Thursday, October 14, 2010

昼夜帯 Chuya - Day Night Obi

When kimono were worn every day, they could be tied with a great variety of obi. Many of the informal obi styles, like the soft, black-satin faced chūya obi, have disappeared.
(Chapter 4: Kimono in Modern Japan > Types of Obi, pg 186)

There is a vintage
kimono shop in Kyoto, for example, that has shelves piled with soft obi faced in black satin. These are pliant hand-painted silks rather than brocade, worn through the 1930s as casually stylish everyday clothing. These obi are friendly, not forbidding. They are also obsolete.
(Chapter 4: Kimono in Modern Japan > The Feminist Critique, pg 140)

This style of obi is called
chūya (noon-night), because it was always black satin on one side, a color on the other. I suspect that this style may have originated among geisha (who influenced so many kimono fashions) because, upon rising around noon, they could well have worn such a thing until they changed into elaborate brocades for their evening's work of entertaining. I have never read anything that suggests this origin, but the designs on so many of these old chūya obis are often quite chic - just the sort of thing one readily imagines a geisha wearing.
(Liza Dalby's Kimono, Footnote 4.16, pg 342)

昼夜帯 Chuuya (Day Night) Obi still used for modern dance costumes. Reversible and nifty.
(13,650円, from Y!Japan here)

They show up often in Edo-era prints from Ikeda Eisen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kimono Hack #98

Premade otaiko using an intact fukuro obi, but should work on Nagoya type.

No cutting involved. Serious.

11 min - Oct 13, 2009 by yoichi0812


P.S. - When using binder clips (or unfinished wood clothespins - classic!), Youtube-er okigarukimonojuku uses scrap paper to protect her nice obi from potential snags.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kimono Contraptions #55

Original! An obi makura taikomochi - a 'pillow-bearer'. Handmade of wood.

from Y!Japan auctions (700Y, here)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Spray Art - Painted Hanten Linings

スプレーアート 「内半纏ペイント」
Spray Art - Painted Hanten Linings
from イグジン Igujin
Sun May 05, 2010

What are Hanten? Traditional short winter coats, like fitted haori. These designs are so delicious I wouldn't want to wear them as linings.

酔っ払いサムライ Drunken Samurai

舞妓 Maiko (but we know it's more like a courtesan)

鯉 Koi (carp)

サムライ Samurai

(coloring or paint)

鯉 Koi (carp)

蝶 Chou (butterfly)

アフロ骸骨 Afro gaikotsu (Afro skeleton)

虎 Tora (Tiger)


They take commissions.


Tomitsuka cho, Naka-ku Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture


~アシスタント募集中~ - Wanted - Assistant

アートに関する仕事に携わりたいアシスタント希望者を募集しております。 We are looking for assistants who want to be involved in work related to art.

More →

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kimono Contraptions #39

Easy-tie belt for hanhaba (half width) obi.

The diagram shows how to use it for a cho musubi (butterfly knot).

(647Y, from Y!Japan auctions here)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Telegraph UK: Liza Dalby, the blue-eyed geisha

American anthropologist Liza Dalby, the blue-eyed geisha, is famous for being the first Western woman to have ever trained as a geisha.

By Leah Hyslop
Published: 10:01AM BST 04 Oct 2010

(photo: Liza Dalby as a geisha)

One day in the late 1960s, a 16-year-old American girl called Liza Dalby was walking down a street in Saga, a city in southern Japan, when she heard the music of the shamisen for the first time.

“At the time, I didn’t even know that the shamisen is closely associated with geisha,” says Dalby, who had gone to Japan to study for a year after graduating from her high school a year early. “But I was captivated by it, and my host family arranged for me to have some lessons learning the instrument.”

It was lucky that they did. Eight years later, when Dalby returned to Japan as a graduate student to research a phD on geisha, it was her skills on the shamisen that unlocked the door to the community which would make her a household name; the notoriously closed geisha community, or karyūkai - the “flower and willow world”.

“Getting access to geisha is difficult,and it was especially hard at the beginning," recalls Dalby. "But my shamisen teacher in Tokyo turned out to be the perfect connection, since some of his students were geisha. After that, one connection always seemed to lead to another."

Dalby never planned to become a geisha herself, but during the course of her research was eventually invited to join a small geisha community in Kyoto, where the geisha tradition is sometimes said to have originated. “They saw that I was serious in my study and they felt that I would not really be able to understand their lives unless I experienced it myself.”

Becoming a geisha is a notoriously long and difficult process. In the past, girls could be bonded to a geisha house or okiya as children, and training today can still last for over five years. Apprentices, known as maiko, are trained in the traditional Japanese arts, as well as in social skills such as tea-serving and conversation.

Because of her age, Dalby couldn’t make the conventional debut as a maiko - “Most geisha in Kyoto start out as maiko at 17. I was 24” - but it was agreed that she could instead debut as a full geisha. Strangely enough, it was once again the shamisen which tipped the balance in her favour. “Geisha tend to specialize as either a dancer or a musician. It was only because I already knew how to play the shamisen that I was allowed to do it.”

Dalby finally made her debut in 1976, taking the geisha name Ichigiku, and soon earned a reputation as "the blue-eyed geisha” in the Japanese media. Did she find debuting under such intense scrutiny difficult?

