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.



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

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.


April 11, 2010

On Friday afternoon I visited the famous Kaboku tearoom run by the Ippodo Tea Company on Teramachi-dori in Kyoto. I had to wait for about 20 minutes just to be seated as it is peak season in Japan at the moment. Ippodo has been around for about three centuries so I decided it must be worth the wait. Most foreign visitors won’t be able to experience true tea ceremony in Japan as it requires many years of study, but there are some options that give a glimpse of chado (the way of tea). Some temples and gardens serve tea in a tea ceremony style. Teashops offer a more relaxed way to experience Japanese tea.

I decided to order koicha as it was listed under matcha (green tea made of powdered tea leaves) on the menu. The young waitress, Sakata-san, asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to order koicha?’ Her question made me nervous so I asked for her recommendation. She said, ‘After you have koicha, we will serve you usucha. Would you like me to make it for you?’ I nodded vigorously.

Sakata-san brought a tray with a tea bowl, tea whisk, wagashi (a sweet), hot towel, and a thermos with hot water. She used a small porcelain bowl to add water to the matcha powder, explaining, ‘Koicha uses 4 grams of matcha powder. Usual matcha uses 2 grams.’

I’d always thought matcha was fairly strong but koicha (literally ‘thick tea’) turns out to be the espresso-version of matcha. I noticed that the whisk is used just to stir rather than whisk the koicha because it is so thick. Sakata-san expertly picked up the bowl and rolled it around so the bright grass-green tea coated the sides of the bowl. It was then ready to drink. The day’s wagashi was sakura-mochi (a cherry blossom sweet), as is fitting for the season. As is usual with green tea, the wagashi serves to complement the bitterness of the tea. However, the more expensive the tea, the less bitter it is. Koicha is so thick that you can’t actually drink it all because it sticks to the bowl, which is why they make usucha (literally ‘thin tea’) from the remaining tea. By adding more water, Sakata-san whisked it into the usual matcha froth. I asked her if most Japanese people know about koicha and she said no, that really only the people with an interest in tea know how to make it.

Kyo Odori

April 7, 2010

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be given a ticket to one of the annual spring dances, Kyo Odori. The Gion geiko and maiko perform these every year at five different theatres in Kyoto. I had seen the Miyako Dori before but the Kyo Dori was a little different. It is performed by maiko and geiko of Miyagawa-cho Kabu-kai. It is held at the Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo Theater and the dancers perform some short skits taken from places and things in Kyoto, as well as dances about the coming of the spring. Of course, the kimono were incredibly beautiful – in particular a rich teal furisode (long-sleeved kimono) with flowing water patterns down the sleeves. The geiko wore black kimono with waves lapping around their feet. The poses they struck during the dances, and the shapes they created were stunning. They made quick little running steps, kicking the length of their kimono out of the way with their tabi-encased feet, coyly hiding behind fans or slowly wafting them to depict the warm spring air. It was enchanting.

Before the dance, geiko and maiko served us matcha and a sweet. I was surprised that we could take the little porcelain plate home with us as a souvenir.

We could take photographs in the theatre before the performance but not during it. As always, when asked not to take photographs I respect the wishes of those that ask. Unfortunately the group of foreigners in front of me did not. They were asked to stop taking photographs at least three times during the performance, and still tried to sneakily take shots whilst looking over their shoulders for the attendants. Not only did this disturb other patrons, it is deeply disrespectful. They were so busy trying to take photographs it seemed they couldn’t even enjoy the performance anyway. When visitors behave this way it is hardly surprising Japanese hesitate to open their traditional culture to those from outside.

Sakura fever

April 5, 2010

Yesterday the cherry blossoms were at their peak and sakura fever definitely had its grip on Kyoto. The streets were packed with people and there were traffic jams throughout the city. It’s hard not to get caught up in it all so here is a photographic essay for just a taste of it.

Cherry blossom along the Kamo River, with the northern hills in the distance.

Along the Kamo River, Sunday 4th April.

Full bloom, Kamo River, Kyoto

Tetsugaku no michi (the Philosopher's Path)

Shirakawa Gion

Lights up at Maruyama Park

Hanami, Maruyama Park

On Saturday I photographed the Pagong spring fashion show. Surprisingly, it is only their second show to date but they are planning more and in other countries, namely Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia (Pagong is available at Isetan Department Store in Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur). I have been wearing Pagong clothes and been interested in the company for several years now. I also interviewed Company Director Kameda-san in 2007 for the ‘Kyoto Lives’ issue of Kyoto Journal. At that time, Kameda-san told me that Pagong were not interested in expanding or going international. It seems that things might have changed on that score, perhaps prompted by the economic downturn in the last couple of years. Naturally Kameda-san was a little preoccupied on Saturday so we didn’t have much of a chance to talk to him about his plans. He didn’t even seem to remember me even though I hailed him with, ‘Hisashiburi’, but it might have just been a case of the typical Kyoto reserve.

