Kyoto weaving

September 12, 2012

How fitting it is that I am researching Japanese textiles while staying in what was an old weaving workshop in Nishijin. When S & A bought this house, S said it was full of the old looms and they were unsure whether or not the looms were to be taken away before they moved in (they were). The only thing remaining from that period is an old oil bottle that must have been used to oil the power looms.

On Sunday we could hear bumps from the house next door. They were dismantling the weaving looms after over 60 years of weaving. The weaver (81) and his wife (77) decided that it was time to stop. They came to the door on Sunday afternoon to give us boxes of soap, a gift to apologise in advance for the noise that would occur on Monday when the looms were taken away. They said that the industry has been hit hard by the Tohoku disaster, that they have lost a lot of business from up north. It’s ironic that I am here to document the way in which young artisans are taking the traditional techniques into the future and this couple are giving up their business. They have no one they can pass on their business or skills to—a refrain that has been heard throughout the industry since the Second World War.

However, as I sit here I can hear the rhythmic clacking of the weaver a few doors down, so there are still a few weavers producing material. It’s so hot that everyone has windows open in order to catch the slightest breeze. When I walk along the narrow neighbourhood streets, I can peer in to see people at their looms. I get much more of a sense of Nishijin than I have on previous trips. It really is, or was, a whole community devoted to weaving. I had a short chat with the workman next door who was clearing the looms. I said it’s a shame that they have been weaving more than 60 years and are now retiring. He thought for a minute and agreed. He chatted to me a little about it but he said the other man I could see working in the gloom of the interior knew a lot more about the business. They were busy and I didn’t want to disturb them too much. The pieces coming out are cogs and spindles, and some twisted and ripped pieces of what looks like composite metal—they won’t be used again for weaving.



April 29, 2011

Last week I attended a tsutsugaki workshop at the Australian Academy of Design. Tsutsugaki yuzen (tsutsugaki dyeing) is a 400-year-old Japanese dye-resist technique, a little like batik. Tsutsugaki utilises a rice paste to create designs on the fabric. The workshop was taught by Kobayashi Shumei, a tsutsugaki artist based in Kanazawa, Japan.

First, we use a weak dye made from the blue flower, aobana, to sketch the underdrawing onto the fabric. Then we apply the rice paste (tsutsunori) with the tsutsu, a cone-shaped bag like a cake piping bag. It’s not easy to use and takes a lot of practice to get straight lines, even though the fabric is stretched out using special bamboo poles. Once we have outlined our design with the rice paste on one side, we flip the fabric and have to apply it in exactly the same place on the other side, otherwise the dye will bleed and ruin our pattern. Usually, kimono makers don’t apply the pattern to both sides, but we do this to make the pattern more durable. The rice paste is made from rice flour and rice bran, kneaded to the consistency of ‘your earlobe’ and then steamed to turn it into a caramel-like consistency. In the past, if any of the mixture was left over the artisans grilled and ate it.

After the rice paste is dry, soybean juice is washed over the fabric with a deer-hair brush to smooth inconsistencies and because it helps to fix the paste. It smells like tofu.

Once the pattern is applied, the fabric can be coloured with dye (irosashi). We mix our choice of colours and apply washes or colour sections of our patterns in. My design has many sections so I can dye all of them in one go and don’t need to mask and over-dye. It also means I only need to steam it once. Kobayashi-sensei helps us with different techniques, teaching us how to graduate colours.

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Once my work is steamed, I can wash the rice paste out and fix the dye.

Kobayashi Shumei carries out all parts of the tsutsugaki dyeing process himself. In Japan this is rare as usually different individuals do the different steps in the process. As he says, ‘how can you call a piece of work your own if you haven’t done all of the processes yourself?’

