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Woodland Kyoto

Crafts Made by Nature in Woodland Kyoto

2022.04.20

The central region of Kyoto Prefecture, also known as Woodland Kyoto, is treasured for its scenic landscape with mountains, vast forests and clear streams. It is home to a number of master artisans who respectfully use natural materials to make traditional crafts and household goods. We visited traditional indigo dyers and hand papermakers who kindly introduced us their incredible craft practices.

Aizome: The Art of Pursuing a Breathtaking Blue —Naoko and Kota Omae

Indigo is believed to be the oldest plant-based dye in human history, discovered and utilized by ancient civilizations around the world. Japan also has its own centuries-old history of aizome (indigo dyeing). Indigo was popularly worn by the samurais as it symbolized good luck, and in the Meiji period (1868-1912) the color was internationally referred to as Japan Blue. In contemporary Japan the more convenient synthetic dye has become mainstream, but the natural vivid blue is still appreciated by artisans around the country who practice traditional dyeing methods to achieve those beautiful hues.

Meet aizome artist Naoko Omae, who found her love for Japanese indigo dyeing after studying fine arts in California. She currently lives in a traditional thatched-roof house in the mountainous Miyama town, where she makes “everyday art” with her spouse, Kota.

The magic behind the breathing indigo

There are different types of indigo plants depending on the country or region. The Japanese indigo plant, also known as dyer’s knotweed, is the most common in Japan. The blue pigment is found in the leaves.

The Japanese aizome technique that involves fermentation in the process was devised some 200 years ago in the Edo period (1603-1867). The unique method is telling of the people’s wisdom and creativity, making the most out of limited resources to enjoy fashion.

Even though indigo dyes can be made with fresh indigo leaves, it is less common due to its limited availability. Which is why the wise invented a technique that involves fermenting the dye ingredients using lye produced from wood ash. “The process requires a lot of time, effort and love, but once the indigo dye is made, the solution can be used multiple times. You can dip your fabric as many times as you want and experiment with light and dark hues or different levels of richness,” explains Naoko.

The day we visited the studio was the first day of dyeing with the indigo vat Naoko had prepared ten days prior. She works with the support of Kota, her partner and African drummer. We peered into the built-in ceramic vat inside the doma (earth-paved area) and saw a cluster of glistening blue bubbles floating in the center. According to Naoko, this phenomenon is called an indigo flower—it is a sign that indicates that the dye is fermented enough and ready to use.

When Naoko dyes fabric, it’s like watching magic. First, she gently submerges the fabric inside the indigo vat and after ensuring that the fabric is evenly and entirely soaked in the dye, she carefully removes it from the vat and rinses it in a tub of water. What happens is that the dye oxidizes inside the water, changing color into a breathtaking blue in seconds. The color is so fresh and pure that watching the process is almost like a soul cleansing experience.

When dyeing garments, the two indigo dyers repeat the same process for at least seven times to build up color. For art pieces, they sometimes dye them for more than 20 times. “The cumulative process allows the blue to become richer and more saturated. After the indigo dye is adhered to the fabric, there’s no worry for the color to bleed or rub off. Every time this beautiful color reveals itself in front of me—I’m in awe,” says Naoko, as she admires her freshly dyed piece.

The lifespan of the indigo vat prepared by the duo is anywhere from two to six months and during that timeframe, they can use it to dye fabric as many times as they want. However, since their indigo dye is an organic solution made of natural substances, they let it rest for a day after using it. According to the couple, the bacteria in the indigo vat can get tired too and overworking it hinders its power to produce beautiful colors. Their practice is not about efficiency or productivity, but rather about respecting the organic rhythm of natural indigo.

The cycle of life and creativity

The Omaes are very particular about their ingredients, using only natural materials to appreciate naturally occurring colors. For instance, the indigo dyeing duo uses sukumo made by a well-experienced artisan, who devotes 100 days to ferment and compost indigo leaves. The key ingredient to make indigo dye is, in other words, a “hibernating” indigo concentrate.