“There are many social obligations that geisha have to each other in the hierarchical world of Kyoto, and it was difficult to remember all the proper rituals - I was constantly afraid of offending someone without meaning to,” she says. “But one day, I walked through a restaurant in my kimono, and was mistaken from behind as a ‘real’ geisha. That was a really great moment.”

Her biggest surprise during her time in Japan was discovering how outspoken and independent geisha are. “I had expected geisha to act subservient, especially around customers, but the reality was completely different. Also, I had thought there would be a lot of competition for customers - something like the world described in Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. But in Kyoto, the sense of shared community was very strong. Customers may come and go, but your sister geisha are going to still be there.”

After she finished her PhD, later published as the book Geisha, Dalby returned to America, where she took up a teaching position at the University of Chicago. In 2004, she acted as a consultant to Arthur Golden when he was writing his best-selling novel, and later, as what she calls an “on-set geisha advisor” for director Rob Marshall’s film adaptation. The film of Memoirs of a Geisha received mixed reviews: the choice of Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li for two of the main roles proved controversial, and its lavish romanticisation of geisha life saw it dubbed by one critic as “as authentic as cheeseburger teriyaki”. What did Dalby make of it?

“While the director and producers often asked my opinion on things, most of the time they went ahead and followed their own vision, “she says drily. “I do consider the film a wasted opportunity. As it is, it is just another western fantasy. Geisha are very misinterpreted in Western society - perhaps it’s because we don’t really have anything like geisha in our culture. People just have a hard time getting their minds around the idea of women who live in communities of women, entertain men, and aren’t prostitutes.”

Though geisha are still considered a central part of Japanese culture, the tradition is changing. As the Japanese economy has boomed, less and less young women see becoming a geisha as an attractive career choice, and some okiya struggle to recruit apprentices. Many women dressed as geisha are, Dalby warns, in fact just targeting tourists, and have had little or no formal training. Since Dalby, there’s even been another non-Japanese geisha - Australian Fiona Graham, who, due to the fact that she went through a more traditional training process, also lays claim to being the “first non-Japanese geisha”.

“In my opinion, it is really only the Kyoto geisha who have managed to make a success of things,” says Dalby. “They have done it by banding together and tying their fortunes to those of Kyoto itself, as a city of tradition. The older women, or ‘mothers’ of the five geisha districts make sure that the training of maiko is still authentic and rigorous. I think they realize that if they are going to continue as a profession, they must keep the artistic and cultural standards high.”

Dalby still frequently returns to Japan for talks and engagements, but says that her home is now America. Does she miss being Ichigiku when she’s away from Japan? “It’s always a wrench readjusting, but I have to say it’s getting easier as I get older, “she says. “I think I have a Japanese self and American self - and that’s just fine.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Japan Times: Women of quiet strength

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

Women of quiet strength The subtle power of feminine beauty roars from the canvases of Shoen Uemura

Special to The Japan Times

Female artists play a significant role in Japan's art world today, but a century ago, only a few women made a mark in the then male-dominated field. Shoen Uemura stands out as one of the most successful, a status she earned through the relentless study and perfection of her chosen theme of bijin-ga — pictures of beautiful women.

News photo
Lady in color: "Sound of the Tabor" (1938) from a private collection COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ART, TOKYO

"Uemura Shoen," at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, revisits the artist's career by showing around 90 paintings, which are complemented by more than 30 rarely exhibited sketches.

Uemura was born as Tsune Uemura in 1875. Her father having died just two months earlier, she was brought up by her mother, who ran a Kyoto tea shop. While her mother served the customers, the young Uemura drew pictures in a corner of the shop.

Even before she began formal art training at age 12, her pictures had earned her a reputation among the shop's customers. By age 15, she was exhibiting her work and went on to win not only awards in official art contests but also commissions from private patrons.

Though the subjects of bijin-ga woodblock prints were usually courtesans, Uemura portrayed ordinary women, either dressed up to go out or pictured in private, domestic moments.

She also painted a number of pictures inspired by female characters in noh theater. Such roles were usually performed by men, but Uemura had women recreate the poses for her works. The model for one of her best-known of these works, the impressively large "Jo-No-Mai," is said to have been her daughter-in-law, who poses in a confident and dignified manner, her vivid orange kimono dissolving into a luminous cloud pattern at the hem.

The majority of Uemura's work, however, shows women out and about in all their finery. Again, her great care in color choice for the kimono and obi and her attention to the design and texture of different fabrics give such works a charged vibrancy.

News photo
Seasonal elegance: "Springtime of Life (Bride)" (1899) COURTESY OF MEITO ART MUSEUM COURTESY OF MEITO ART MUSEUM

In "Snowflakes" (1944), Uemura positions the figures of two women in the bottom left corner and leaves the rest of the frame empty, apart for the occasional snowflake, to suggest depth. This uncluttered background — common to most of her pictures — allows the figures to stand out all the more. The parasols are rendered as broad, flat shapes in muted hues, so as not to distract from the faces of the women and the vivid coloring of their kimono.

Uemura took great delight in portraying women in different outfits accentuating the seasons of the year, be it a leisurely spring stroll or a battle against elements. In the humid summer months, the season is alluded to by a fan held by the main figure or through another motif within the picture, as in "Firefly" (1944) — the tiny insect being a harbinger of early summer. In "Women Walking Against a Snowstorm" (1911), two young ladies are hit by a strong gust of wind, and Uemura captures the flowing shape of the wind-swept garments with highly expressive outlines in ink — a rather rare example of dramatic action in her work.

