Human Flower Project

The Dyeing Life in Tokyo

Not exactly your nubby center of handicrafts, Tokyo has everything—even dye-your-own textile shops for experimenting with a time-honored and luscious shade of blue.


Hureai, a do-it-yourself indigo dye shop in Tokyo.

Photo: Bill Bishop

Sunday morning in Tokyo, and on the way to Rikugien Gardens, “known as the Waka poetry Garden,” we came upon blue, bustling, and a strong smell, which we must unpoetically compare to cat pee.

It turned out to be a tiny indigo dye shop on in the Bukyo precinct. Scarves, hats and blouses were being toted out to the sidewalk for display. The lure worked and we ducked inside. There were three young children and a woman all too intent on their tasks to pay us much mind. The woman was bunching and knotting up a swatch of cotton fabric, seemingly experimenting with shibori – Japanese tie-dye (which by the way has been re-discovered this fall by several high fashion designers).

The youngsters were up to their elbows in two big sinks, stirring their own textile experiments in indigo. Liquid in the vats looked thick, brackish-blue. Two boys glanced up from their activity but then quickly returned to the work/play at hand.


Trying indigo dying at a Tokyo shop, Oct. 3, 2010

Photo: Bill Bishop

What a surprise to find do-it-yourself crafts in the heart of Tokyo, the kind of activity more suited, we’d have thought, to Penland, North Carolina, or Alfred, New York. But here it sloshed. As it turns out, such hands-on indigo shops are not all that rare in Japan. We’ve since read about Aizen Kobo in Kyoto where “for 1500 yen you can don rubber boots and protective clothing (provided) and spend a half-hour doing your own indigo dyeing.” Here’s a good Q & A with indigo dye master Tadashi Higeta. And we’ve also read about a shop called “Blue and White,” run by an expatriate American. (Not sure if it offers dye-it-yourself.) Kit Nagamura wrote an excellent article for the Japan Times about 85-year-old Kenji Fujisawa, who continues to operate a dye shop in Sumida-ku, just east of Tokyo.

“The dye is alive,” Fujisawa told Nagamura – and the liquid in these two vats had a most definite, pushy character, too. “It’s organic, like bread dough,” said Fujisawa. “When the foam is thick, you can tell it is robust and healthy, when it’s thin, it’s dying.”

imageMizue Masahiko shows the Polygonum tinctorium (indigo) growing in pots outside his shop

Photo: Human Flower Project

We only wish we’d been able to converse with the kindly proprietor of this Tokyo shop. Perceiving our interest, he took us outside and showed us several bushy indigo plants in pots, blooming with tiny white flowers. Playing charades we managed some elementals. This gentleman, who later wrote his name down – Mizue Masahiko—conveyed that the dye color comes from the leaves. And in fact, he or someone else had conducted an earlier demonstration, for we could see blue, the color of a dark bruise, emerging on a few crushed leaves.

Silk typically comes to mind thinking of Japanese textiles. But of course for the majority of Japanese people, silk was neither affordable nor practical. For ordinary people, there was cotton. Indigo dye plants, according to this site, were first imported from China in the 5th Century and their coloring applied, dressing up everyday clothing considerably.

“The Japanese textile art Tsutsugaki, a term for the practice of drawing designs in rice paste on cloth, literally ‘tube-drawing’, began as a result of access to affordable cotton and indigo dye. Elaborate cloths decorated with auspicious motifs were often given as wedding gifts.”

Actually, quite a number of plants appear to have been used to produce the jewel-like blue of “indigo.” Woad was popular in southern France, while in Japan Polygonum tinctorium, Polygonum cuspidatum (a.k.a. Japanese knotweed, considered invasive in much of the Eastern U.S. now), and some variety of Indigofera have all been used. We’re fairly certain that Mr. Mizue’s plants were Polygonum tinctorium.


Maple leaf bandana, dyed with indigo, from Hureai

Photo: Human Flower Project

We sprang for a bandana, stenciled with starry Japanese maple leaves. Soon the whole nation would be spilling out for momijigari – the annual viewing of fall color—but in the first week of October, the maples were still green or, in this case, white and blue.

Thanks to Minori Goto of Kyoto for helping us retrace our steps and translating since we’ve landed back home. “The name of this shop is HUREAI. It means ‘touch each other’ or ‘make friends,’” Minori writes. But she adds, “This Chinese character may be a coined word.” She explains that the three elements within the kanji originally meant cloth, etiquette or bow, and love. We’ll hope to wear this souvenir mindfully and plan to wash it with care.

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