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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What I see here is the same dedication to keeping the traditions and to innovate as well.
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!
In just a few short days, on Wednesday, March 20, with a fast turnaround, I leave NC for Tokyo, where I will meet my sister and we will travel together for almost three weeks. I’m taking time-out. This is Forewarning: I will be on vacation during this time and may or may not post regularly about my search for Japanese indigo and pottery (in tribute to our dad, who was a potter and ceramics teacher).
In fact, I’m not taking my computer and plan to travel lighter than usual.
In this moment, I’m experimenting by using an iPad with keyboard to publish this post. My hope is that I can find a moment or two to write about what I find with photos. No promises, though.
I want to be unemcumbered, or at least, less encumbered.
I´m promising myself that I will allow more breathing space between events next year. I recently read Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, who culls and comments about the philosophy of living with more intention. She talks about Marion Milner, a British psychoanalyst and writer who undertook a seven-year self-study to evaluate her own core of happiness, fulfillment and contentment.
This is a fascinating exercise. I believe to find meaning in life, we must continually reexamine our own values and our relationship in the world. Then, the challenge is to shift and make adjustments as necessary as we are more aware of self, needs and change.
Who we imagine ourselves to be and who we are through behavior is often at incongruous.
As I embark for Japan, a place of deep spiritual belief where one can find meaning in small, beautiful experiences and creative output, I hope to use this time to take a respite from the fast pace at which I’ve been living for the past several months. I hope to use this time to approach 2020 differently.
I made a promise to Oaxaca friends that I would have more time next year to enjoy their company, take art classes, be in the hammock on my rooftop terrace, and limit my travel that takes me away from Oaxaca city.
I made a promise to North Carolina friends to spend more than a few weeks at a time here, with longer intervals to actually connect and enjoy the life I have created here, too.
This is a written testimony to publicly share my intention to slow down the pace. It is a way to make a recommitment to core values as I gain in years (ie. Age!) and life choices become even more important. There is limited time to make up for lost time.
Thank you for supporting me in my time away from regular blogging and being tethered to the computer. Cherry blossoms await me.
Dates are set. Let’s GO! February 25 to March 4, 2020. 8 nights, 9 days in and around the San Cristobal de Las Casas highlands.
Cost • $2,495 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $2,995 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
We are based in the historic Chiapas mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas, the center of the Maya world in Mexico. Here we will explore the textile traditions of ancient people who weave on back strap looms.
Women made cloth on simple looms here long before the Spanish conquest in 1521 and their techniques translate into stunning garments admired and collected throughout the world today. Colorful. Vibrant. Warm. Exotic. Connecting. Words that hardly describe the experience that awaits you.
We are committed to give you a rich cultural immersion experience that goes deep rather than broad. We cover a lot of territory. That is why we are spending eight nights in this amazing Pueblo Magico — Magic Town — to focus on Maya textiles and weaving traditions.
Our cultural journey takes us into villages, homes and workshops to meet the people who keep their traditions vibrant. This is an interpersonal experience to better know and appreciate Mexico’s amazing artisans.
There will be only ONE study tour to Chiapas in 2020.
Take this study tour to learn about:
culture, history and identity of cloth
cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation
wool spinning and weaving
clothing design and construction
embroidery and supplementary (pick-up) weft
Maya textile designs — significance
village and individual identity through clothing
market days and mercantile economy
local cuisine, coffee, cacao and chocolate
quality and value
We work with one of San Cristobal’s best bilingual cultural guides who has worked with weavers and artisans in the region. Alejandro is a native Mexican who knows textiles and can explain the meaning of the woven symbols embedded in the cloth. You will enjoy learning from him.
We will travel in a comfortable van as we go deep into the Maya world.