One curatorial coup of the exhibition is its coupling of two works, similar in theme or composition, to facilitate comparison. This comes into play in a pair of paintings titled "Sound of the Tabor." Uemura first sketched her compositions on large paper sheets called shita-zu. Placed under the paper to be painted on, they allowed the outlines to be easily copied later to execute variations on a composition. The two paintings depict a rich merchant's daughter the moment after she hits a handheld drum. There is nothing wrong with the first painting, completed in 1938, but one can see why Uemura returned to it in 1940. The later version has a more satisfactory color balance, which brings the composition to life.

In "Listening to the Songs of Autumn Insects" (1907), a young lady in a purple-blue kimono and orange obi peeps out from behind a bamboo screen. The parts of her figure shown through the screen are rendered in subdued tones, emphasizing depth and atmosphere. The artist exaggerates the same effect in "Yang Guifei," which marked a comeback after a slump in her career that lasted several years. A maid fixing the hair of the famed consort to the seventh Emperor of the Tang Dynasty is shown faintly from behind a paper screen, which allows full attention to be paid to the clear and vivid beauty of her mistress.

Uemura was working at a time when Japanese art was going through a period of questioning and some great upheavals. While many artists began producing Western-influenced oil paintings, Uemura stuck to iwaenogu (mineral pigments) and Japanese themes. She strove to invoke dignity in her beautiful women, but a certain distance from her subjects also invited charges that her women resembled porcelain dolls rather than beings of flesh and blood.

This criticism is perhaps valid, though in numerous pictures Uemura succeeded in expressing feelings of quiet strength and other emotions, albeit in her own delicate manner. Toward the end of her life she depicted some of her childhood memories of her mother. In one graceful work from 1943, for example, her mother is seen fixing the paper on shoji doors; in another she threads a needle by the light of the fading evening sky.

Uemura died of cancer in 1949, one year after becoming the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture.
"Uemura Shoen" at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till Oct. 17; admission ¥1,300; open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). For more information, visit index.html.

Japan Times: Kimono in space

Friday, April 16, 2010

Yamazaki serves up hand-made sushi on ISS

HOUSTON (Kyodo) Astronauts Naoko Yamazaki and Soichi Noguchi have asked their colleagues aboard the International Space Station to try out some hand-rolled sushi.

News photo
Zero-G snack: Astronaut Naoko Yamazaki (in kimono) makes sushi with astronaut Soichi Noguchi on the International Space Station in this photo released by NASA on Wednesday. KYODO PHOTO

Images issued by NASA on Wednesday showed Yamazaki in a pink kimono putting rice on dried seaweed and handing the sushi rolls to her fellow astronauts.

While a few bits of rice drifted away in the space station's zero-gravity environment, Noguchi caught them in midair with his mouth.

Noguchi said before his departure in December that he would make sushi in space, and NASA allowed him to bring freeze-dried scallops and tuna to the orbiting facility.

Since docking with space shuttle Discovery, the ISS has developed a mechanical problem in one of its two cooling devices, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

The glitch will not affect the station's operations, but it requires a quick fix that might delay Discovery's return Monday by a day or so, NASA officials said.

The shuttle blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 5 for a 13-day mission. The shuttle and its seven-strong crew were originally scheduled to return to Earth on Sunday but delayed departure until Monday to fix its antenna.

Yamazaki is among Discovery's seven crew members. Astronauts and cosmonauts on the shuttle and the ISS were trying to wrap up the transfer of equipment and science experiments between the two vehicles.

Japan Times: Kimono like never before

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kimono like never before

Staff writer

In 1974, Hideko Kariya represented Japan in the Miss Internationals finals, a beauty pageant that started in California in 1960 and moved to Japan in 1968. She placed fifth. Then, in 1981, she married into a family than ran an ever-expanding empire of more than 100 kimono stores across Japan. But as the economy boomed, and with it the family business, Kariya humbly remained at home, Cinderella-like, raising two sons.

Sitting pretty: Hideko Kariya in her Hideya store in central Tokyo surrounded by some of the many beautiful garments she sells, both of the traditional variety and others using Velcro fastenings to significantly speed up the long business of getting attired. PHOTOS:YOSHIAKI MIURA

In the early 1990s, though, Japan's economic bubble burst and consumers across the nation suddenly tightened their collective obi. The Kansai area - based family kimono corporation Kariya had married into was hit hard from the start of that drastic downturn and began to crumble before eventually collapsing.

After that, Kariya and her husband opened a new kimono shop, in the Jimbocho district of central Tokyo, in 2005, and she suddenly found herself in the position of being an okami (female shop owner), with a steep learning curve ahead of her.

However, she learned fast, and after three years she recalls how she had developed a fascination for kimono as couture garments — though she couldn't stand the constant collisions that occurred between her feelings and the traditional ways her husband had been born into and couldn't see beyond.

But as Kariya had learned by then, the kimono business — in origin and to this day — is a very masculine one. "It started with Bushido (the samurai code of chivalry) and their kamon (family insignia)," Kamiya explains. "Its origin was very closely tied in with political power."

