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Nishijin(西陣), the district of Kimono and the Way of Tea

Kimono is the traditional clothes in Japan. It is very unique in the design, fabric and how to wear it. The beauty of kimono is woven from hundreds of years of knowledge and passion. The artisans are skilful in a traditional way, and at the same time they look for new methods. Nowadays kimono is worn for special occasions such as weddings, and other kinds of ceremonies, that are typical of Japanese life style. Kimono is the symbol of Japanese women and their hidden sensuality. Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) wear kimono every day, so do those who work in elegant bars or restaurants. Kimono is very appealing in the Noh play, Kabuki and other Japanese arts. “Chado”, (or “Sado”), the Way of Tea, also is performed wearing kimono. I went to Nishijin district to look for the thread of long history, and the weft of Kyoto’s culture, reflected in the patterns of a kimono or in a cup of tea.

Hand loom

Nishijin District

Nishijin district is the center of the traditional textile industry of Japan. In the 5th-6th centuries the powerful Hata clan(秦氏) arrived in this area. They were descendants of immigrants from the Asian continent. They settled at first in Uzumasa district(太秦), west side of Kyoto. They had a deep knowledge of farming methods, silkworms and the manufacture of silk fabrics. In 794 Kyoto became the new capital, and the Hata clan produced textile for the Imperial court and prospered in the weaving industry. During the Onin War in the 15th century, many areas of Kyoto were destroyed by fire. The weavers evacuated to Sakai city, south of Osaka, and returned to Kyoto at the end of the war. One group of weavers settled in “Nishijin”, which means “West camp”. Nishijin was the name of the western army camp located in this area during the Onin War, and this place is still called today.

An artisan working at hand loom

Over the years Nishijin flourished with the production of wonderful textile, thanks to skilful craftmen and their precious knowledge of dyeing and weaving handed down from generation to generation. When the capital was transferred to Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto fell in decline, and as a consequence Nishijin district too. Japan entered a period of modernization, which influenced Japanese people regarding not only political, social issues but also customs. Because of westernization, Nishijin struggled to keep its traditional textile industry. In 1872 some representatives of Nishijin district were sent to Europe to learn about new methods and machinery. Carrying new technologies from Europe helped Nishijin to protect own textile’s culture and to develop new ideas to product kimono in a modern era.

Fashion show

Nishijin Textile Center

Nishijin Textile Center(西陣織会館) is located on Horikawa dori St., south of Imadegawa dori St. On the first floor, Kimono Fashion Show is held. Nishijin Shop is on the second floor. They have a variety of goods and demonstration of hand weaving. On the third floor there is an exhibition room with Nishijin fabric from ancient times. You can put on a kimono and do hand weaving or other craft (a fee is required). The kimono’ s secrets are revealed.  

Aizen Kobo(愛染工房), indigo weaving atelier

Indigo Weaving Atelier

I found “Aizen Kobo - Indigo Weaving Atelier” on the map I got at Nishijin Textile Center. Indigo is called also Japan Blue. For me it cannot be separated somehow from the kimono culture. Surely it is different, but their roots of the dyeing process and traditional features are similar. And probably for this reason, the Indigo Weaving Atelier, like a blue jewel, is located in the intriguing streets of Nishijin. The owner Mrs.Utsuki welcomed me with a warm smile. She showed me the shop in the front part of the house and took me also to the more private rooms.

Beautiful “Japan Blue” indigo threads

The 130 years old machiya is lovely. Flower arrangements are displayed here and there. Mrs. Utsuki showed me a room with many art works of famous ceramic artist Kawai Kanjiro, close friend of her husband ‘s father. Utsuki family is samurai descendents from the Hikone castle, on the shores of Lake Biwa. They moved to Kyoto and started the “obi”, slash, weaving work. Kawai Kanjiro(河井寛次郎) suggested that Mr. Utsuki’s father change his job to indigo dyeing, to protect this craft from disappearing. They created “Mingei” movement with philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, ceramists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach. The Mingei(民芸) is the work of craftpeople. They produce beautiful articles for daily life. Junichiro Tanizaki(谷崎潤一郎), a famous novelist, also was a habitue of Utuki’s. He chose the name “Aizen Kobo” for the indigo weaving atelier. The Chinese character for “Ai” means both love and indigo. Culture and art are breathing in every corner of this house. There is also an exquisite tearoom for tea ceremony. Mrs. Utsuki is an ikebana and tea master. She showed me also the indigo, made of knotweed plant, in the fermentation process. I left this blue gem in Kyoto’ jewel box with the promise to come back soon.

Tokonoma, alcove, with precious art works

Indigo fermentation process


I continued my exploration of Nishijin district. I discovered temples I have never heard of before with a lot of history, beautiful streets like Jofuku-ji dori St., (north of Imadegawadori St. and west of Omiya dori St.) where Orinasu-Kan(織成館) is located. This is the “Foudation for the promotion of hand-woven textile”, established to introduce the dyeing and weaving culture of Kyoto. They produce also the kimono for outdoor night Noh plays. The silk threads shine with the firelights of the “Takigi” Noh. At Orinasu-kan, the explanations of kimono making are only in Japanese, but it worth for a short visit. You can have a Japanese sweet and a cup of tea (included in the entrance fee).

Konnichi-an gate

The Way of Tea

I went back along Teranouchi dori St. to East. I crossed Horikawa dori St., and I was in the headquarters of “Urasenke(裏千家)”, one school of “ The Way of Tea”. Sen-no- Rikyu, tea master of 16th century, transformed tea drinking in a perfect art and discipline. Urasenke has branches in many countries. The philosophy imbued in the tea ceremony answers to people ‘s need for peace and tranquillity. An old discipline is ideal for a modern stressful society.

Walking through Honpo-ji Temple

I walked through the temple Honpo-ji temple(本法寺), to the rear street to see “Urasenke Konnichi-an(今日庵)”, the residence of the tea masters. Its gate is very elegant. There were many people dressed in kimono. Some cherry blossoms opened their corollas to the blue sky. Kimono also looked like multicoloured flowers on a warm spring day. I could not resist.
I followed those people and entered Urasenke Center. I purchased my ticket. Before visiting the collection exposed, I went to get a tea. Surrounded by the joyful chatting of women in kimonos, silently I enjoyed my sweet and a cup of macha, powdered green tea. I felt the thread of kimono’s history under my fingers, and saw the weft of Kyoto’s culture reflected in the fresh green of a cup of tea.