time traveling to Amami…

Rather than going back in time to Kyoto at the moment, I’m going to skip ahead to Amami-Oshima and my visit here to see first hand the dyeing and weaving for which this small island is known.

First, a little bit about about Amami- this is the northern-most island in the Okinawan archipelago. Just south of the southern tip of Kyūshū, it is volcanic in origin, surrounded by coral reefs (reef break for surfers! ouch-or as Kounosuke says-surfers tatoo(scar). To the west is the East China Sea and to the west , the Pacific Ocean. We are in the northern part of Amami-Oshima.

Next, a little history from Wikipedia:

It is uncertain when Amami Ōshima was first settled. Stone tools indicate settlement in the Japanese Paleolithic period, and other artifacts, including pottery, indicate a constant contact with JōmonYayoi and Kofun period Japan.

The island is mentioned in the ancient Japanese chronicle Nihon Shoki in an entry for the year 657 AD. During the Nara period and early Heian period it was a stopping place for envoys from Japan to the court of Tang dynasty China. Mother of pearl was an important export item to Japan. Until 1611, Amami Ōshima was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The island was invaded by samurai from Shimazu clan in 1609 and its incorporation into the official holdings of that domain was recognized by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1624. Shimazu rule was harsh, with the inhabitants of the island reduced to serfdom and forced to raise sugar cane to meet high taxation, which often resulted in famine. Saigō Takamori was exiled to Amami Ōshima in 1859, staying for two years, and his house has been preserved as a memorial museum. After the Meiji Restoration Amami Ōshima was incorporated into Ōsumi Province and later became part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Following World War II, along with the other Amami Islands, it was occupied by the United States until 1953, at which time it reverted to the control of Japan.

The beach near us (a one minute walk away) is filled with shells and bit of coral. Unfortunately, the daily tide seems to bring in many floating PET bottles as well. Not sure where they are coming from but it’s a striking reminder that even a place this remote is plagued with this problem. While I was here, I saw an article in the Mainichi that said that Coka-Cola will be begin using 100% recycled materials for a new product line in Japan with a goal of increasing that to more of it’s products in the future. “The Japanese government on Friday set a goal of reducing disposable plastic waste by 25 percent by 2030, and completely recycling or reusing all such waste by 2035.” (from the article)
The Japanese are much more fastidious and organized at recycling their containers and trash than we are in the US. A very high % of people here comply with the rules of sorting trash and recycling. They do have a problem with over-packaging which is starting to be addressed. They are looking at banning single use plastic bags country-wide.
While here, I carried a small nylon bag for any shopping and tried to get shopkeepers to not bag my purchases. It’s gonna be a hard learning curve here as they love to package but when they get on board I trust they will do it very well! But as Maura said today on her FB -WE ONLY HAVE FIVE YEARS! (Hi Maura- love you and all you do there in Kolkata and beyond…)

Now, back to Amami…
My fascination with kasuri weaving (ikat) over the years has grown-perhaps with the decline in the actual making and appreciation of the skill it takes to do this type of dyeing and weaving. For those not familiar with kasuri, it is cloth with patterns woven into it that utilize resist dyed threads either for the warp, weft, or both. These pre-dyed resist threads create a patterned cloth that is further complicated by special and advanced techniques such as as dyeing both the weft and the warp (lining up the two to make sure the desired pattern is achieved), painting the warp directly before weaving, weaving the warp or weft (or both) before dyeing-then unweaving it to do the final weaving. This type of weaving can be done with various fibers but my main interest is cotton and silk. So many variations and advanced complications. It’s really all in the preparation of the warps and wefts as the cloth itself is a plain weave in most cases (always exceptions of course!). This is a simplified explanation and apologies to all serious weavers out there…
I was tempted to come to Amami as one of the participants in the silk tour had me arrange an extension to Amami to do a little research into mud dyeing here-or dorozome as it is called in Japanese. (doro-mud, zome/some-dyed). Jacqueline Roberts had come on the tour once before and if you recall from several previous posts, she wrote the book “American Silk”. She has been doing other textile writing for journals and such and has done some writing on mud dyed silks of Canton, China. So, as I was doing the research and setting up the extension I was tempted to come as well since it offered not only dyeing, but weaving AND coastlines-sometimes surf-able as Phil would accompany me on this part of the trip. Perfect combination!

