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[Kimono Style] Tokyo Dyers Welcome the Spring

There is a new vocabulary of design coming into the mix, creating a new energy, which is necessary for the survival of the kimono industry.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been like a long and often lonely winter for all of us. 

Many of us have spent weeks and months hibernating at home. The lack of events and opportunities to wear kimono out on the town has been noticeable and missed by many. Now, finally there is a warm breeze in the spring air, and it almost looks like there could be some light at the end of the COVID tunnel. 

While we hibernated, I am happy to report that Tokyo’s dyeing community was actually beavering away behind the scenes. Now, finally, we have become able to show some of their work. 

On February 25-27, the Nakai area of Shinjuku hosted its annual exhibition of noren curtains and kimono cloth displayed over the river. I was happy that the event was back after a break, even if it was somewhat smaller and quieter than in previous years. 

The lengths of kimono were beautiful over the river, and some workshops were also held. The students of several local universities participated, playing many different roles from dyeing noren to hauling out the kimono cloth or passing out maps and helping people with directions. 

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The event is a collaboration between dyers and the local shop owners who agree to host the noren in their doorways. This year the shops were divided into areas showing off different types of dyeing, such as an area for yuzen dyeing, an area for bingata dyeing, one for batik, and one for tie-dyeing. 

It is always a pleasure to walk around the town and see the noren gallery filling the doorways. I especially enjoy the yuzen noren that celebrate the hina matsuri, because it is a beautiful reminder of the coming of spring. 

For more information, see the Someno Kichi website, here

Modernizing Old Themes

On March 5-7 the Tokyo Craft Dyeing Association held their annual exhibition ー Sengeiten ー showing hand-dyed yuzen kimono for the first time in three years. 

It is exciting to see that many younger women are taking up yuzen dyeing. It is also exciting that some of the artisans are making efforts to be original and contemporary in their subject matter, rather than just reproducing old Japanese designs. 

Of course, the traditional designs continue to be lovely and inspiring. But bringing a new vocabulary of design into the mix creates a new energy, which is necessary for the survival of the industry. I spoke to award-winning dyer Hiroshi Someya and he explained his works to me. 

The tea green obi has Japanese sweets or cakes for each month of the year, and in the center are the plants for making coffee, tea and jasmine tea. They make a beautiful match with the pretty sweets around the ring. 

A second obi shows elves making wine. The wine is pressed, fermented, squeezed and barrelled. The elves work playfully and the grapes are like polka dots, or balls to play with for the less industrious elves. 

The black obi is based on the chaya tsuji design that was popular in the Edo period. It is a design of small tea houses in country scenes with a small river and seasonal plants and trees. 

Someya has adapted the scene by changing the tea houses into a brewery, a winery, and a sake brewery. In the center of the village is a bar and a yakitori restaurant. At first glance it looks like a regular chaya tsuji, with all the detailed plants and buildings. But a closer look reveals the fun and interesting take on a traditional image. 

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Someya’s two similar kimono are of the wind. One has the traditional thunder gods on the hem and the mythical phoenix and kirin (giraffe) at the shoulder level. I was impressed with the spotted kirin ー not too scary, but not a manga cartoon either ー dyed with beautifully variegated patterns. 

The second kimono is of the wind only. Without the weight of the characters, this kimono could be used with multiple different styles of obi, making it very versatile and open to both contemporary and traditional looks. 

New Ideas for Contemporary Times

Naka Ito made a wonderful design of spiral staircases and she repeated it on kimono and obi. The cloth she chose for the kimono has a checked weave, adding further to the architectural and contemporary feeling of the work. The muted colors make it a great choice for wearing in an urban setting. 

In contrast Akihiro Morikawa used a purple spotted background and brilliant lime-green for his choice of a fly-catcher. Definitely eye-catching for the content as well as the colors. 

Award-winning designer Keiko Tanabe made two stunning obi for the exhibition: I am a Phoenix and Kawagoe Matsuri. Both are beautifully drawn with incredible attention to detail. While the phoenix is a fantastical creature allowing for some creative freedom, the dashi from the matsuri is a real one, reproduced accurately and embellished with touches of embroidery for special effect. 

Yuki Shigeta also produced a stunning obi combining wax resist with hand drawn yuzen dyeing. Her obi balances doric pillars with winding ivy. The lovely hand-drawn straight white paste lines of the pillars contrast beautifully with the textured and curving ivy. 

The combination of the sturdy, time-defying, solid pillars and the delicate ivy ー insect eaten, and sometimes just a shadow ー speaks of strong and weak, the hard and soft, man-made and nature, and the passing of time in a wonderfully balanced and textured piece. 

I came away feeling reassured that the pandemic has not succeeded in destroying the creativity or amazing talent of Tokyo’s dyeing crafts people. 

For more information, see the Tokyo Tegaki Yuzen organization website, here

Author: Sheila Cliffe

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Find other columns on kimono by author Sheila Cliffe, here.

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