In contrast to Kariya's passion for kimono as couture, she tells how her husband regarded them more as trophy items he liked more the higher their price.

Back in the days, the family company owned a rather luxurious hotel in Kyoto where they exhibited their range of kimono and invited costumers to stay — which Kariya learned was a common sales approach adopted by traditional kimono companies.

However, she soon saw through the refined veneer.

"It was not only a traditional way of selling kimono by pampering the costumers," she explains, "because the aim was to make costumers compete among themselves and see who was wearing what and who was buying which one. I once saw a costumer buy a ¥30-million kimono on the spot."

Finally, in 2009, the strains got too much and Kariya separated from her husband and opened a store of her own, named Hideya in the Denenchofu area of Oota Ward in Tokyo.

She says of that step out on her own: "I wanted to approach the custumers in a more friendly way, like a local grocery vendor would." And now, free of any obligation to tradition, she happily describes herself as "the new kid on the block" — free to approach kimono in the way she wants: as a genre of couture.

On show: Hideko Kariya poses in street chic beside a beautiful length of kimono material on display in her Tokyo shop.

"A kimono can be very expensive, but I'm not critical of their prices or trying to change that image. Sometimes it may take a kimono-maker about a month to weave just 20 cm of an obi belt, and about a year to finish it. Obviously, time like that is quite big money."

Equally, Kariya is aware that the popularity of formal silk kimono — as opposed to the light, cotton yukata that have been all the rage these last few summers — is on the wane, and she's keen to do all she can to keep the tradition alive. However, she doesn't believe that preaching about tradition or harking back to the unbending mores of times gone by will do anything to help kimono and the new rising generations get along.

"A kimono is expensive and difficult to wear, but if that's killing the popularity, why not get rid of some parts of it to better fit the times?" Kariya inquires.

Among the "rebel" designs Kariya has created, one of them in particular confronts the mystique of kimono- wearing head on. With her Velcro kimono, rather than wearers needing to attend classes, as many do — and then even still require assistance — to simply dress themselves in the many layers of gowns and underskirts, the whole operation is cut down to a matter of minutes.

And — surprise, surprise — the idea for the Velcro kimono range that Kariya sells at Hideya came from a regular customer who is a member of the Imperial family. That customer, who is often in the media spotlight, explained that she liked to wear kimono on public occasions but simply didn't have the 40 minutes to an hour it normally takes to get dressed in one.

As a result, Kariya first made that customer a black kimono for funerals — with hidden Velcro tapes. Delighted, her upper-crust customer told her how, though it is acceptable nowadays to wear a Western-style black dress on official Imperial occasions, she personally far preferred a traditional kimono and this new-style garment was a dream come true.

Now, thanks to the magic of the hidden Velcro tapes, that busy Imperial family customer — or anyone else — only needs to take 10 minutes to dress perfectly in Japan's gorgeous, signature garment for women.

For Kariya, that's a huge, happy step on the way to realizing her dream of helping to fuel a kimono revival no matter how busy — or Imperial — the wearer may be.

For more information on Hideya, visit (Japanese only).

Japan Times: Makers of traditional cotton textiles

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

Makers of traditional cotton textiles aim for markets abroad

Kyodo News

KITAKYUSHU — Kitakyushu, with its eyes on foreign markets, is reviving the manufacture of a once-vanished traditional cotton textile.

News photo
Fashion revival: A woman arranges machine-woven Kokura-ori fabrics at a Kokura Creation Inc. shop in Kitakyushu last month. KYODO PHOTO

Kokura-ori is a strong but soft cotton fabric with vertical stripes of alternating colors. The weaving originated in the Buzen Kokura region during the Edo Period (1603-1867) in northern Kyushu.

The fabric was widely used for obi, "hakama," a kind of skirt for men, and various other items when kimono were the daily clothing.

So common as men's everyday clothing were hakama made of Kokura-ori that they receive a mention in various works of literature, including Natsume Soseki's "I Am a Cat."

The stripes are woven colored threads. Because the vertical threads are three times thicker than the horizontal ones, the stripes stand out clearly.

After the art almost vanished in the early Showa Era, Noriko Tsuiki, a dyeing and weaving artist in Kitakyushu, revived it in 1984 after a two-year period of trial and error.

"I wondered aloud, 'Is this cotton or silk or what?' because it was smooth and had a glossy surface," recalled Tsuiki, 57, of her first impression when she came across a small piece in an antique shop.

"I'm sure Kokura-ori will be accepted globally, because European people love fabric. Although there are many striped fabrics in the world, Kokura-ori is unique in its great design," Tsuiki said.

She runs a crafts center in a rural area in Kitakyushu where she produces handwoven products.

Kokura Creation Inc., led by President Hideko Watanabe, the younger sister of Tsuiki, deals with a variety of woven products, including purses and card cases.

Tsuiki has succeeded in developing a mechanical weaving process to produce items in large volume.

The company has taken part in trade fairs in Frankfurt and Paris since 2008 and received orders from a distributor in Switzerland.

Original products like table mats and wrapping cloths are also sold in Japan, though in limited number.

The Kitakyushu Chamber of Commerce and Industry set up a committee last month to study the tastes and preferences of consumers abroad to come up with products that will suit the world market, thanks to a subsidy from the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency to foster new Japan brands. Kokura Creation says it is ready to help the project.

