Ainu Textiles

 Discovering Ainu textiles in Hokkaido was the greatest surprise of my 2018 trip to Japan. I knew a little about Japanese textile traditions, but never heard of Ainu fabrics. Once in Hokkaido, these textiles captivated me with their bold geometric beauty.

Who Are the Ainu?

The Ainu are the indigenous people of the island of Hokkaido. Originally from Russia, they populated the island for over 20,000 years. For centuries, they were hunter-gatherers who lived off the land, relying mostly on fishing and hunting.

Ainu Beliefs

The Ainu see themselves as a part of the natural world. They believe that spirits dwell in every thing or being in this world. They regard animals, plants, and things like fire, water, clothes or tools, which are essential for everyday life, as well as things like diseases or weather that are beyond human control, as kamuy (gods).

Bears have a special importance in Ainu culture. There are over eighty words in their language to describe bears. The Ainu saw bears as gods in animal form and as gifts of the gods.

The Ainu collected bear cubs born during hibernation. They hosted them in their homes, treating them as honored guests or as one of their own children.

After a cub turned two, the Ainu performed a ritual called iyomante. The ritual lasted three days and three nights, during which they separated the cub’s spirit from its body, helping it return to its real mother in the realm of the gods. The bear’s fur and meat were considered a great gift from the divine.

Japanese started interacting with the Ainu as early as the 7th century. With time, Japanese immigrated to the island and started settling it, restricting the Ainu more and more. In the Meiji period (beginning in 1868), the Japanese fully annexed Hokkaido (for more on the Ainu and the fraught relations between the two people see Wikipedia).

Ainu Clothes

Materials

Historically, the Ainu made their clothing out of the natural materials that were available to them. These included fish skins, animal hides and fibers woven from tree bark (especially of the Japanese elm and linden trees) or various grasses. The Ainu had clothes for everyday use, and outfits for special occasions such as religious ceremonies or festivals. When the Japanese arrived, making cotton available by trade, the Ainu began adding decorative cotton motifs to their ceremonial garments. They carefully decorated them with applique, reverse applique and embroidery.

Later, when cotton was more readily available and cheaper, they started making clothes entirely out of cotton.

Symbolism

Clothes-making and embroidery were women’s work. Girls learned textile work from their mothers at a young age. The ornamental patterns they used varied by lineage and region, though some motifs were recurring. Some of these included “moreu” (spirals), and “aiushi” (thornes). Women added patterns to areas of clothing considered vulnerable, such as collars, cuffs, hems and backs. They believed that the patterns warded off evil spirits, and protected the wearer.

“Ainu women insert their feelings toward their intended recipients into the cloth itself, ‘Stitch by stitch as the embroidery is sewn, the heart of the seamstress is inserted into the cloth of the garment. When the wearer puts the garment on his or her body, the sentiments of the artisan are said to be transmuted, and the wearer is protected by this passion, woven into the cloth itself, through the protective motif embroidered on the coat.'” (see this article).

The clothes thus carried political, spiritual and symbolic meanings. The Ainu saw the cloth itself as both sustaining and helping constitute personhood. They considered clothes to be divine, and also used them for medicinal purposes. Making clothes, appliqueing and embroidering them were deeply spiritual acts. 

Although I didn’t necessarily understand the symbolism behind the Ainu garments I saw during my trip to Hokkaido, I could certainly feel their raw power.

If you’d like to learn more, there are several books about Ainu textiles, as well as many articles. The quotes above are from this article. You can see another example here.

Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour

During our family trip to Japan I managed to carve out one day for a solo Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour. I combed through our guidebooks and the internet, and came up with an itinerary that seemed promising. Then I ditched my family and went exploring. As it turned out, some of my destinations ended up being great fun, while others … less so.

The Kyoto Shibori Museum

My first stop was the Shibori Museum, which happened to be within walking distance from my hotel. This small but pleasant museum has two floors. The bottom floor has a small shop selling books about shibori as well as hand-dyed fabrics and finished artwork. It also has space dedicated to classes.

The second floor features a detailed exhibition explaining different dyeing techniques, mostly from Japan but also from other countries. There is an English brochure, and the display has English signs making the dyeing process clear.

When I visited the museum, I was the only guest there. The staff was very helpful, and I got to have a private, English-speaking tour guide who took me through the exhibition and answered all my questions. Then I had my own, private shibori lesson, resulting in a beautiful silk scarf (that the director of the museum himself helped me unravel!):

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend this museum! To learn more check the museum’s website.

