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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recommendations for hunting down Japan Blue:
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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. email@example.com
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.
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.