Yes, a bit of rambling here but hey-my blog, my ramble! Feel free to skip ahead to the pretty pictures (and there are many!)
Soooo….upon arriving we had to figure out how to get around and where exactly to go. We stayed in an AirBnB so not central to anything except peace and quiet, the beach, and the ever-present walkable “conbini” (convenience store) and a bus stop (yay!). The AirBnB host’s manager offered to pick us up at the airport so off we went and arrived at our not so little spot on the beach. (the AirBnB in Ikebukuro was a postage stamp compared to this but of course was located in the city).

Our new friend (Kounosuke) who picked us up at the airport asked us how we were going to eat and get around and when I told him that we would figure it out- (combini) and perhaps hire one of the Amami guides I had seen online, he offered to take us over to the dorozome workshop the next day during his work lunch break where he works taking care of the elderly here on the island (a much needed service in this aging population). We took him up on his offer and he even took the next day (yesterday) off to guide and drive us around with an English speaking friend of his. What good luck we have! And that wasn’t the only good luck. It is the rainy season here in Amami and we had clear weather for the first 3 days and all through our adventures here. About an hour after returning to our Amamian Paradise yesterday it started POURING-with lightening and thunder galore and pretty much has not stopped- it’s still pouring out there right now-Saturday morning. The two of them are in their late twenties and great fun! I’m glad to pay them for their time and contribute a bit to the local economy. When asked, Yui told us that jobs were easy to get -elder care, resort work (as this is a popular place in July & August and during Golden Week), but pay is low- about half what it is in Tokyo area. Kounosuke is married with two small children.

So, now onto dorozome! I looked over the possible choices (there are only 2-3 on the island) and settled on one I thought would be interesting and different from the one that Jackie had participated in (we could later compare notes). We ended up going to Higo Dorozome. Fortunately we had Kounosuke to take us there since it was not at all on any beaten path. Not wanting to abandon us there, he arranged with the owner to secure us a ride back to a bus stop from which we could return.
Phew!
I had called ahead and told them to expect us around 2 pm and they confirmed that would be ok. There was no English spoken there at all. But dyers dye and words are not always necessary- we speak the language of the cloth…
To give you an overview of the dorozome process before adding the gallery of photos and a few video- dorozome is done using wood chips of the Japanese hawthorne bush (sharimbai). This wood is used fresh (not old and dried) with the sap still in the wood. The wood is plentiful in the local area and after collecting, it is chipped. A huge basket containing about 300 kg. is lowered into a large drum of water and boiled and soaked for 4-7 days (unclear how long) to release the tannins in the wood. The heat comes from a wood burning stove that utilizes the used chips once they are dried- nothing wasted! A sort of fermentation takes place and I believe they also add lime (to up the pH) once the soaking is done and the solution is skimmed and moved to other vats. I was told that it is a fermentation vat and the smell confirmed such a notion. It is at this point the dye is ready to use. Cloth is submerged in the solution many times with additional rinsing in a lime rinse between each dip followed by spinning out. So, prior to the mud bath:

-submerge and work dye into cloth for 4 minutes
-rinse in water and lime -about 30 seconds
-spin out
-repeat at least 4-5 times (for amateurs/workshop)

-the final dip into the sharimbai is not rinsed in the lime solution-just spun out

Now on to the mud. The facility at Higo dorozome had a square steel mud vat for practical purposes. They may still utilize a spot near the river as well but for commercial dyeing these days, it behooves one to use more practical production methods. Remember- we are trying to make a living here and not just become a museum! The vat was thick with clay-like mud at the bottom and had to be stirred well with a paddle each time before use. Mud dyeing process:

-submerge cloth and swish around and squeeze for 1-2 minutes
-remove and squeeze out
-open to the air for a minute or so (oxidixing?)
-repeat above 2-3 times
-rinse in clear running water
-repeat the above again
-inspect and return to the sharibai bath for additional dips
-then back to the mud.
-final rinsing and inspection of the color before opening cloth

So prior to the beginning the dye process, I was directed to choose the item(s) I would dye. I chose a t-shirt and a hemp scarf. The pieces were prepared (bound resist). I just did a simple and quick shibori binding with elastics provided. Interestingly the cloth was not wet out at any time prior to dyeing (as in indigo dyeing). Then it was on to the dyeing…see above.