We visit 6 Maya weaving villages
We enjoy home-cooked meals
We meet the makers and directly support them
We go far and away, off-the-beaten path
We decode the weaving designs unique to each woman and village
We explore three towns on their market days
We understand the sacred, mysterious rituals of Maya beliefs
Tuesday, February 25: Travel day. Arrive and meet at our hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas. You will receive directions to get from the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport to our hotel. The airport is a clean and modern facility with straightforward signage. You will book your flight to Tuxtla from Mexico City on either Interjet, AeroMar, Volaris or Aeromexico. There are plenty of taxis and shuttle services to take you there. Your cost of transportation to/from San Cristobal is on your own. Taxis are about $55 USD or 800 pesos. Shared shuttle is 180 pesos or about $10 USD. Those who have arrived by dinner time can go out for an optional meal, on your own.
Wednesday, February 26: On our first day in San Cristobal de las Casas, we orient you to the Textiles of the Maya World. You will learn about weaving and embroidery traditions, patterns and symbols, women and villages, history and culture. After a breakfast discussion we will visit Centro Textiles Mundo Maya museum, Sna Jolobil Museum Shop for fine regional textiles, meander the Santo Domingo outdoor market that takes over the plaza in front of the church, and two outstanding textile shops. We guide you along the walking streets to get your bearings. We finish the morning together with a Group Welcome Lunch. (B, L)
Thursday, February 27: Tenejapa is about an hour and a world away from San Cristobal de Las Casas. Today is market day when villagers line the streets filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and often textiles. We’ll meander the market to see what’s there. In years past, I’ve found some stunning shawls, huipils and bags. Keep your eyes open. Then, we will visit the outstanding textile cooperative founded by Doña Maria Meza Giron. After a box lunch at the centuries- old Romerillo Maya cemetery, we continue on up another mountain to visit Maruch (Maria), a Chamula woman at her rural home. Surrounded by sheep and goats, Maruch will demonstrate back strap loom weaving and wool carding, and how she makes long-haired wool skirts, tunics and shawls. Perhaps there will be some treasures to consider. Return to San Cristobal de Las Casas in time for dinner on your own. (B, L)
Friday, February 28: After breakfast, we take you to an outstanding women’s weaving cooperative outside of town that was founded over 40 years ago. You will learn about international collaborations and textile design that conserves traditions while meeting marketplace needs for exquisite and utilitarian cloth. In the early evening, we visit Museo de Trajes Regionales and humanitarian healer Sergio Castro, who has a large private collection of Maya indigenous daily and ceremonial dress representing each Chiapas region. (B, L)
Saturday, February 29: We set out by foot after breakfast for a full morning at Na Balom, Jaguar House, the home of anthropologist Franz Blom and his photographer wife, Gertrude Duby Blom. The house is now a museum filled with pre-Hispanic folk art and jewelry. We walk the gardens and learn about Franz and Trudy’s work with the Lacandon tribe and relationship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. After hot chocolate at Na Balom, we make a stop at Los Leñateros, the hand-made paper workshop that is also a graphics arts hand-print studio. You will have the afternoon and evening on your own. (B)
Sunday, March 1: This is a big day! First we go to San Lorenzo Zinacantan, where greenhouses cover the hillsides. Here, indigenous dress is embellished in exquisite floral designs, mimicking the flowers they grow. First we meander the open-air market, then visit the church, bedecked in fresh flowers. Next stop is magical, mystical San Juan Chamula where the once-Catholic church is given over to a pre-Hispanic pagan religious practice that involves chickens, eggs and coca-cola. We’ll roam Chamula’s abundant textile market, compare and contrast fabrics and designs. (B, L) Dinner on your own.
Monday, March 2: Today, we make a study tour to the textile villages of San Andres Larrainzer and Magdalena Aldama. This is another ultimate cultural experience to immerse yourself into families of weavers in their humble homes. We will see how they weave and embroider beautiful, fine textiles, ones you cannot find in the city markets or shops. They will host a show and sale for us, and we will join them around the open hearth for a warming meal of free range chicken soup, house made tortillas, and of course, a sip of posh! (B, L))
Tuesday, March 3: After breakfast, the finest agave fiber bags in all of San Cristobal will be on display from the makers who live in Magdalena Aldama. They will also bring flashy beaded necklace strings and beautiful hand-woven huipils. Afternoon is on your own to do last minute shopping and packing in preparation for your trip home. We end our study tour with a gala group goodbye dinner. (B, D)
Wednesday, March 4. Depart. You will arrange your own transportation from San Cristobal to the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. The hotel guest services can help. It takes about 1-1/2 hours to get to Tuxtla, plus 1-2 hours for check-in. Connect from Tuxtla to Mexico City and then on to your home country.