The Nishijin Textile Center

After I finished my scarf, I headed over to the Nishijin Textile Center. Nishijin was Kyoto’s traditional weaving district. When I learned it had a Textile Center, I couldn’t be more excited! My excitement died down when I got there, however. Although informative, the Center felt like a big tourist trap. Tourists arrived by the bus-loads, and were swarming throughout the displays and shop. Coming from the amazing-yet-deserted Shibori Museum, I was very surprised to see so many people at a textile center…

The ground floor of the Center had an old-fashioned display, with fading posters explaining the Nishijin weaving process. 

The second floor was mostly a huge shop. It had beautiful fabrics for sale, as well as traditional Japanese clothes.

There was a weaving demonstration:

A wall display explaining the different kinds of fabrics:

And some other small displays:

The Center also offered an array of classes in different textile arts (such as weaving, or making your own hat or purse). Had I not just taken a class at the shibori museum, I would have surly done so here. 

The Center also featured a fashion show, showcasing different styles of kimonos:

To plan your trip to the Center (and maybe take a class there), check out their website.

Aizenkobo Workshop

From the Textile Center I walked a few blocks to the Aizenkobo workshop.This family workshop (or atelier), is located in a traditional wooden house on a small alley. It specializes in indigo dyeing, and the making of Japanese and Western-style clothing. The front room of the house is a shop selling functional (but rather old fashioned) pieces. 

When I got there, the place was very quiet and I was the only visitor. Eventually an elderly man came out to greet me. He showed me to the work area at the back of the house. In very broken English he explained that his son, the artist, wasn’t there. I understood that the family wasn’t making the indigo dye themselves, but rather bought it from other parts of Japan. Their expertise was the dyeing itself. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand much, and my host didn’t want me to take any pictures. Sadly, the visit ended up feeling rather awkward. 

If you wish to visit the workshop but can’t speak Japanese, I suggest coming with an interpreter (or possibly the artist himself speaks some English?). You can also check their website for more information.

Orinasu-kan

A rather long walk in scorching heat then lead me to Orinasu-kan. Established in 1989, this small museum is dedicated to preserving Kyoto’s traditional dyeing and weaving culture. It is housed in a beautiful (but dark) old building that was once an obi (kimono belt) shop.

When I entered the museum, I realized that, once again, I was the only patron. A grumpy receptionist who spoke no English reluctantly greeted me. He then got really upset with me when I didn’t understand where he wanted me to put my shoe-less feet…

The ground-floor display was interesting, but with sparse English explanations. It had some beautiful Noh costumes, as well as fabric-pattern books.

The small upstairs gallery had some coarser woven fabrics:

The receptionist asked me something about a tour, and I said yes. He then showed me into a darkish side room, gave me some tea, and left me there alone for half an hour. I must admit that I was a bit nervous at that point, not sure what was going on. I regretted not bringing my family along (though I knew my kids would not have enjoyed any of it).

Eventually, the receptionist told me to go back up to the second-floor gallery. Once there, a door I haven’t even noticed opened in the far wall. A man came out and motioned for me to follow. I did, although I wasn’t at all sure if that was the right (or safe) thing to do. The man told me not to take any pictures. Then he showed me into a room-full of weaving looms. The room was very hot, humid and crowded with looms. There were only two weavers present, however, each working on a different type of fabric. Seeing how they wove the intricate designs was interesting.

If you want to visit this museum, I suggest to take someone along, to make it less awkward. I couldn’t find a website for the museum, but you can read more about it here. And do expect to be yelled at as you attempt to take your shoes off…

Nomura Tailor House

By the time I was done with the Orinasu-kan Museum I was rather exhausted, but there was still one destination on my list: the Nomura Tailor House, a large fabric store. I took a bus and then walked some more. When I got there, melting and thirsty, I found this:

I almost burst into tears. Luckily, the second branch in this chain was only a couple of blocks away, and I made it there safely.

My family joined me as I was shopping, and we all went to a cafe. There, I cooled down with a well-earned iced matcha latte.

 

Doll-maker Aya Furuta and a Missed Craft Show in Matsumoto, Japan

On the second day of our family trip to Japan, we toured Matsumoto. We spent a fun day exploring the famous castle and the nearby Matsumoto City Museum

In the afternoon we strolled down the alleys of the old part of town, looking for a restaurant. We passed by a big building with open doors.

I kept walking, but my husband, to my great horror, went in to explore. Soon, he chased me down the road and told me I must go in. It felt a bit awkward, but I did. Inside I found people packing what turned out to be the exact kind of textile craft show I was hoping to see in Japan.

It turned out that the show was a once-a-year event showcasing local textile artists. It was open for two days, and just closed shortly before we arrived. The artists were in the midst of packing the artwork, but they were kind enough to let me walk around and drool over everything that remained visible.

