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.

The sculptures of Edgardo Carmon, Cartagena, Colombia

Walking through Cartagena, Colombia, one can not but fall in love with the sculptures of Edgardo Carmon

A Cartagena native, Carmon is a mechanical engineer with a long career in machine design and steel-building construction. He suitably creates his sculptures out of sheet metal and found objects.

There is a large cluster of his sculptures on Plaza de San Pedro Claver, right in front of the Museum of Modern Art. These sculptures depict people engaged in typical professions/activities:

The above picture shows people playing cards on the left, and a man pushing merchandise in a cart on the right.

Below is a typical fruit seller:

A barber:

A scholar (?):

And one of my favorites: a seamstress! 

Another cluster of humor-filled sculptures of Edgardo Carmon is located within walking distance, on Plaza del Pozo in Getsemani, right outside the wall:

Carmon is a renowned artist. In addition to Cartagena, he showed his work throughout South America, Europe, and the United States.

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!