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!