I saw gorgeous dyed and printed fabrics for doors, windows or for the wall, as well as some interesting woven art involving twigs:

 There were beautiful room dividers and impressive textile fish:

I caught a glimpse of some table cloths and cushions:

And possibly some scarves, that the artists were putting away…

And then I saw some of the most beautiful dolls I’ve ever seen:

The artist who made them was there, too. 

In the 1970’s, Aya Furuta traveled extensively in South East Asia. At that time, Japan experienced an economic boom that quickened the pace of life. The life in the countries Aya visited, on the other hand, remained slower and more sane. Aya felt drawn to to that slower pace. During her travels, she collected a vast assortment of antique, traditional handmade textiles. She appreciated the great care that went into weaving and embroidering them. Later, she started making dolls using these textiles. She has been a doll maker for over thirty years.

Dressing her dolls with her collected South-Asian textiles fills Aya Furuta with pleasure. She feels that the textiles connect her to the prayers and joys of the people who created them. The dolls are her way to preserve the spirit of a different kind of life, to point to a slower way of living that modern people have forgotten.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to purchase one of Aya Furuta’s dolls, but I gladly bought her inspiring doll catalog.

I was hoping (expecting?) to find other, similar textile craft shows in other places in Japan, but to my great disappointment this never happened. Despite my lingering sense of missed opportunity, I feel very fortunate to have meet Aya Futura and her dolls!

 

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Matsumoto City Museum and Traditional Japanese Crafts

Many tourists visit Matsumoto for its beautifully-preserved sixteenth-century castle. Only a few stop by the small Matsumoto City Museum right across the courtyard. Although somewhat old fashioned, this museum bears a nostalgic charm. It displays a handmade model of the castle from 1911:

And also offers a peek into the rich world of traditional Japanese crafts from the Matsumoto region.

Traditional Matsumoto Crafts

Beautifying Everyday Life

In pre-industrial societies, people made everyday objects by hand. In Matsumoto, peasants crafted various kinds of baskets out of a specific type of bamboo called Suzutake. They worked on these baskets in winter, the agricultural off season. Matsumoto baskets became famous in Japan from the Edo period onward, and in the beginning of the twentieth century were even exported to Europe and the United States.

As in many parts of the world, however, the most beautiful manifestations of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts evolved around the lives of the elites.

Samurai armor and swards were an important part of the warrior culture of ancient Japan, and many artisans therefore put a lot of effort into making them beautiful. The museum offers a few examples of such artifacts preserved from local samurai families.

Matsumoto Thread Balls appeared in the late 17th century, after cotton threads became widespread. Originally, they were the toys of girls from elite samurai families of the Matsumoto clan. Later they became a popular kind of regional folk art, with many different patterns.

In the Tenpo era (1830-1843), as part of his efforts to promote the town’s industry, the Matsumoto feudal lord encouraged samurai families to produce Oshiebina dolls. People made these dolls to represent kabuki actors and historical figures. They created them by wrapping cotton over cardboard and putting a bamboo skewer at the back for better display.

 

Ritual-related Arts

Many of the traditional crafts in the museum revolve around rituals. These Omiki-no-kuchi, for example, are bamboo sake-bottle charms: 

People placed them in Shinto alters on New year’s Eve. The art of making them is dying out, however. Only a few families in Matsumoto are still skilled in the craft. 

Another example of a ritual-related craft is straw figures such as this, which were meant to represent the Poverty God. Peasants placed them on the boundaries of villages to prevent the invasion of the Plague God. It was their way to try to ensure good harvest and peace.

Tanabata Dolls in various forms are related to the Star Festival. In most places in Japan, people celebrate this festival on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Matsumoto, however, people celebrate it on August 7th. This festival, by the way, is based on a Chinese folktale about a love story between a Weaver and an Alter. The Matsumoto City Museum has some dolls dating from the 18th century. 

People still use Tanabata dolls today, giving them as gifts on important life-cycle-related events.

Various deity figurines and dolls made for festivals, shrines and alters were also widespread. Aren’t they spectacular?

 

Interested to read more about arts in Japan? Try these posts.

The Nagamachi Yuzen-kan Silk-Painting Museum in Kanazawa, Japan

During our summer trip to Japan we visited many of the country’s famous attractions. Every now and then, through, I dragged my kids a little off the beaten pass to see some textile-related wonders. This is how, during our visit to Kanazawa, we ended up in the Nagamachi Yuzen-kan Silk-Painting Museum.