Wadaiko Rindo

March 26, 2011

Tuesday night I attended my third fundraising event for Japan so far—a benefit concert held by Melbourne taiko group, Wadaiko Rindo. It was held in their usual practice venue, St Philips Anglican Church in Abbotsford. When I arrived there was standing room only, and they eventually had to open up more folding doors and turn pews about face as the audience continued to swell. The audience was made up of Japanese and Australians, from toddlers to grandparents so the atmosphere was very much a family one.

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The program for the evening consisted not only of traditional taiko drumming, but performances by flute and drumming trio Fuefukuro (albeit, missing one member who was back in Japan), extraordinarily talented shamisen musician Noriko Tadano who did both a group performance with the Shamys (Tsugaru Shamisen) and a solo performance, and koto player Yoshie Takahashi whose great skill created music that sounded like a harp, a guitar, and everything in between.

Noriko’s solo shamisen performance was a traditional piece from Fukushima but before her solo, Noriko gave a poignant speech to the audience about her family. She is from Fukushima and told us how hard it was not to have contact with them. They were finally able to talk on skype and she could see her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. The worry was etched on her face, very different from when I last saw her perform with George Kamikawa at the Japanese Culture Festival in November 2010 (the two can often be seen playing blues together on Bourke Street. But she also spoke of the support she had received in Australia and how it kept her going. It is heartening to hear.

Of the fundraisers I have been to the tallies so far are:

Japaneasy market: $8,326

Donations are going to Consulate-General of Japan in Melbourne (Japan Disaster Relief Fund) and New Zealand Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Appeal.

Horse Bazaar: $5,472

Wadaiko Rindo: $9,500

Contributions are going to the Japanese Red Cross.

Fundraising events

March 20, 2011

Yesterday Japaneasy Language School held a charity fundraiser for the earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch. Mountains of clothing and goods were donated for sale, as well as crafts and massages. The overall mood was upbeat which provided a short reprieve from the heavy emotional burden of worry that many Japanese and Australians have been feeling over the past week. The Christchurch earthquake has been overshadowed by the devastation in Japan but yesterday’s fundraiser was specifically for both countries.

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In talking to people about the Japanese disaster, the damage is so great that many are rendered speechless. It is simply incomprehensible, but it is heartening to know that, even though the Australian public has been saturated with demand for charity donations in recent years, people are still willing to give generously.

The Japanese drumming group, Wadaiko Rindo, are holding a benefit concert for Japan on Tuesday night (22nd March) at St Philip’s Anglican Church, 144-148 Hoddle Street, Abbotsford from 6.30–8.30pm. Please go and show your support.


September 4, 2010

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About three weeks ago a new Japanese shop opened in Fitzroy. Ura has a distinctly Kyoto feel to it and is everything I love about Japan. The atmosphere is warm, relaxed and cosy with traditional tansu (chests of drawers) and wooden display tables. Owner Yutaka Matsuda’s concept for the shop is to stock ‘treasures’ that customers will discover and fall in love with, hence Ura sells a mixture of seemingly random items—pottery teacups, second-hand clothes and kimono, Japanese school badges, noren and tabi socks. But perhaps the most exciting product Ura will be selling from September are jika-tabi, the traditional Japanese-style shoes with the separated big toe. The jika-tabi are made by a company I know well, Sou Sou, from Kyoto.

Sou Sou prides itself on the fact that its goods are designed and made in Japan. The Sou Sou design concept is based on traditional Japanese clothingshirt collars influenced by the crossover kimono, wide sleeves, side ties and simple flowing lines. Designer Wakabayashi-san says that designs have to be useful so Sou Sou aim to retain the convenient aspects of traditional Japanese clothing but create something modern. ‘We want to upgrade the kimono, like you would upgrade your computer.’ The fabric patterns are modern Japan—funky flowers, hiragana letters, dots and stripes, mon, colourful stylised chrysanthemums. Wakabayashi-san says that Japan has a history of making things that suit the environment, designs that depict the seasons and the physical world. He also points out that Japanese are collectors, a fact very much reflected in the eclectic mix of contemporary Japanese fashion and style. ‘[You can find a] world museum in Japan.’