More about the dorozome dyeing…the sharimbai (Japanese hawthorne) is full of tannin which is mordanted with the lime. I also read somewhere that wood ash is used in the vat but did not confirm that at Higo. The clay/mud is a dark gray full of iron which reacts with the tannins and darkens the cloth- just like when you use iron water in botanical printing or natural dyeing. Lime is abundant on Amami which has some limestone caverns and even underground rivers-did not visit there but saw info at the museum. Also, the island is surrounded by coral reefs- you guessed it-calcium carbonate (lime)! So everything is there- naturally, to produce this type of dyeing.

Some other observations- Higo Dorozome is a commercial working dye studio. I say this to contrast it against the Oshima Tsumugi Village/Sight Seeing Garden which does seem to do some weaving (not sure how much of it is serious commercial weaving) but the set-up there is definitely more geared towards the average tourist who wants to get an overview of the process and visit the gift shop. I also say this because as these sorts of crafts decline, many of them are turned more towards museum status (not unlike the Orinasu obi weaving studio in Kyoto-more on that in the Kyoto post). Higo has been there for 40 years and over time the main work of dyeing dorozome and indigo silk threads for oshima tsumugi weavers has steadily declined due to several factors-fewer wearers of kimono, the high cost of producing in current times, the aging of the artisans whose supreme abilities are harder and harder to pass along. I’m sure there are other more complicated factors that I’m missing here but the end result is less demand. So, that is why it is necessary for dye studios such as Higo to produce other items that are more accessible to the modern general public, to open the studio to visitors for workshops, and to educate new generations of the importance of continuing and innovating these craft processes. Nature, handwork, passion, commerce, beauty all come together in a distinct and geographic spot such as Amami. There are people in this chain of commerce devoted to seeing it gets sold in shops in the mainland, on the Ginza (as in the shop that we visited previously-see earlier post) as well as those connecting up with designers and retailers of modern clothing. Aside from my interest in dying and textiles, I’m also very interested (necessarily) in the commercial aspects of it all. I want people who choose this type of difficult work to find a way to make a living and to keep doing so. AI can’t produce this type of work and it won’t be replaced by robots.
I am interested in finding the path…making the path, wondering, and following the moon.

Next post will cover my time weaving some silk oshima tsumugi…!

Kudos for your ganbatte in making it through this post! I add the photos here en-mass due to time constrictions. And now for the photos…






-There are many more photos and also lots of video that needs editing but I’ll have to get to that later. I’ll have a lot of that to share at the July 27-28 workshop at the Japanese American National Museum. I think there are still a few spots left- you can sign up here.

Stay tuned for Amami Oshima tsumugi weaving- it’s really amazing!

I’ll end this post with a little video of the Amami beach…

7 thoughts on “time traveling to Amami…

    1. shiborigirl Post author

      I did not. But we did eat the Amami specialty keihan which was delicious and akin to chicken soup. They also serve raw chicken like sashimi here. Also good.
      Passion fruit was in season and was the best I have had.
      Due to our fairly isolated location I mainly cooked meals from combini ingredients.
      That was a great vid/ thanks for posting it!
      There is also a small blue butterfly that favors the cycads here. I understand they are considered a pest in some Asian countries.

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      Reply
  1. Suzi Drew

    Thank you Glennis for sharing that fabulous experience and your extensive and passionate knowledge and curiosity about dyeing. It makes the world a richer and more wonderful place.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. shiborigirl Post author

      Aww… thanks Suzi! That is really special coming from you. it’s true. I just can’t get enough of it all and it’s just not right to keep it to myself! It’s an endless flow of information to wonder about. It was another great trip with great people as usual. As you know.

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      Reply

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