Housed in a modern, indistinct building in the Nagamachi district, the museum was a bit hard to find. Although not big, it was very informative, and is a worthy stop for any textile-loving tourist. The first room in the museum depicts the process of silk painting, describing each stage of the process in both Japanese and English (!). The second room displays some spectacular samples. The museum also has a small gift shop that sells some hand-painted items.

Hand-dyed silk is a work of art that requires many hours of work by several highly-skilled artisans. Since I assume some of you might not be able to visit the museum, I thought I’d give you a virtual tour. All the explanations  below are based on the signs in the museum.

Room One: The Stages of Painting Silk

The Kaga Yuzen designs combine traditional design elements with the artist’s observations of nature. Each design starts with a pencil sketch on paper, in the same size it will eventually appear on the finished product.

Once finished, skilled artisans trace the design onto white silk. They do this with fine brushes and blue ink, and use a steady hand to draw flowing, evenly-thin and quick lines.

Then, artisans apply a thin line of rice paste onto the sketch. They put the paste into a Japanese paper tube with a brass tip, and squeeze it out (similar to how many of us decorate cakes). After they cover all the lines with paste, they spray the silk with water and then let the paste dry.

Once dry, specialized artisans paint the design with fine brushes. It takes seven years to learn the technique, ten years to refine it, and a hundred (!!) kimonos to practice it on…

When the design in all painted, artisans carefully cover it with rice paste before moving on to dye the background color. They have to do this with great precision, so that no white patches are left.

After they cover the design with paste, the artisans dip the silk into soy bean juice to prepare it for absorbing the background dye.

A day later they use large brushes made of deer hair to evenly apply the background color. They let the color dry slowly, and repeat the dyeing several time to achieve an even dye.

Then, they put the silk in a large steamer for about an hour to set the colors. This, too, requires skill and experience.

After steaming, people immerse the cloth in water to wash off the remaining paste and access dye.

And the fabric is finished!

Artisans use the painted silk to make screens or sew kimonos.

This first room had a little staging area for visitors to make-believe and take pictures. I couldn’t resist 🙂 My kids love it, too!

Room Two: Some Amazing Finished Examples

The second room in the museum, as I mentioned above, has some exquisite samples of both painted screens and kimonos.

Japanese buy a hand-painted kimono for several tens of thousands of dollars (!!), mostly for special occasions like weddings.

Boro: The Japanese Art of Mending That is Hard to Find in Japan

On my recent trip to Japan, I found art where I didn’t expect it, yet didn’t find the art I expected to see everywhere.

Boro, the Japanese art of mending, and its twin art of Sashiko (decorative stitching), are very popular among textile artists in the West. Many non-Japanese artists throughout the world, myself included, now incorporate the art of patching and restorative hand-stitching into their work.

I made this journal cover, for example, using some simple Boro-style patching and stitching:

Nowadays, clothing using some elements of Boro and Sashiko are making a comeback into the world of high-end fashion. Boro-style items are selling for hundreds of dollars. Original antique Japanese pieces of patched cloth can go for thousands of dollars.

It was only natural, therefore, that, before going to Japan, I assumed I will see Boro everywhere. That did not turn out to be the case.

When we arrived in Japan, we had only one day in Tokyo before heading out to other destinations. I vaguely knew there was a museum dedicated to Boro in Tokyo, but assumed there would be many such museums in other parts of the country, too. We therefore used the few hours we had in the capital to visit other sites. I later realized, that one of them was painfully close to the museum…

Sadly, for the duration of our subsequent nearly month-long trip, I did not come across any other Boro museums, nor could I find any on the internet. Not only that, but I haven’t seen Boro anywhere. I didn’t see it in any of the numerous big and small museums we visited, including several crafts museums. Nor in gallerias, tourist shops or artisan villages. Certainly not on the streets, on any of the thousands of well-dressed Japanese we encountered.

Only in our very last stop, in the tourist-oriented part of the old capital of Nara, did I see a hint of Boro. It appeared on the outfits of two delightful Oni (=demons) that decorated (or maybe guarded?) a high-end clothing boutique:

(Despite what the sign says, I did ask–and received–explicit permission to take pictures of these dolls :-))

On the same street, by the way, I also found the only artist atelier that sold patterns and clothing using Sashiko:

So, why isn’t Boro more prominent in Japan, it’s birth place, despite being so popular in the West?

I believe the answer is that Boro was the child of poverty, and as such is still associated with destitution in Japan.

The imperial family and the upper classes never wore patched clothing. They cloaked themselves in expensive silks and exquisite textiles. The lower classes, on the other hand, not only could not afford silk, but, in the Edo Period (1600-1868) were actually banned from wearing it.