Japan Times: Rags and riches by the Myoshoji

Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Rags and riches by the Myoshoji

Artisans down by the riverside make a clean job of preserving priceless traditions


Few writers have been able to evoke the bare beams of poverty or the lambent lives of those who endure it with more dignity than Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951).

News photo
Spotless reputations: Wataru Shimizu (left) and Yukio Kato are expert professionals in the specialist field of shimi-nuki (stain removal from kimono and delicate fabrics).
News photo

It therefore seems fitting that I pick the iciest day of winter to walk northwest of Nakai Station (on both the Seibu Shinjuku and Oedo lines in Shinjuku Ward) in search of the home of this feminist author who ousted penury with a pen.

I find a sign pointing uphill to the Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Hall, and I worry it will be a dank concrete place full of musty books in locked glass cases. At nearby garden cafe Ra-Ra-Ra, I chat with 65-year-old owner Mitsue Maezawa, who tells me, "I opened my business when my grandchildren were grown. I was inspired by Hayashi's independence."

Maezawa also assures me that the home where Hayashi lived the last 10 years of her short life, from 1941-51, is well worth visiting. Climbing Yon-no-saka (Fourth Slope), I see that she's right. Tucked behind the remains of the bamboo grove that Hayashi loved, a sukiya-tsukuri (refined, tea house-inspired) home seamlessly incorporates features considered modern for 1941, such as a large kitchen and small reception parlor — elements that Hayashi and her architect, Bunya Yamaguchi, designed together.

Building-size restrictions back then meant that Hayashi had to split the residence into what amounts to two houses — one for guests and editorial meetings, the other for her husband, painter Tezuka Ryokubin, their adopted son, Tai, and for writing.

A child of itinerant peddlers and no stranger to poverty or abusive love affairs, Hayashi nonetheless gambled on success, exhausting her savings to buy this land in Nakai. Proceeds from two of her most famous works, "Yukigumo" ("Floating Clouds") and "Horoki" ("A Vagabond's Diary"), then helped cover the building costs.

As I walk the garden, a grounds attendant takes my arm and shows me a purple-tinted yukiwariso ("snow- breaking" hepatica) surrounded by glittering needles of column frost. With plum buds still tight, and the garden mostly dormant, this is an unexpected gift.

Circling the estate, I peer into the rooms of the houses, so open-aired that clouds and bees could waft through unobstructed. But I'm looking for the place where Hayashi actually wrote.

I know it when I see it; it is the storage room in the family wing where she set up her desk. Shielded from the bright winter sun, insulated by closets, the garden view adjustable with horizontally sliding shoji (paper screens) and a teapot poised on a wooden hibachi: here is a room in which imagination could pace.

I linger on the grounds a bit longer before retracing my steps across the Myoshoji River and then heading east beside its bank. I spot homes, some not 2 meters wide, clinging to the top of its floodwalls, and I wonder who lives in such confines. At a garage, where I think to ask this question, I meet 60-year-old Takashi Otani, who is sedulously snipping a complicated curve from sheet metal.

"Curves are the most difficult to execute," Otani tells me, explaining that he's "constructing a roof decoration for Disney, for the 'Hungry Bear' attraction."

Otani has been working in bankin (sheet metal) for 40 years, and is now part of the team doing renovations on the amusement park. "Tokyo Disneyland is 26 years old," he says while leafing through a book of complex specifications, "so it's time."

I discover that Otani lives above his garage workshop, but before I can delve further, he realizes I'm interested in people who work with their hands. He promptly drags me off to meet a friend of his.

News photo
Learning curves: Master dyer Masaru Ono gives quiet pointers to Chikako Okano, one of the apprentices at Futaba-en, as they stretch out lengths of fabric to dry.

Back across the river I go, as Otani explains that this stretch of the Myoshoji used to be full of dyers washing out their fabrics in the clear-running waters. And where there are dyers, there are kimono, and where there are kimono, Otani tells me, there are men engaged in shimi-nuki (stain removal). But as I am about to learn, this is a whole artisan's craft unto itself.

Yukio Kato is busy repotting plants when we arrive. Otani orders his former school classmate to brush off the dirt and hurry up to show me what shimi-nuki is all about. Kato, extremely good-natured through his puzzlement, immediately complies. He leaps over his low worktable, turns on a gas stove, and spreads out a few kimono and obi fabrics.

As he arranges bottles of bleach, benzene, and "trade-secret" chemical concoctions for stain removal, he and Otani trade banter. I note that some of the solvents Kato is using are toxic. "I don't care," he says. "I'm an idiot, so I became a craftsman. You can tell everyone that."

"Speak for yourself," Otani retorts, turning to me. "We craftsmen actually use our heads, you know."

Kato roars in laughter at this, but as soon as he starts to work, he's utter diligence. Taking a forged spatula-like tool off the gas stove, he quenches it briefly in water, then slides it into the sleeve of a kimono. The heat from the tool, a kote, steams chemicals he has applied to a stain, evaporating both simultaneously and leaving the delicate kimono spotless. Sonically pulsed water and electromagnetic guns may be some of the newer tools of his trade, but where colors have faded, Kato can even spot-dye a kimono the age-old way.

Removing sweat marks or stains left too long, and cleaning fabrics dyed a shade known as "Fuji pink" are the biggest challenges, Kato explains, scrubbing at a stubborn mark with a horsetail brush. When he unscrews an ammonia-based cleanser, it propels me and Otani to our feet and half out the door.

