Weaving Culture Into Every Stitch

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Above, an artisan weaves a large tapestry on a traditional loom, at the Nishijin Textile Center in Kyoto. Her fingernails (below) are ridged to help separate the strands of thread.

Story and photos by
MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Travel Editor

KYOTO, Japan.–“This really takes a lot of time; that’s the only way to do it correctly,” said Tadashi Sasagawa, as he used a horsehair brush to add gold accents to a design for an obi, the sash that wraps the midsection of Japanese kimono.

Sasagawa has been officially recognized as a master of traditional crafts by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He is one of many artisans and craftspeople who showcase time-honored methods of making fabrics at Kyoto’s Nishijin Textile Center.

“When I’m painting, I try to think of nothing else,” Sasagawa said. “I try to forget about all other things in the world and focus only on what’s in front of me.”

The two-story textile center in the heart of bustling Kyoto welcomes visitors to witness every stage of producing Japan’s iconic dress, from the actual creation of the silk by worms to the hand-weaving of the fabric to the proper methods of wearing the clothes.

Asian silkworms quietly go about their business of providing the fabric makers with their raw material.

Nishijin textiles date back to more than 1,500 years ago, when immigrants from the Asian mainland brought their knowledge of silkworms to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. As the craft evolved, it became symbolic of Kyoto’s position as the cultural center of the country.

A corner of the second floor is reserved for the Asian silkworms, who quietly climb on cardboard forms created to hold their silken cocoons. Watching them spin the raw materials that will eventually become beautiful clothing can quickly become intoxicating.

The center of the facility is dominated by a large stage, where a kimono fashion show takes place, approximately every hour. Visitors can have the opportunity to be dressed in traditional Japanese clothes by a certified consultant on kimono. Prices range from 3,600 yen for simple dress to 10,000 yen for an elaborate, 12-layered kimono, as worn by the storied geisha or maiko.

There is a wide array of crafts and apparel for sale, along with traditional snacks and candies. You can also, for a small fee, try your hand at weaving on one of the small looms, and take home the fabric you’ve assembled.

The real attraction here, however, remains the simple yet fascinating display of watching the artists painstakingly going about their work. A woman seated in front of a huge loom was surrounded by tools and supplies, the designs of which have essentially remained unchanged for centuries.

Visitors clamor to photograph a model in the kimono fashion show.

Her most accessible tools are ones she need not reach for. The nails on each of her middle fingers are ridged, to facilitate separating the delicate strands of silk she was weaving into a large mural of a Shinto god.

“Things like this take a lot of time,” she said, “but this is an art that we want to continue. We want more young people to learn this, so the old ways don’t disappear.”

The Nishijin Textile Center is located on the Horikawa-dori in the Kamigyo district of Kyoto City. Easy access from the Karasuma subway stop at Imadegawa. Admission is free and the center is open daily, except during the year-end/New Year’s holiday period. Call (075) 451-9231 or visit www.nishijin.or.jp for more information.

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