The poor could barely afford even the cheaper fabrics, which were still expensive. They had to make the rare garments they had last long. When clothes or blankets started wearing thin, they had no choice but to mend them with any bits and pieces they could put their hands on. Winters in Japan are cold. Poor families had to make do with what they had, passing valuable patched garments from one member of the family to another, sometimes from one generation to the next.

The people who created Boro didn’t use silks and high-end textiles. They used the cheaper hemp, linens and, later, cottons that were available to the working class and the poor. Most of the fabrics they had came in shades of indigo. This is why we now associate Boro with that color.

The word “Boro” itself means “tattered” or “ragged.” Wearing Boro-ed clothes wasn’t the result of aesthetics. It was a necessity. And as such it marked the wearer as a member of the lower, poor classes.

Japanese today don’t wear Boro (unless they can afford some of its high-end, modern-day manifestations). Museums don’t show it because it’s not a traditional art form that the culture is proud of. Modern artisans are more likely to practice Sashiko or Shibori (textile dyeing), which they see as more “artistic.” And so, although Boro is all the hype among textile artists and consumers in the West, it is mostly absent in its homeland.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t appreciate it. The authentic, old Boro clothing were made over a long period of time, and were often a collaborative effort. People added patches and stitches whenever they needed to fix something. Sometimes a garment passed through several hands and even several generations, with many people adding to it. And even the poor did their best to mend beautifully, resulting in artistic stitching. Many of these old garments are, indeed, works of art, even if their makers didn’t see them as such.

This jacket, which I found on pinterest, is but one example:

If you’re interested in Boro and are planning to visit Japan, do go to the only Boro museum in the country. If the rumors I heard are correct, you should hurry, as the museum might be shutting down soon… I now know that you can also find Boro in flee markets throughout the country. Regrettably, I didn’t get to visit any, but perhaps you will have better luck!

Street Art in Japan (And It’s Not What You Think!): Japanese Manholes!

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you probably know that I love finding street art wherever I go. I’ve discovered some pretty cool art in London, Quito, Bern, and Tel Aviv, to name some. So it was only natural that I kept an eye out for street art on our latest trip to Japan earlier this summer, too.

When we got to Japan, however, I quickly realized that we have arrived at the cleanest place I’ve ever seen. Yep. It was cleaner than Peru. And even cleaner than Switzerland, which is very hard to beat. Graffiti? Not in Japan! I can only imagine what would happen to anyone who dared try: the poor artistic soul would be attacked by civilized citizens and then fined or arrested by the police. A fleet of elderly ladies would immediately appear on the scene of the crime, armed with sponges and soap, to wipe the abomination right off the face of the earth…  Nope. No graffiti in Japan. Anywhere. Period. And we’ve been to many places…

But on our second day in the Land of the Rising Sun, while visiting the city of Matsumoto, I happened to look down, of all places, and realized that Japan had another kind of street art, one that I haven’t noticed anywhere else before.

It actually had art built right into the street!

Do you recall walking down a street and stepping over manholes? Did you ever even look at manholes covers, or notice them? No? Neither did I. Ever. Until I went to Japan.

Because, as I was walking down one of Matsumoto’s streets, I happened to step over the most beautiful manhole cover I have ever seen. It was elaborate and beautifully painted in many different color. This manhole cover had local symbols all over it. It certainly got my attention!

After that, I started looking. I noticed there were different kinds of manhole covers, for different utilities (water, electricity, sewer and so on), each with its own pattern. When we traveled from one place to the next, I noticed that manhole covers were different in each district or municipality. Someone, somewhere, has been paying a lot of attention to designing these manhole covers. Even the simplest among them were beautiful, symmetrical works of art. Manhole covers in Japan are aesthetic. They are meant to be noticed. They beautify the streets, and they are bursting with local pride.

I started taking pictures of manhole covers and collecting them wherever I went. The kids enjoyed helping me, and pointed them out whenever I missed one. It became a fun game for us all!

Here are some of the simpler ones, collected from all over the kingdom (and yes, some are upside down):

There were a few rectangular ones every now and then, too. Like this one. And they were no less beautiful:

Some were a little more elaborate, with a bit of color added:

Then there were the local declarations of pride, beautifully designed with local symbols, often local flora and fauna, and historic sites:

The most beautiful of all were the colored ones. Those must have had tourists in mind, because many of them included place names in English:

(You’d notice the bottom picture on the right is twisted. I couldn’t for the life of me get the computer to turn it, so just turn your head. It depicts a man rowing a boat).

So, start opening your eyes when you walk down a street! you never know what you’ll find. And if you happen to visit Japan, definitely look down at your feet. You’ll discover that Japanese civil engineers and city planner are actually artists, too!