Thanking Kato from a safe distance, we cross the river once again and I follow Otani's directions to one of Tokyo's last dyeing factories, Futaba-en. I tell him I will stop in again soon. He shakes his head as he quips, "Look for me at Disneyland."

The side yards of humble houses on the way to Futaba-en, many piled high with abandoned electrical goods and junk, conjure up Hayashi's "Horoki," in which the narrator bemoans not having enough yen to buy benzene to clean her own kimono.

In stark contrast to these surroundings, Futaba-en's sleek new facilities come as a surprise. From a video display outside the building, I get a quick education in two dye styles.

Edo Komon, a stenciled resist-dye technique, results in teeny, intricate patterns originally designed to sneak by restrictions placed on luxury clothing in the Edo Period (1603-1867) by the simple expedient of appearing to be one plain color from a few meters away.

Edo Sarasa, Tokyo's take on pattern dyeing, was derived from techniques in India and Java and requires as many as 30 or 40 individual stencils to complete the pattern.

News photo
Cultural cache: Originally intended as a storage space, the room in her home that feminist writer Fumiko Hayashi chose as her workplace has a quiet simplicity conducive to conjuring the trials of Japan's underclasses in the first half of the 20th century. The house, now the Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Hall, is a marvelous 1940s time capsule set in grounds that would be any garden-lover's delight.

Motobumi Kobayashi, the fourth-generation owner of Futaba-en, has pumped fresh color into the world of traditional dyeing by attracting young and motivated apprentices, developing new products made from the fabrics, and showcasing his artistic wares internationally. In fact, I barely get a chance to speak to him before he takes his leave for an exhibition in Paris.

Instead, over Futaba-en's "Milky Way" of drying kimono lengths, I meet 66-year-old Masaru Ono, who has more than 48 years' experience in dyeing techniques. Two apprentices, Chikako Okano, 30, and Yuji Morimoto, 27, work ceaselessly in the background as Ono describes how the correct spacing of the thin shinshi (bamboo struts) that hold the fabric taut while dyeing is one of the trickiest skills to teach.

"But it's all hard," he says with a knowing smile, "learning the process, sequencing, and speed."

To share his skills, though, Ono teaches classes to the public on Fridays and Saturdays in the hope that others, too, will discover the aji (nuance) of genuine dyed work.

The day draws to a close, but Ono insists that I meet yet another shimi-nuki expert, Wataru Shimizu. Sun glints like gold foil on the river as I cross it yet again. In a third-story workshop with no sign outside — those who need to know where Shimizu is, already know — the 58-year-old expert quietly works on a kimono that to me appears perfect. But, no. He points out a bit of color that has bled where it shouldn't. He eyes it with a loupe. Yes, he will need to fix that. He takes a matchstick, soaks it in a solvent and, using his fingernail as a guide, drums the infinitesimal flaw out of existence.

As he works, Shimizu explains that the sound a kote makes when dipped in water lets him know if it will bake the kimono or not. Shimizu learned the trade from his father, who studied in Kyoto.

I ask if Shimizu knows Kato, who also employs a kote. He smiles. "Kato is the apprentice of one of my apprentices," he says, with pride.

Shimizu's wife quietly receives delivery men who come and go with boxes of kimono as we talk. When I finally head home, I muse that along this drab backstreet live some of the most enriching people in the city.

Japan Times: Talented Women of Kyoto

Friday, July 16, 2010

The talented women of Kyoto

Special to The Japan Times

"Women Artists of Kyoto: Bearing Burdens / Burdens Born" is ostensibly about the classification of female artists since the late 19th century. The term "keishu-gaka" refers to accomplished women artists, "joryu-gaka" to post-World War II artists who created trends among male colleagues and "josei-gaka" simply emphasizes the feminine gender of an artist.

News photo
Images of womanhood: Hisako Kajiwara's "Sisters" (c. 1916). COURTESY OF THE KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF ART

Distinguishing between male and female interpretations of art has been historically important in Japan, and remains so. In the 1990s, the critic Kotaro Iizawa gave the name "onnanoko shashinka" (girl photographers) to an emergent generation of female artists with a penchant for taking brightly-colored photographs of everyday and intimate scenes.

The visual thrust of this exhibition, however, concerns the larger theme of the way female artists have represented women in accord with their times. The exhibition begins with idealized depictions of femininity that were the requisite of late 19th-century female artists and progresses to further psychologically and aesthetically complex portrayals of womanhood. All the works are nihonga (Japanese-style painting), as yoga (Western-style painting) was considered a masculine domain, periodically castigated for its immoral subject of the nude, which is brought under scrutiny in a final section of the show.

Shoen Uemura (1875-1949), the archetypal keishu-gaka, depicts an elegant femininity in "A Fine Day" (1941), where a woman handles a piece of cloth. Special attention is given to the hairstyle and kimono — distinctive markers of the woman's high social class, and stylistically suggestive of an Edo Period (1603-1968) inheritance.

