While we were in Kyoto in May 2015, we decided to go for a wander around the Nishijin textile area in the west of the city, using the Old Kyoto book as a guide. It was a bit of a grey old day, and a tad drizzly and humid, not really conducive to wandering. We took the chikatetsu (地下鉄) from Kyoto station up to Imadegawa, and tried to orientate ourselves using the map in the book. It isn’t a particularly accurate map, so it was good that we had pocket wifi and access to Google maps to help us on our way.
We saw some interesting buildings and street art along the way.
Our main target, though, was the workshop of Utsuki Kenichi (宇津木健一), a master craftsman in the art of indigo dyeing. The workshop is called Aizen Kobo (愛染工房), and is located in the heart of the old textile district. We found the narrow street without too much trouble and paused to take a photograph of the front of the workshop. The building is over 130 years old and has always been a textile manufacturing workshop. I first found out about it through photographs posted on Flickr by Rosewoman.
According to the Old Kyoto book, it didn’t seem as though we needed to make an appointment, but when we rang the bell we were asked to wait a couple of minutes.
While we waited, I read up again on the history of the workshop. I was interested to visit because I’m from a textile manufacturing town in the north west of England, and the machinery, and to some extent the cotton and calico printed goods, produced by my home town are among the items that affected the history of the owners of Aizen Kobo. I was interested to find out more, if I could, about the change from the family’s original trade to its current one.
The Utsuki family were originally obi weavers, masters of the tsuzure-ori handweaving technique that produces intricate brocade patterns laced with gold and silver, typically used for the finest Kyoto-style obi. Mechanisation of the weaving process through use of jacquard looms meant that demand for the handwoven obi declined, and the Utsuki family had to decide what to do with their business.
Head of the family in the 1920s was Utsuki Shozo. He was friends with the leader of the Mingei movement, the potter Kawai Kanjiro. The Mingei movement celebrated traditional crafts, and Kawai persuaded Utsuki to take up indigo dyeing (aizome/藍染). Kawai was certain that the taste for Western mass-produced textiles would fade and Japanese consumers would one day begin to appreciate again the beauty and quality of fabrics dyed with natural indigo dye. Utsuki Shozo was persuaded, and changed his obi business into a workshop for producing woven cotton and linen and natural indigo dye.
A very elegant woman opened the door to the shop to us and invited us in, apologising profusely for keeping us waiting. She was Utsuki Hisako (宇津木寿子 – the kanji for Hisako isn’t quite the same as is on her business card, すみません), the wife of Utsuki Kenichi. We started to look around the shop, and she asked us some questions about where we were from and where we were staying in Kyoto. We confused her slightly by describing the apartment we were staying in, in Higashiyama. It transpired that she was expecting a group of people staying at the Hotel Granvia, and had thought we were them.
Undaunted, she began to explain the layout of the building to us, and introduced various fabrics, products and yarns on display in the shop. After I explained that I work in a museum that includes exhibits about the textile industry, she invited us through to the inner showroom and small museum.
A shrewd saleswoman, Mrs Utsuki quickly assessed that I was too large for the dainty Japanese sized women’s clothes in the showroom, and instead persuaded my husband to try on a traditional indigo dyed jacket (a samu-e jacket of the kind worn by Zen priests, which the workshop is most famous for). Her flattering words of how tall he was and how “not too fat” he was did the trick! She explained how durable the fabric is, and how the jackets and their accompanying trousers improve with age and become family heirlooms, passed down through the generations. She also explained that indigo dye helps to ward off mosquitoes. My husband wasn’t swayed. I don’t think he could envisage himself walking around Manchester in a traditional Japanese jacket, and we don’t have many mosquitoes round our way.
The women’s clothes are very contemporary, and it’s a very good job that I am both too tall and too wide to fit into Japanese clothing, or I would possibly have bankrupted myself over one of the dresses in particular, or a blouse similar to the one worn by Mrs Utsuki. I later read that Mrs Utsuki designs the female clothing range. A talented lady indeed.
I took a look at some of the indigo and madder dyed silk scarves on display. I wanted to buy something traditional on this trip, as I had with my Japanese umbrella on a previous visit, and I had my ‘treat money’ with me. I picked up an indigo dyed one that cost 12,000円, and Mrs Utsuki started to tie it around my neck. She leaned back and assessed it, and then picked up the scarf dyed with madder. “This will suit you better,” she said, and started to tie it in a bow for me. As she tied it, she explained how natural dyes give a better colour than modern chemical dyes, and that madder was used to dye the clothes worn by Japanese princesses. After a little primping, she leaned back again. “Charming!” she decreed. That was me decided, and I said I would buy it. At that point, the door chimes sounded, and Mrs Utsuki headed off to see who had entered the shop. My husband hurriedly removed the samu-e jacket. The price tag said 50,000円. That’s around £275.
On Mrs Utsuki’s return, we went into the museum room, and were treated to a history of the workshop and how it got its name. Starting with the same history that I had read in the book, Mrs Utsuki narrated the change from obi weaving to indigo dyeing and the influence of the Mingei movement on her husband’s father. Then she pointed at a framed calligraphy sign. “This is the name of the shop,” she told us. “Aizen Kobo. Have you heard of the writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?” I said that I had, and we had a short digression about how wonderful a book The Makioka Sisters is. “Jun’ichiro Tanizaki gave the name Aizen Kobo to Utsuki Shozo,” Mrs Utsuki told us. “He named the workshop, and this was painted by Kawai Kanjiro, the potter.”
Remembering that I worked in a museum, Mrs Utsuki told us with much pride about how her husband’s work is included in the collection at the British Museum in London, and how an exhibition had been held at the V&A museum celebrating the work of Aizen Kobo. She is a wonderful ambassador for the history of the shop.
The door chimes earlier had heralded the return of Mr Utsuki, and we headed back into the shop. Mrs Utsuki packaged up my scarf, and very kindly slipped in a couple of articles about the workshop and her husband’s work. Just before we left, I asked whether it would be okay to take their photograph. They posed beautifully for me, but as I clicked the shutter I realised that I hadn’t changed the settings from outside, so the shutter closed very slowly. The photograph is consequently a little blurry, but I was too shy to ask them to pose for another.
I love this picture. I love how they are both wearing something made in the workshop – Mr Utsuki is in a samu-e and Mrs Utsuki is wearing one of her blouses, dyed madder. My scarf is the same colour as this blouse, and I recently wore it for the first time on a trip to Paris, where it helped me to feel more chic than I actually am!
As we left, Mrs Utsuki presented me with her card, and asked how long we would be staying in Kyoto and to please call her if we wanted to return.
After leaving Aizen Kobo, we wandered around Nishijin some more, hoping to hear the sound of looms clacking, and trying to find a yuba shop I had read about, but it was closed. We also passed the Nishijin Lifestyle Museum, a museum in an old kimono maker’s house, but decided not to go in because it seemed to mainly be about trying kimono on. Maybe next time.
Aizen Kobo was a highlight of our visit, though, and I’m really pleased that we visited. I’m also really pleased with my Aizen Kobo scarf (not tied as elegantly as Mrs Utsuki did it, sadly!).