The last time I spoke with Kameda-san he told me how his inspiration for the company had originally come from aloha shirts. His family has a long history of kimono production but obviously demand for kimono these days isn’t so great. Looking for an alternative, he heard the story of Japanese emigrants to Hawaii who cut up their kimono to create aloha shirts. Kameda-san took the idea and created Pagong, originally producing men’s shirts in cotton or silk. Since the foundation of the company in 2002 it has branched into women’s fashion and women by far make up the majority of Pagong’s clientele. This was clear at the fashion show on Saturday where women outweighed men by about ten to one.

The summer line for Pagong is mostly made up of their usual strong colours and bold designs. New apparel for 2010 included: a striking u-shaped top with a pattern of red, black, white and yellow and a different pattern on the back; a 3/4 sleeve white blouse with Chinese neck-line, printed with blue, black and red chrysanthemums; a v-neck hip-length top with side-tying sash in pastel purple, turquoise and glittering silver; a purple v-neck dress with a bold pattern down one side; and a colourful men’s shirt in pink, blue, green and yellow multiple overlaid designs. Pagong now has three shops in Kyoto – their honten (main shop), a Gion shop and a new shop in Kyoto Station. They also have another brand called Sanjo (the shop is on Sanjo) which favours chiffon dresses and blouses in pastel colours. The new summer line for Sanjo is bright and breezy with floaty long-line tops that made me wish I had much longer legs.

After the show we were shown around the factory. It’s incredible that Pagong can produce such a large range of clothing and accessories when they only have five people working in the factory. As we watched the artisan making up dye from the powdered pigments, one of the staff explained that if it is out by a gram or two it can ruin the whole batch. Much of the skill for kyo-yuzen 京友禅 (Kyoto dyeing tradition), is the mixing of the dye and the choice of colours for each pattern. Each colour must be laid down separately so the complexity of the pattern and number of colours determines the number of times it has to be printed. Some pieces take more than 20 different colours.

One of the new designs Kameda-san was keen to show off was an aloha shirt with a design taken from a work in the Tokyo National Museum. Kameda-san explained how he had to obtain special permission to use the image featuring a giant prawn. Having seen his stock of kimono patterns in the factory warehouse, I was surprised at this decision. He literally has hundreds of designs as his disposal but he has an innovative streak, witnessed in his development of a manga about Pagong, and his new haunted house concept. The latter sprang from a collaboration with detective film director Professor Kaizo Hayashi. Part of the Pagong factory has been turned into a haunted house for Pagong members, and apparently features chilling special effects.

Mode Japonism

March 18, 2010

Tayu 太夫, the hair style of an Edo-period courtesan.

A more modern style with a Japanese feel.

On Monday evening I attended a hair show titled Mode Japonism. The hair show was held by Keiichi Hanada who specialises in Nihongami (日本髪),  traditional Edo-period Japanese coiffure. These days it is rare to find a hair stylist who has the skills or knowledge to create such hairstyles. In fact, Hanada-san told me there are only about five individuals in Kyoto who have these skills and all of them are elderly. Hanada-san was only able to learn the styles by approaching these artists over 100 times before one of them agreed to teach him.

As is usual in the Japanese arts, it takes many years of practice and study to acquire the skills to execute these hairstyles. Hanada-san also studied Ukiyo-e, traditional woodblock prints, to get a better understanding of many of the hairstyles. The list of recorded styles runs to well over 100 for the Edo period, with almost three times as many hair ornaments (kanzashi) for different occasions. Kanzashi were selected depending on season but also on a variety of other factors. Type and location of kanzashi in the hairstyle was used to inform others of an individual’s status in Edo period Japan.

Hanada-san putting the final touches on a Bunkin Taka-shimada, a traditional bridal hair style.

Hanada-san does many types of Western and traditional Japanese hairstyles at his salon, Arms, in Kyoto. He studied Nihongami styles for ten years but does not do maiko or geiko. That world is still a closed one and the patron–client relationship is considered sacred.

Hanada-san does styles for weddings, including the traditional Japanese Bunkin Taka-shimada. This was the style we watched him create on Monday evening. He had already created four other styles for the show, having started the day at 6am. The Bunkin Taka-shimada took him about an hour to do, and he had already prepared the hair a little beforehand, which gives some idea of the complexity of the style. Traditional combs are used along with  a special wax made of soy derivative called bintsuke-abura. The latter is also used by sumo.

The day finished in the studio at Wings Kyoto with a quick photo shoot that Hanada-san invited me to join. The models were tired and needed to go so we did a rapid shutter-clicking whirlwind and then they were gone to have their locks untied and de-waxed.

Full gallery of images can be seen here.

Genroku-shimada style