Uemura was perhaps the most important female painter of her day, and her status and wealth were commensurate with her male contemporaries. Her focus was bijin-ga (portraits of beautiful women) and she helped elevate the genre to the top echelons of nihonga. Though her work was largely conservative, sharing Meiji Era (1868-1912) ideals of femininity that embraced familial roles and domesticity, Uemura's personal social situation as a single mother was striking in contrast. Her son, born in 1902, was thought to have resulted from an affair with her teacher, Suzuki Shonen (1849-1918) — a married man. Care of the boy was left to her mother, and Uemura supported the family through painting.

While Uemura's figures tend to lack individuality, Ito Shoha's middle- upper-class ladies, such as in "Summer" (1920), display emotional turns. Here a woman sits on a window sill looking bored, sad even, and Ito's facial expressions are less doll-like and more individualized than Uemura's. Shoha's social situation, too, stands in direct contrast to Uemura's. Ito was a faithful housewife and a mother of three, a situation that buoyed her public reception to almost overtake that of Uemura during the Taisho Period (1912-26).

Hisako Kajiwara (1896-1988) grew up in the democracy that characterized the Taisho Period, and the themes of her work moved further down the social ladder. Part of the Jinsei-ha (Humanist School), Kajiwara depicted mental disability with paintings such as "Sisters" (1916), representing the physiognomy of Down Syndrome, and "Tramstop Towards Nightfall" (1918), showing a world-weary woman leaning on her umbrella as she waits for her ride home.

News photo
Far left: Shoen Uemura's "Waiting for the Moon" (1926). COURTESY OF THE KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF ART

Kajiwara's pictorial world is a sad and tired one that has been executed in precise detail, earning her the criticism of "vulgar realism." Her techniques were a nod in the direction of Western-style painting, not usually part of a woman's sphere of activity. Her later work from the 1930s, however, concedes to a rosier, less socially engaged view of life.

For Tatsu Hirota (1904-90), that shift from challenging to conservative is observed in reverse. Unlike Europe, Japan had no tradition of the idealized nude as one of the highest form of beauty. Instead, if one looks to the closest native predecessor, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), the social position of the nude was low, and late 19th-century and early 20th-century audiences responded with according disdain. When the nude first appeared in nihonga during the 1910s, she tended to be treated grotesquely by male artists. Later depictions by the female artist Shima Seien (1892-1970), however, offered an alternative.

The nude essentially remained a proscribed subject for women until post-WWII society permitted otherwise. In 1945, Hirota was painting conventional compositions, such as "Mother and Child," but in 1951 she portrayed "Nude," a mildly abstracted naked body and a formal experiment in line and color. By the '70s, she was depicting women undressing, and by the '80s and '90s, her full nudes went for bare eroticism. Though something of an exception, Hirota released female sensuality instead of restraining it. Rather than a radical challenge to convention, however, late 20th-century nihonga only sanctioned such subjects because of their prior uptake by male artists. The male nude, on the other hand, remains anathema.

"Women Artists of Kyoto: bearing burdens / burdens born" at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Sept. 5; admission ¥500; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit

Japan Times: Women of the Showa Era

Friday, March 12, 2010

'Showa no Joseitachi'


Kiyokawa Taiji Memorial Gallery
Closes March 22

Taiji Kiyokawa (1919-2000) is best known for his works in oil, having produced hundreds of paintings at his Tokyo, Setagaya residence/atlier, which he built himself during the 1960s. Before devoting himself to oil painting in the 1940s, however, Kiyokawa studied at Keio University's Business School in the '30s, where he also joined a photography club.

News photo

The photographs that he took during the late '30s and the early '40s are archived, along with his life works, at Taiji Kiyokawa Memorial Gallery; and this spring the gallery will be giving the public the opportunity to see some of the photos in a special exhibition. Being held just below the children's nursery, in what used to be the artist's atlier, "Showa no Joseitachi" (Women of the Showa Era) is as the title suggests — an appreciation of the ladies.

During the Showa Era (1926-1989), Japan went through significant political, economic and philosophical changes. This exhibition explores the affect such changes had on women through five themes: Showa modern, kimono, family, everyday life, and mother. During the 1940s many women began shunning their domestic aprons, preferring to been seen in fashionable high heels and dresses. World War II also drastically changed the role of women in society, as did the country's recovery during the postwar years. The wide scope of the Showa Era allows us to observe such developments through the eyes of Kiyokawa, whose images not only reflect growing female empowerment, but reveal a personal respect for motherhood and feminism.

Kiyokawa Taiji Memorial Gallery is a 3-min. walk from Seijogakuenmae Station. (Odakyu line); open from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., closed Mon.; admission ¥200. For more information, visit

Japan Times: Yumeji Takahisa and Taisho Era Romance

Friday, Feb. 26, 2010

Yumeji Takahisa and Taisho Era Romance


Yumeji Takehisa Museum Closes on March 28

Located next to Tokyo University, the Yumeji Takehisa Museum is dedicated to one of the unique painters of the late Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-28) eras. One of the reasons his art was so distinctive was because he was self-taught. His hanga prints and illustrations, featuring beautiful women, have a lot in common with Nihonga bijinga, but, free of artistic conventions, Takehisa was also able to successfully absorb foreign artistic influences and techniques while clinging to traditional subject matter and atmosphere.

News photo
"Mai" (1926) by Yumeji Takehisa (woodblock print)

While Nihonga bijinga tend to be doll-like and rigid, Takehisa's have a beautiful, sinuous, expressive quality combined with an atmosphere of melancholy. This bittersweet combination also made him the quintessential artist of the Taisho Era, a time of unparalleled prosperity for Japan that was marred by political struggles and the adverse effects of rapid industrialization.

