Made in Ja­pan

On the tra­di­tional ar­ti­san trail in Ky­oto

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

Shoes off, pro­vided slip­pers on, we climb a tim­ber stair­case of lad­der-like height and slope to a big, sun­lit room atop a tra­di­tional Ja­panese wooden home. My guide, Rika Araki, a cer­ti­fied Ky­oto Vis­i­tors Host, and I are at the res­i­dence of Koichi Mo­ri­moto and his wife in a side street off the grounds of the Kandai­jin shrine in cen­tral Ky­oto.

The Mo­ri­mo­tos are of ma­ture age but theirs is no re­tire­ment ex­is­tence. The ground-floor space is an un­fath­omable clut­ter of semi-in­dus­trial equip­ment but the indigo-stained vats and stacked buck­ets of­fer a clue to what lies above. Mo­ri­moto is a master shi­bori dyer who opens his ate­lier to vis­i­tors as part of a ter­rific ini­tia­tive known as Ky­oto Ar­ti­sans Concierge, op­er­ated by the Ky­oto Mu­seum of Tra­di­tional Crafts to high­light art forms in po­ten­tial de­cline and to “cre­ate a bridge that con­nects peo­ple in search of gen­uine ex­pe­ri­ences with ar­ti­sans”.

Vis­i­tors can choose to spend time with renowned mak­ers of pot­tery, lac­quer­ware, cal­lig­ra­phy, tex­tiles, crafts and other forms of art dat­ing back to the early days of the city’s role as Ja­pan’s cap­i­tal, from 794 to 1868. Ky­oto re­mains the coun­try’s reli­quary of cul­ture, home to its most dec­o­ra­tive shrines and tem­ples and au­then­tic ryokan and tea­houses.

Mo­ri­moto’s fa­ther es­tab­lished the busi­ness in this fam­ily home in the 1930s and the con­cept of artis­tic dy­nasty can be found through­out Ky­oto, although there are some dis­ci­plines that have suc­cumbed due to lack of in­ter­est from the present gen­er­a­tion or the per­sis­tent swamp­ing of more af­ford­able vari­a­tions from man­u­fac­tur­ing giants such as China.

Ate­lier Mo­ri­moto is known for its beau­ti­fully dec­o­ra­tive wed­ding fu­ton cov­ers, one of which hangs up­stairs in the lab­o­ra­tory-like stu­dio, where I am be­ing shown how to tie-dye a square of raw silk that will be mine to keep and use as a neck­er­chief or furoshiki (Ja­panese bun­dle cloth), if it passes the master’s scru­tiny.

I choose green and gold and ex­plain that th­ese are the colours of Aus­tralia, which leads to a dis­cus­sion of the Soc­ceroos’ loss to Ja­pan ear­lier that week. Sud­denly things are more jovial and Mrs Mo­ri­moto is dis­pens­ing cool tea from a tall pot. The rub­ber-gloved master stirs my square of fab­ric in and out of pots of dye over a gas fire; he says his fa­ther used char­coal and the chim­ney had to be cleaned all the time.

He then ex­plains the process for the fu­ton cov­ers, which in­volves paint­ing a sketch with liq­uid ex­tracted from the blue aobana flower and then cut­ting a sten­cil. He shows me the tools that ex­pert seam­stresses use to painstak­ingly knot and bind the pat­tern. The threads are tight and tiny and that un­fin­ished fu­ton cover, idly hang­ing be­hind me, will have taken six months to com­plete, in­clud­ing the duo-dye­ing, dry­ing, re­moval of thread and steam­ing. Closer in­spec­tion re­veals cranes in long-legged flight, for­ma­tions of wispy clouds, waves and moun­tains, all de­picted in plums and rus­sets and blue­greys. He says the seam­stresses train for about 12 years to a pro­fes­sional level and he is wor­ried about the fu­ture, when such ex­per­tise could be lost.

And now, here is my am­a­teur at­tempt, as gleam­ing green as a bowl­ing lawn, quickly buzzed by Mrs Mo­ri­moto with a nifty hair dryer, and now ready for me to choose clips and small wooden ba­tons to form the pat­tern. Mrs Mo­ri­moto passes me a hand­ful of thin but strong elas­tic bands, which I use to bind the ba­tons af­ter push­ing through mul­ti­ple folds of ma­te­rial. The clips are of vary­ing sizes and I am also given plas­tic laun­dry pegs, with square or round open­ings at the tips to add vari­a­tion. It is clas­sic tie-dye­ing, with­out the ty­ing, if that makes sense, with the pat­terns form­ing un­der the spa­ces cov­ered by the clamps.

The more el­e­men­tal tech­nique of shi­bori means to wring or squeeze and there is a lovely or­ganic un­pre­dictabil­ity about the re­sults, as ev­i­denced by the re­cent trend

in Aus­tralia for indigo and white smudgy swirls in soft fur­nish­ings.

The scarf emerges af­ter fur­ther mys­te­ri­ous stir­rings and dip­pings and now Mrs Mo­ri­moto is on her knees atop the tatami mat­ting for more dry­ing and a quick iron on a padded plank not much big­ger or higher than a skate­board. The back­ground is criss-crossed with the yel­low, blue and white di­a­mond shapes I made with the ba­tons and the clip ef­fects are of cir­cles and the two op­pos­ing lines that form the hi­ra­gana char­ac­ter for the “i” sound. This al­pha­bet artistry is un­in­ten­tional but the Mo­ri­mo­tos seem gen­uinely amazed. My scarf has passed the test. Mrs Mo­ri­moto takes a pho­to­graph.

That evening, at Ky­oto Four Sea­sons, a friend and I re­pair to the ho­tel’s tea­house set by a koi-filled pond.

Aside from the sto­ry­book set­ting and the soft glow from stone lanterns, what re­ally fas­ci­nates are the light fix­tures, shaped like the bam­boo-ribbed Ja­panese wa­shipa­per um­brel­las as­so­ci­ated with geisha and gar­den cer­e­monies. I am told they are from a much-revered maker, the house of Hiyoshiya, which has saved it­self from pos­si­ble ex­tinc­tion by mov­ing into home decor with Kyo-wa­gasa um­brella light­ing in var­i­ous shapes as its cen­tre­piece prod­uct. The new gen­er­a­tion is in­tent on pre­serv­ing the craft but has also adopted ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy and ro­bust fab­rics suit­able for out­doors use. Hiyoshiya welcomes stu­dents to learn the craft and vis­i­tors to its shop and stu­dio through Ky­oto Ar­ti­sans Concierge.

Su­san Kurosawa was a guest of All Nip­pon Air­ways.

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