Traditional Japanese Aizome Dyeing!
You may have seen a traditional blue colour a lot in Japan – there are what looks like tie-dyed kimono, obi, bags, and more recently things like shirts. Traditionally, indigo-coloured clothing was very rare, and only wealthy, upper-class people could afford it. By the Edo period however it was in full production, and very popular amongst every class. It is also antibacterial, so was very popular with samurai to wear under the armour to protect the skin. Recently there has been a revival in what is called aizome, or Japanese indigo dyeing - the 2020 Olympic logo is aizome-coloured. As a hand-made Japanese souvenir, why not try dyeing your own handkerchief or tenugui cloth?
What is 'Japan Blue'
Japan Blue, or aizome, is Japanese indigo – a dyeing technique that came to Japan through the Silk Road, and has been used since at-least 700 AD. It was very popular in the Edo period, and when travellers to Japan in the Meiji period saw the abundant use of aizome they gave it the nickname Japan Blue. There are actually 48 different colour variations – asagiiro, a light blue, is the colour worn by the Shinsengumi (a special kind of police force in the Edo period of which many, but not all, participants were samurai). To create the dye, first the leaves of a plant called 'tade-ai' are fermented for about three months to create something called sukumo. This appears to be a dark brown colour, a little bit like damp tea leaves. This sukumo goes through a process called aidate – adding it to water, lye, and other ingredients - to start the fermentation and create the dyeing liquid. Over time, copper-coloured bubbles appear on the top of the vats of water. These are called 'ai no hana', or 'indigo flowers' and show that the fermenting indigo is at a good stage for dyeing.
Choose the design
You can choose between roketsu-zome (wax dyeing), shibori (tie-dyeing) and katazome (where a paste is applied to the sections you wish to stay white). They have various stencils you can use to apply the paste for katazome. For shibori, depending on how you tie elastic bands around the fabric, you will get a different design. Using one or two bands will leave white rings, and using gladwrap will create a white circle. For a slightly different effect, you can also tie a marble inside the fabric, giving a subtle, mottled look. You can also fold the fabric – the 'asa-gara' pattern here is created by folding the fabric in half lengthways twice, then accordian-folding it in a triangle. Of-course, professionals can tell exactly how a final pattern will turn out, but if it's your first time it'll probably be somewhat of a surprise. They also offer items such as tee-shirts and tote bags, and you can bring your own items to dye as long as they are all natural.
The Dyeing Process
Wearing an apron and (two!) pairs of gloves, you stand beside vats in the dyeing area. After looking at the 'ai no hana' on top of the fermenting indigo, and smelling the peculiar aroma wafting from the vats which is said to help with hayfever, you can plunge your white fabric into the dark liquid. Squeeze it firmly, over and over, to help the dye penetrate. However, the indigo needs to oxidise in order to dye the fabric, so after a minute or so you will be told to take it out and hold it in the air. Take the time to check it carefully, and you'll see that it starts out a greenish colour which turns blue as it oxidises. This very first colour is the asagiiro that the Shinsengumi used. Darker colours are seen as more expensive and high class, so these two steps will be repeated quite a few times – it may be best to wear something you can bend down comfortably in. Once it has reached the perfect shade of blue (or at-least what will become the perfect shade of blue after washing), remove the rubber bands and the staff will wash it quickly, then soak it in vinegar to set the colour. After this, it's washed in clear, cold water another four to five times, and squeezed dry. Take it outside to get some UV light and see the depth of the blue! The entire workshop is so enthralling that when you leave at the end, emerging into sunlight, it feels almost like you spent a day in another world. Luckily, you’ll always have your item to bring back those memories.
The owner, Masato Kikuchi, learnt aizome from his grandparents who were in the business. Seeing it as an important part of Japan's culture, he opened Wanariya to help continue the traditional dyeing method and keep it alive for the next generations. Aiming to share 'Japan Blue' with even more travellers, all the staff also speak at-least a bit of English and they also have explanation sheets in English to fully explain the process. Also, you'll notice all their hands, especially the nails, are a bright blue from working with the dye! The front half of the workshop consists of tables, for tying your item for dyeing, and the dyeing area. Surprisingly, the back half of the workshop is a raised tatami floor, with weaving looms! They actually also offer weaving workshops here, with the option to make either two coasters or a mat. From here, head over to the Asakusa Rokku district to find their store, selling handmade aizome items. They have a variety of items including scarves, jerseys, bags, and also high quality handkerchiefs and tenugui if you'd prefer in the end to buy something that looks a little less 'self-made'.