A Textile Journey through Japan

After a long but comfortable flight we arrived in the wonderful country that is Japan. Our itinerary allows no time for jet lag to seep in and we are whisked off to our first visit – the beautiful Meiji Jingu shrine. The coach journey through the streets of Tokyo gives us our first glimpses of the architecture, Japanese people and their homes, all very different from our own. What stands out clearly in this early part of our journey is that there is no litter or rubbish anywhere!

Japanese textiles is our theme and the Amuse museum, although small, had an exhibition on Boro- this blew my mind!

Boro means rags and in the Aomori prefecture (area), clothes were made by using pieces of hemp and cotton cloth from clothing once worn by ancestors for generations and generations. Bodoko were sheets used to lie on at night time, laid over beds of straw, sometimes used for childbirth. Receiving the baby onto a Bodoko, once worn by ancestors, meant the baby was not delivered alone. The large coats in the photographs were actually sleeping bags!

My love of family, storytelling and quilt making is all wrapped up in Boro, so imagine my delight of finding even more Boro in a local flea market!

The location of the museum next door to the Asakusa temple with its souvenir lined streets and handmade sweets and gifts made this morning magical…

…but to finish off the day with a trip to Nippori’s fabric area, dedicated to fabric and haberdashery shops, was just the icing on today’s cake. I was in Button heaven, and this was only day two!

We all knew workshops were on the itinerary, but I am not sure any of us realised how ‘hands on’ these would all be. All we needed to do was to hop on a Bullet train (with only 30 seconds to get on and off!) and travel to Nagoya. The Arimatsu tie dying museum, like lots of the venues we visited, was housed in very old Japanese homes and buildings, so shoes off – slippers on were the rules of the day. Those with hand knitted socks showed off! I have always had a love of denim, but those indigo blues we were dyeing with were just amazing, and to watch traditional craftswomen hand tying the fabric was unbelievable!

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Not sure how we found the time, but back in our lovely hotels with warm toilet seats, great choice of dining and nice new dressing gowns and slippers, we managed even more sewing in our rooms!

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Yoshiko Jinzenji is a renown quilt artist who has exhibited in some of the world’s biggest exhibitions and a visit to her studio high up in the snowy mountains overlooking Kyoto was a great treat. Her studio is full of beautiful collections that inspire her, not only quilts, but shells, pottery and baskets. Her quilts were unreal – very modern. The piece she showed us was ready to be packed off to live in a museum in the USA! The cotton was hand dyed using bamboo and mahogany, woven and then made into the quilt.

Our Visits to the Temples were colourful and inspiring, especially the Golden Pavilion, and Tōdai-ji, the largest wooden structure in the world. Seeing people in traditional dress, the kimono, and experiencing the fast food was great. We got really hooked into the custom of buying lucky charms, some for love, others for good health, bad knees, headaches, to name but a few.

How amazing was this day! A visit to a local quilt teacher, in her home, to be served a traditional lunch and experience a tea ceremony performed by her students, and then to have a workshop. She was the smiliest, most welcoming person I have ever met, and this wonderful experience ended in the exchange of Omiyage- little gifts which are a Japanese custom.

A visit to the local flea market churned up even more treasure, Boro, threads and fabric!

Don’t we all love a bit of dressing up? What about wellies, rubber gloves and aprons? Well at least we looked professional at this master class in Roketsu Dyeing (wax resist dyeing), we should have enjoyed the uniform better, because things got a lot more rustic in our next workshop!

Back on the Bullet train (getting used to this on off in thirty seconds now!) and we arrive in Fukuoka for a workshop with Yame Dento Kogei-kan! Not much written on the itinerary!!! This area has been championed by Japan as an area of National importance to revive and preserve the craft of dyeing and weaving. We arrive in the middle of a small ordinary town at the home of this master dyer, yes shoes off, slippers on, in a very particular order, he is watching telly!

The family show us his work, which has been sold in Liberty and displayed at The Victoria and Albert museum, and some basic tie dyeing techniques. They lead us to a shed outside with 20 two-metre deep indigo dyeing vats, which we are to dye our hankies in. This is the most precarious thing I have ever seen, 16 of our students hanging over these vats dipping in the fabric, with nothing to hang onto, protect their clothing or save them in the event of a blue tumble, it was such fun! No wellies and gloves here! Green tea and treats warmed us all up in minus 12 temperatures!!!! I will treasure my hankie for ever.

Now experienced dyers, our next venture with the indigo pots were not so fretful and a visit to the beautiful home and workshop studios of Yamaai was a very different experience. The gardeners in our group enjoyed the floral displays in and around the property, which was less rural than the last. Our host was the third generation of dyers/weavers and used some modern technology in producing the fabric, but all still hand woven and hand dyed using a technique called Ikat. The thread is dyed to create the woven pattern, this was invented by a 12-year-old girl and its techniques were just mind boggling. Once again all housed in beautiful wooden structured building with paper thin walls, literally, and traditional furniture. Now loving the green tea and sweet treats we were offered, heads full of wonderful sights!

Intrepid travellers that we are, we board an internal flight back to Tokyo, landing in full view of Mount Fuji, our next destination. Wow she is impressive! Very serene and peaceful and even more beautiful for the recent snowfall. The itinerary described our trip to an aerial ropeway ride- thank goodness things were lost in translation, as I had visions of us all hanging from a rope while enjoy the view of Fuji and its hot springs! Like giggling teenagers, we alight from the cable car to smells of sulphur and views unseen before. The Mount Fuji hotel comforted us weary travellers, but it had one last treat in store for us- an Onsen hot spring bath… naked! Yes! Lots of funny rules and regulations on where to put the towel, on your head, and what to wash and how! We had some decline, but those who ventured had a real giggle and enjoyed the after-spa massage chairs!

A wonderful cup of coffee in the amazing Itchiku Kubota Art Museum. We were treated to a creative artistic collection of Kimonos. The building itself was a piece of art with inspirations from Gaudí in Barcelona.

Next up, a visit to Akie Ginza’s Sashiko Museum. This wonderful woman is solely responsible for saving the art of Sashiko for its nation. Her museum, in a 200-year-old building, was delightful with all sorts of handmade items and garments decorated with Sashiko ‘little stabs’. Akie was there to show us around and was even wearing a pair of Boro trousers she had made. She was incredibly beautiful and inspiring.

And finally, our visit to the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival. What a treat! Who would ever think that one might have the privilege of attending this great show! Japanese quilts are the finest of all, so delicate and exquisite in detail. The stands sold very different fabric and trimmings than ones we find at home and even have an antique section selling old kimonos, Boro, buttons and trimming. We all managed to attend a workshop, making a bag with the help of our most amazing guide Yuko. Another amazing feast for our eyes and one we will dine off forever! We also bumped into this amazing lady last minute at the festival, what an inspiration!

Our Japanese experience was even more amazing because of our local guide Yuka. What do I think of Japan? Just absolutely amazing! Go, don’t miss out! Beautiful, interesting, respectful, kind, easy, so clean! I just can’t wait to go back!

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