indigo is a reverential art form here, and nothing speaks more proudly of Japanese ingenuity, creativity and self-discipline than the utilitarian Boro patchwork from the coldest, northernmost region of Japan in Aomori Prefecture.  

The layering of cloth over the generations

Boroboro means something tattered or repaired. In the layering of the cloth and the accompanying long stitches, called sashiko, used to hold the patches to the base fabric and hemp filling, the fabric takes on a quality of shimmering texture and beauty. It was not intended this way. Boro was born from poverty. It´s purpose was to make a quilted piece of clothing or bedcover from leftover material that would provide warmth in a frigid, inhospitable, harsh climate. Hemp was used because cotton could not be grown in cold areas. Threadbare areas of cloth were repeatedly patched over, reinforced, and reinforced again.

Blanket, hand spun, woven hemp, dyed with indigo, stuffed with hemp

Hard scrabble peasant farming classes made boro, mending the same garments over and over again with spare scraps. Scraps were saved like treasure. Collected, scarce. Hemp dyed with indigo was common. Garments were passed down from generation to generation. Working class people made do with dignity.

Portrait of a grandfather with granddaughter, Aomori Prefecture

Today, the story is different. Vintage pieces of boro are collectible, scarce and costly. Classes are taught around the world in boro patchwork and quilting techniques. Boro is adapted by fashion designers to embellish blue jeans. Boro has become romanticized, commodified as a fashion statement, taking on a life far from its humble roots.

Intricately embroidered apron, and long underwear

We might compare the indigenous cultures of Mexico with the native peoples of remote Japan, who struggle to survive and thrive in the face of poverty, lack of education and with little or no access to health care. In the face of adversity, they create extraordinary cloth. I have written about cultural tourism and how we seek to get closer to those who are the creators. We admire their creative outputs. We may even yearn for a simpler life for ourselves — more basic, more grounded, more meaningful. In our yearnings, do we create a false romantic vision that obscures the harsh realities.

Inside lining, kimono

A core aesthetic of Japanese life and values is called wabi-sabi. It is a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Some say that boro is one of the best examples of wabi-sabi —the cloth and the stitches reflect the beauty of natural wear and use. The cloth and the stitches change, become asymmetrical, born of simplicity, roughness and economy. Beauty is in the simplicity of all.

Padded, stitched and repaired cloth shoes

Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Patched and tattered kimono, indigo

Boro cloth is quirky, repaired, subtle, weathered, imperfect, rustic, spare, minimalist. The cloth is organic, changing, deconstructed and reconstructed. Like the people who made it, boro is resilient and enduring, a testimony to cultural continuity.

I am on a quest for ai. The imperfect piece of ai. I know I will find it.

Patched boro blanket, indigo