The sukumo is then matured for an additional year before the Omaes prepare their indigo dye. Inside their ceramic vat they place their sukumo along with other ingredients that are the nutritional components necessary for fermentation such as wheat bran, Japanese rice wine and lye made with hardwood ash. The mixture is stirred every day to awaken the bacteria from its dormant state, solubilizing the pigment so that it dissolves into the solution.

Left: Sukumo, the main ingredient to make indigo dye
Upper right: The Omaes live in a 120-year-old house built entirely with natural materials, like their mud walls and their thatched roof made of Japanese silver grass. The house is hence a breathable structure that results in low humidity and cool temperatures in the summer. It’s an ideal environment for indigo dyeing.

Another essential ingredient to ferment the dye solution is natural lye made with hardwood ash. In the past, ash was easily a result of everyday life since people used firewood for cooking and heating water to take a bath, but in the contemporary lifestyle you can imagine the difficulty of obtaining 40 kilograms of ash every year. However, the Omaes produce their own ash by burning timber gathered from thinning the neighboring mountains in the kitchen and living room areas. Their practice of indigo dyeing and the colors they create are a reflection of their everyday life.

The Omaes’ firewood racks. The family chops wood all year round to obtain the amount they need. Not even a single twig is wasted.

“There’s a purpose to why we use timber harvested from thinning,” says Kota, while he chops wood with their two small sons. According to Kota, ecosystems are breaking down since the mountains of Miyama are left untended compared to the old days. By thinning the forests and creating a healthy cycle that combines these trees with their lifestyle and craft making, he hopes to make a step towards reviving the beautiful mountainside village.

Naoko and Kota together launched a clothing brand called OW to show the world the beauty of aizome as well as its functional aspects. Since the ancient times, indigo-dyed garments have been known for their insect-repellent, deodorant and antibacterial properties, which the Japanese people also took advantage of in their daily lives. Fabrics with darker hues and hence multiple layers of the dye also have higher durability and thus more sustainable.

With a mission to reintroduce natural indigo-dyed products into our lifestyle, the Omaes’ artistry is also about appreciating the hidden powers of plants and connecting with the environment.

Learn more about the Omaes’ work: https://www.instagram.com/ow_indigo/

Kurotani Washi: The Beauty and Durability of Japanese Paper —Kurotani Washi Cooperative Group

Traditional Japanese paper, or washi, is known for its rustic quality. Made with plant fibers, washi is much tougher compared to ordinary paper made from wood pulp. Although there are hand papermakers all over the country, the Kurotani village of Ayabe City, in the mountainous northern region of Kyoto Prefecture, is especially famous for its 800-year history of producing extraordinary washi. Commonly referred to as Kurotani Washi, their washi papers are famed for their pristine beauty and durability. The art has been handed down to this day and is respectfully practiced by nine washi artisans.

Life in a small valley

Washi is rooted in nature. The art of making Japanese paper relies heavily on the region’s native trees with strong bast fibers and an ample supply of water from the mountain stream. It is believed that the frigid winters and snow are what enhances the beauty and durability of the natural material used for papermaking.

The Kurotani village, where Kurotani Washi is produced, is known for its harsh winters due to its geographic location, situated in a steep valley where two rivers meet. A mere stride away from the national highway and suddenly you will find yourself in a small village in the depths of the mountains. Since there’s no way out except for that one road you took to enter Kurotani, the village very much feels hidden and protected by mountains.

According to local folklore, people started making washi in this region around the end of 12th century, when the defeated samurais of the Taira clan fled the city and arrived to Kurotani. They were the first generation that made paper to make a living and since then, every household in the village lived as a professional washi artisan for centuries, until World War II.