What Is Included
• 8 nights lodging at a top-rated San Cristobal de las Casas hotel within easy walking distance to the historic center and walking streets
• 8 breakfasts • 5 lunches • 1 dinner
• museum and church entry fees
• luxury van transportation
• outstanding and complete guide services
The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.
Cost • $2,495 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $2,995 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
1/3 of total balance due immediately to register and confirm
Second 1/3 payment due on or before October 1, 2019
Third and final 1/3 balance due on or before December 15, 2019
Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice by email that is due on receipt.
Who Should Attend • Textile and fashion designers • Weavers, embroiderers and collectors • Photographers and artists who want inspiration • Resellers * Anyone who loves cloth, culture and collaboration
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. After December 15, 2019, there are no refunds. If we receive a cancelation on or before December 15, 50% of your deposit will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.
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.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: San Cristobal de las Casas is a hill-town in south central Chiapas, the Mexican state that borders Guatemala. The altitude is 7,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have high curbs. Pavement stones are slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant across the sidewalk to the street. We will do a lot of walking. Being here is a walker’s delight because there are three flat streets devoted exclusively to walking. We walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day. We recommend you bring a walking stick.
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.
I want to share this with you. It came to me this week unsolicited from Trish Tieger who lives along the Hudson River Valley in New York State. She traveled with us to Chiapas in 2018 and wanted me to know about her experience.
So much time has passed since we returned from our (or at least it was for me) fabulous time in Chiapas. Life got away from me and I never did write to say “thank you.” The people and places we got to see, by way of your thoughtful scheduling and excellent contacts, were amazing. There is no way that if I arrived solo in San Cris, that I could have found my way so well into the countryside.
Your trip provided everything that I was hoping for—I was seeking a speck of adventure—and a great desire to be in contact with indigenous people—either in Mexico or the Andes. As I was working on this half-baked plan, I was excited when a friend came up with your name and itinerary. It never had occurred to me that one could find tours that went out with very small groups. (The large ones, with people packed onto tour buses and going to “tourist sites” had never held interest for me and yet I was hesitant about going where I wanted all by myself.)
What you offered was the perfect match for my needs of the moment. It is very cool that you have made a life of taking like-minded travelers to locations that are lesser known and not so available. Anyway, thank you so much for the terrific ride. It was wonderful.
Writing from Santa Fe, NM: I’m staying at the house of my textile designer friend Norma Cross, who creates felted fiber clothing using natural dyes, wool, silk, and cotton.
An array of natural dyes, including caracol and indigo, used to weave cloth
I brought with me a shirt made on the Oaxaca coast with threads colored purple from the caracol purpura dye. That led her to send me this article about the Phoenician history of harvesting the purple snail and dyeing religious and political garments with snail ink.
Indigo, cochineal and caracol purpura huipil, Pinotepa de Don Luis
This process is still in practice today in Oaxaca, Mexico, along the Pacific Coast. The murex snail is now extinct in Morocco where the Phoenicians plied the waters during the Roman Empire. It is extinct now in most places around the world. There is a revival in Israel where the natural blue color is being used for religious garments as it once was in the 8th century.
Preservation of the snail and it’s priceless ink is alive and well in Oaxaca. Yet, the risk of extinction is high because of poaching. I hear that the resort hotels in Huatulco make a special cocktail using the purple snail. They buy the dye from people who illegally harvest it. And, people are unconscious consumers!
On our Textile Tour of Oaxaca’s Costa Chica, starting January 11, 2019, we will see some glorious handwoven cotton fabrics where the supplementary weft and embroidered threads of the joinery use the rare purple dye. The pieces are created in two neighboring villages, San Juan Colorado and Pinotepa de Don Luis, where we will visit artisans and see how they prepare the native cloth.
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
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