With its 250 items, the exhibition strives to place the artist at the center of an extended artistic context — although he was always something of a populist outcast from elite artistic circles, making his living working as an illustrator for magazines such as Shin-Shojo (New Girl) and Fujin no tomo (Women's Friend), among others.

The exhibition's five sections include pictures of musicians, fashionable ladies and show-business figures. The unifying thread is the typical Yumeji beauty: a graceful, elegant, slightly put-upon creature in a kimono and with a faraway look in her eyes. She serves as an interesting counterpoint to the social reality of the time, which history tells us was dominated by the brashly confident and economically (and sexually) independent moga (modern girl), the Japanese equivalent of the West's flappers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Japan Times: All for the love of wearing kimono

Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009

All for the love of wearing kimono

Young and old have been gathering in Ginza for years to promenade in their favorite garb

Kyodo News

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-December, several dozen people in Christmas-themed kimono appeared in Tokyo's bustling Ginza district.

News photo
Fashion passion: Women take part Dec. 12 in "Kimono de Ginza," a monthly event to wear the traditional costume on the streets of Tokyo's bustling Ginza district. KYODO PHOTO

People watched them pass, clad in traditional belted robes of differing patterns and flower motifs, standing out in the otherwise monotone crowd.

As the clock struck 3 p.m., they started moving down a pedestrian street in loose groups, heading off to shops in the area, while the curious followed to take snapshots and others asked if this was part of a film shoot. One woman smiled and shook her head.

The sight has become common in the area as "Kimono de Ginza," a monthly occasion to wear kimono, marks its 10th anniversary in 2010.

The event is open to anyone who shows up at the specified time and place on the second Saturday of every month. Participants can exchange information on kimono and can leave anytime to go off on their own, but all are invited to a dinner at the end of the day.

Over the years, what started as a gathering of less than a dozen male friends has grown into a more public event, drawing an average of about 50 men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s. On some days, more than 100 people have turned up.

"The only rule we have is this — do not criticize others for how they are dressed," said a man who goes by the name Gojyaku Kyoya, stating the rule that some say is the key to why the event has lasted so long and unites people who like formal kimono and those who like casual kimono.

The 59-year-old longtime participant said he was looking for a place to wear kimono "more casually" and ended up at Kimono de Ginza, disliking the strict dress codes imposed at some gatherings.

For many decades kimono were worn with a serious face — considered appropriate for special occasions such as graduations, coming of age ceremonies and weddings. But over the past few years, they have been gaining popularity as casual wear.

Popular Japanese social networking Web sites like mixi and GREE list more than 700 Internet communities on kimono, with a number of them holding gatherings in the real world. Meanwhile, inexpensive secondhand kimono shops are sprouting up everywhere.

Writer-illustrator Ima Kikuchi, who has published several books on kimono, said the trend picked up sometime around 2002 and the number of kimono lovers has since steadily grown.

"A nonceremonial style of kimono has established itself as a new genre today, and people are enjoying it, just like Western clothes," she said, explaining the increase in kimono shops and availability of colorful socks and decorative collars for kimono that attract younger generations.

She also noted the different desires of people who wear kimono, saying, "I think there are people who wish to transform themselves by wearing kimono and those who just want to be themselves."

She added that women in their 30s and 40s are leading the kimono trend, while older generations tend to go for wearing kimono they got from their parents.

While past Kimono de Ginza events have had many young participants, including university students and people in their 20s, there were many more people in their 40s and 50s whose parents frequently wore kimono but who themselves grew up not wearing them.

"My mother loved kimono, but for a long time I could not understand why she loved them so much. I wanted to find out," a 50-year-old woman from Yokohama said in explaining why she started wearing kimono and coming to the event.

"Here I met with people who wear kimono like they wear T-shirts. It was an eye-opener," she said. "This event taught me that a kimono is something to play with, not something to admire."

Handcrafting and mixing different materials is part of the fun. The Yokohama woman wore a yellow ribbon used for wrapping a bottle of wine instead of a thin strap used in keeping the "obi" (sash) in position. Others had sewn a Christmas-themed cloth together and made it into an obi or painted a snowman on a kimono jacket to suit the season.

"You don't have to pay millions to enjoy kimono," said Kyoya, pointing out another female participant, who jokingly said the total amount she paid for her full ensemble, including sandals, was "cheaper than buying clothes at Uniqlo."

Another participant, Sheila Cliffe, who teaches English at Jumonji University in Saitama Prefecture, gave an artistic reason to love kimono.

"A kimono has poetry. It has many different motifs, like flowers, vegetables and even bugs that you won't see on Western clothes, and by wearing it you can create a story, like Christmas," she said in Japanese, showing her kimono coordinated in Christmas red, green and gold.

There have been several non-Japanese participants and others who did not know how to wear kimono.

Many participants said this is not a concern because others can teach them how to wear kimono, show them how to coordinate different colors and items, and provide information on where to get them.

"Anyone is welcome here," said Shigematsu, one of the earliest participants in the event. "I just think it is nice that we can all enjoy wearing kimono as friends."

Regardless of age or background, the participants appear to have built a strong bond by the time they come together for the dinner and drinks portion of the event.