Kurotani Washi was once acclaimed as the most durable paper in the country, applied to a variety of products from everyday items including postcards, umbrellas, lanterns and shoji paper screens, to high-end wrapping paper to wrap Kyoto-made luxury kimonos and tools used for silkworm farming, once a thriving industry in Ayabe City.

According to Mutsuko Yamashiro, expert washi maker and executive member of the Kurotani Washi Cooperative Group, there are three varieties of plants used in Japanese papermaking. At Kurotani, villagers use the most durable of them all, a paper mulberry hybrid variety called kozo (top image). “We only use the white inner bark by peeling off the outer bark. The tree grows two meters in one year, allowing us to harvest young branches every year to make tough, flexible paper,” explains Yamashiro.

The image on the right shows a dry bundle of the white inner bark, the key material to make washi. Kozo branches harvested in autumn are steamed, then rinsed and stepped on (massaged) in the river. Any remaining dark spots are carefully removed with a knife. The white inner bark is prepared with strenuous effort and mastery.

From fiber to paper

The washi maker who showed us their process of washi making is Yumiko Moniwa. She was born and raised in a different prefecture and previously worked as an elementary school teacher, until she fell in love with the art of washi making through her class, so deeply that she moved to Kurotani. The senior villagers trust her for her passionate and detail-oriented qualities and endorse her as one of the leading washi artisans of the next generation. She is also a part of a group of volunteers that helps with cultivating kozo.

Moniwa begins her preparation process five days prior to making paper. First, she softens the white inner bark by boiling them in a cauldron. Next, she washes away the lye using water pumped from the river and handpicks any dust particles. It is a painful, hand-numbing process especially in the wintertime, but a crucial step to make pristine white paper. The preparation is complete after the inner bark strips are pounded into chunks of fiber.

Needless to say, the actual papermaking process is also done by hand. A large tub called sukibune is filled with water, where kozo and plant-derived mucilage are added and mixed thoroughly. The mixture is scooped with an equipment made with wooden frames and a thin bamboo screen, then rocked gently in all directions to spread the fibers evenly. The rhythmic sound of liquid pulp splashing around echoes softly inside the quiet studio.

“The reason why washi is strong is because the bast fibers are complexly entwined due to this process. At Kurotani, we put in more time to make each sheet, which is why our paper is stronger. We make thin translucent paper as well, which also doesn’t tear very easily. Our papers are tough!” Moniwa says, proudly.

After a day of letting freshly made sheets rest in the studio, they are dried outdoors for completion. Each sheet contains a sense of warmth that handcrafted products have. The organic texture and the delicate fibrous pattern that appears when holding it up to the light are simply stunning.

“Kurotani is home to a variety of washi and papermaking techniques that have been passed down from generations, applied to make all kinds of items from stationery to fine art supplies. It’s really fun and worthwhile to be able to make different kinds of paper every day,” says Moniwa. Whenever she has a question about papermaking, she approaches an elderly walking in the neighborhood. They are all senior artisans who gladly share their expertise.

The secret to why Kurotani Washi is unparalleled perhaps lies in how the washi artisans have kept their level of focus and hard work for centuries, keeping the tradition alive by honoring and protecting their predecessors’ wisdom and technique.

Studio tour and workshop

The Kurotani Washi Building near the studio offers a variety of Kurotani washi products for sale (open from 10 am to 5 pm, closed on Mondays and Holidays). Washi making workshops and studio tours are also available.

– Postcard making: 1,500 yen per person (tax included). Reservation necessary, minimum of 5 participants.

– Guided studio tour: 5,000 yen per group (tax included). Reservation necessary.

We recommend that you bring a translator with you for both of the above. Touring around the studio on your own without a guide is free of charge and no reservations are necessary—however, keep in mind that they might be taking the day off without a reservation.

Kurotani Washi

Kurotani Washi

You will find Kurotani Washi paper factory in a small riverside village set against a backdrop of forest. 800 years ago, when a rogue samurai fled to the area, he found the forests here were filled wi …