Just north of Tokyo, in Tochigi Prefecture, high-rises gradually disappear and space opens up ever wider between buildings to make room for farm fields silvered with rivers. Mountains ring the horizon, snow-capped in winter and verdant green in summer. Here, where the Kinu River cuts a wide swath, more than a thousand years ago, silkworms arrived from China and farmers planted mulberry trees to feed them. The river’s millennia-long history of flooding left behind a rich topsoil ideal for growing everything — including an economy based on silk production.
“Our ancestors used the damaged cocoons to make work clothes,” says Kazuhiko Soutome, the director of the Tochigi Prefectural Industrial Technology Center. “If there were any holes in the cocoons, they could not be used to make the regular silk threads. This is how yuki tsumugi (hand-woven silk) began.”
“It was very popular. One kimono from the region cost two horses during the Edo period,” said Takeji Okuzawa, of the Tsumugi Fabric Museum and the fourth generation to run his family’s silk wholesale business. Rumored to be strong enough to protect its wearer from a sword attack, yuki tsumugi came in dark colors and was mostly worn by men. “During the Meiji period, though,” Okuzawa explained over tea at Ichinokura, a café near the museum, “the Japanese government encouraged men to wear Western suits. So manufacturers began making colors and patterns for women.”
Unlike regular silk thread, which consists of five single strands, yuki tsumugi is a single, untwisted thread. The act of spinning the fiber alone — drawing a strand of silk from the flossy silk firmly but gently, wetting it with a bit of saliva and letting the end fall into a wooden bucket in front of the weaver before drawing again — requires three years of study followed by a lifetime of experience to perfect. It is just the first of 47 steps required to make a bolt of cloth.
Patterns are added using different methods — either before or after dyeing — depending on the color. If the base hue is dark, then tiny knots are tied with cotton string along the full length of the warp and weft. The warp is the tightly stretched lengthwise core of a fabric, while the weft is woven between the warp threads to create various patterns. “One length can have 3 million knots,” said Naoyuki Akaishi, a staff member at Omoigawa, one of the weaving houses in Tochigi. “The cotton shrinks during the dyeing process, so the color can’t penetrate.”
If the base color is light, then a design is painstakingly stenciled onto the threads. “They apply each color individually,” said Nobuko Suto, owner of the weaving house. “Only one person does the warp and weft to reduce errors.” A complicated design can take more than three months to complete before weaving even begins. A whole kimono, from start to finish, can take more than a year and cost upwards of ¥4,000,000 (approximately U.S.$35,400).
No kimono is complete without the obijime, the decorative woven silk strap that wraps around the obi. Mamada Himo, a shop started 95 years ago, is one of the few places still making them by hand. “It is, literally, what holds everything together,” said Yasuhisa Watanabe, the fourth generation of his family to run the shop. While he and his cousin, Kumiko Ishida, fill orders from around the country, they also make modern accessories such as necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
Visitors can try their hand at spinning, dyeing or weaving at the Gallery of Traditional Arts & Crafts in Yuki City or rent a kimono for the day from the Oyama Honba Yuki Tsumugi Craft Museum to wander past Suga Shrine and enjoy another local specialty, "kaiun" (lucky road) udon, at Syourin.
Getting There From Tokyo: Take the Tohoku shinkansen to Oyama station, and then call ahead for workshops at the Gallery of Traditional Arts & Crafts in Yuki City and the Tsumugi Fabric Museum. Reservations are recommended for kimono rental from the Oyama Honba Yuki Tsumugi Craft Museum.© Japan Today