As a company, Sou Sou is not interested in being a fashion brand. As Wakabayashi explains, they see fashion brands as mostly short-term trends because 90% of fashion brands fold relatively quickly. Sou Sou is in it for the long-term, and have collaborated with other very well-established names such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Le Coq Sportif. However, for me, their best product is the jika-tabi. This kind of footwear have a mixed image in Japan. Often, the only time the young wear them is when participating in festivals. Older generations are reminded of traditional workmen’s shoes, especially construction workers who used the tread on their jika-tabi to help them climb the bamboo scaffolding poles on building sites. It’s still possible to see construction workers today wearing jika-tabi and the baggy genie-style trousers that go with them. The basic design of Sou Sou’s jika-tabi is based on these Taisho-period workshoes, but the fabrics and molded soles definitely give them a radical upgrade. So, if you are keen to get the iPad-equivalent for your feet, check out Ura.

28 Johnston St
Fitzroy 3065
Ph: 9416 4503

Last weekend I went to Cibi café in Collingwood for a Japanese breakfast. Breakfast at Cibi’s is always good but you have to get there early as they often sell out. Their traditional Japanese breakfast consists of rice, grilled salmon, tamago-yaki (Japanese-style omelette), potato salad, ingen no gomae (green bean salad with sesame dressing), and a miso soup packed with veggies that will have you tossing away your instant packets immediately. The soup is served in comfort-inducing Japanese lacquer-ware bowls. The open-plan kitchen sits in the centre of the café, an island of activity feeding the sleepy Saturday morning crowd.

‘Cibi’ (pronounced chibi) means ‘a little one’ in Japanese, and is the inspiration behind owner/architect Zenta’s concept for the warehouse space—a haven for childlike wonder and whimsy. After breakfast we browsed the beautiful goods in the other half of the space—designer tenugui, ceramic bowls and ergonomic condiment holders, bento boxes and cutlery. They are currently selling works by Japanese industrial designer Sori Yanagi, famous for his fabulous butterfly stool amongst other items.

Turner and Tohaku

June 25, 2010

I watched a documentary on JMW Turner recently and was surprised to learn that he left his collection to the British nation – that is, 300 paintings, 3,000 watercolours and 20,000 sketches. Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy as an apprentice at the tender age of 14. He made a name for himself from a young age, travelling around England, often on foot, to draw and sketch. Even though he started painting and drawing professionally at such a young age, and lived until he was 76 years old, 32,000 is still a shockingly large number of works to bequeath. This is not even his life’s work, as it doesn’t include all of the works he painted on commission or sold in his lifetime.

During Turner’s time (1775–1851) it was common for artists to begin by copying the Old Masters until they had, well, mastered them. I can’t help comparing this style of education to the Japanese way of learning. Even today, to become competent in shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), or chanoyu (tea ceremony) you begin by copying your teacher’s work over and over. This repetitive form of education, while tedious, is meant to instill the skills deep within, until they become muscle memory and something akin to instinct. It is only after you have spent years learning the rules that you can break them and experiment. This style of teaching doesn’t appear to align with contemporary society. In fact, it seems to have been lost in contemporary Western culture completely. People want to master skills as quickly as possible and I think this is to the detriment of art as well as other areas of life. As head of the Honnoji ikebana school told me, “You can do a short course in ikebana, one or two years. But it is like fast food – it is not good for you.”

Turner continued to work until late in life, and in his later years he experimented more and more with style and technique. His works focussed on atmospheric skies and became more abstract. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is a good example of his depiction of ephemeral light. It is as if he is attempting to paint air. I can’t help but compare this to the work of Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539–1610) who was painting almost 300 years before Turner. In his famous work Pine Trees he deploys empty space to depict the mist – what Tohaku called “expressing without painting”. It seems that both artists came to the conclusion that less is more, and they appear to be striving for similar things – depicting that which is beyond our reach, something we can’t quite grasp.

Exquisite offerings

June 5, 2010

Set back a little from the bustling crowds of Sannenzaka is an unprepossessing building which houses some of the most superb examples of Japanese craftsmanship ever produced: the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum. It’s the first museum to hold as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, lacquer and Satsuma ware created for the Meiji Era International Expositions.

1867 was the final year of the Edo period. The new Meiji government wanted to show the world its power and ability in the industrial arts so works were created for the international expositions in Paris and Vienna. Few of these works remain in Japan. In fact, Director of the museum, Masayuki Murata, first came across Meiji art in New York City. He began collecting about 20 years ago and these works form the basis of this museum. As so many of these pieces were bought by foreigners, Japanese people have few chances to see works from this period. The artefacts represent artisans both from the Imperial Household as well as complete unknowns and Murata believes they show a ‘world of transcendent technical finesse that no one can now produce’.

Pages from the museum catalogue

There are censers the height of people; intricate cloisonné incense burners; lacquer furniture rich with gold leaf laid over black; vases dripping in cherry blossom, chrysanthemums, peonies and wisteria; ceremonial sword hilts and scabbards decorated with reeds and butterflies; boxes covered with spiders webs spun with gold; lids topped with insects made of silver; and human figures flying on cranes that spiral around a pair of Satsuma vases. Gods, demons and mythical beasts abound but the scenes of nature are just as spellbinding. One of the most splendid pieces is a folding screen, unsigned, with a design of wild geese and reeds. The geese are inlaid with ivory, bone and stag horn, the feathers illuminated with mother-of-pearl.

Satsuma ware from the museum catalogue

If you visit one museum while you are in Kyoto, get to this one.

Yesterday I was wandering around in the back streets near Shingyoku-dori when I stumbled on quite an incredible sight. A new shop has opened (in fact it only opened yesterday) called Pink Latte. It stocks a range of ultra girly clothes and accessories with a predominantly pink theme as is no doubt obvious by the name. The staff member told me it was aimed at the junior high school market. The extraordinary thing about the shop is the building. The overall image is of a Japanese temple – a pink Japanese temple. It has the pagoda-style roof, the temple posts and lanterns. Then, inside the wallpaper, a cool goth black, sports an outrageously eye-burning pink mon motif. I wandered around with my jaw on the floor. Plus I’m sure the whole building didn’t exist a week ago – they seem to have constructed it in record time.

Art flower workshop

April 25, 2010

Yesterday I did an art flower workshop at my favourite Kyoto clothing designer, Pagong. There were only three of us in the class. I arrived early, having cycled across Kyoto to get to Pagong’s head office in the southern part of the Nishijin quarter, so I had time to shop – dangerous! The two other women for the class came slightly early too, and when one of them found out I was intending to do the class she said, ‘Kowai’ (she was scared). I’m not exactly sure what she was scared of – perhaps I have more of a presence than I think.

We were shown upstairs and greeted by Endou-sensei, a glamorous woman with carefully curled locks, perfect make-up and decorated nails. She told me her husband makes lacquerware for the temples.

My classmates had obviously done workshops there before as they got into selecting their fabric straight away. Nishimura-san calls herself a ‘wa-designer’ (‘wa’ means Japanese-style or peace and harmony). She was the more vocal of the two, asking me questions and arguing with the sensei. In fact, Nishimura-san was such a chatterbox that I never discovered the other woman’s name.

After selecting our fabric, in this case silk printed by Pagong, we started bending our wires into our desired petal shapes. Then we chose a centre bobble and glued it together. Using a little glue, we had to stick the wire petals onto the fabric and cut them out, leaving a 5mm trim to be folded under and glued. The gluing and cutting took the better part of the lesson. Once that was all done we had to arrange the petals in a desired configuration, glue them altogether, cut off the stem and hot glue it to the corsage pin. They all praised me on my good taste and told me I had a Japanese sense but I think they were just being polite. Still, if you see me wearing a large flower, be kind.