If you were to use any colour to represent Japan, what would it be? Red? White? Pink? The answer is most likely blue, or more specifically, indigo.
Historically and culturally, blue has been a significant colour for Japan due to the tradition of indigo dyeing, a textile dyeing technique which involves the use of natural indigo dye. Known as aizome 藍染め in Japanese (ai means indigo, zome means to dye), the traditional art remains popular and important in today’s Japan as seen in the use of indigo colour in the official logo of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and Tokyo Skytree.
Read on to learn about aizome indigo dyeing and where you can experience this wonderful heritage during your visit to Japan.
An Ancient Color
The history of indigo dyeing in Japan dates back as early as the 6th century when it was introduced to Japan from China. At first, indigo could only be worn by the aristocracy but came the Edo period (1603-1868), indigo became the colour of the nation, favoured by both the nobility and commoners due to its beautiful appearance and practicality.
Fabrics dyed with aizome were more durable, besides having anti-bacterial, anti-odour, flame resistant and insect repelling properties. Samurai warriors would wear indigo-dyed fabric under the armour to help keep bacteria from wounds, while the laymen would use it in everyday life from kimono to futon covers to tenugui cloth. It is said that during the Edo period, about 80% of all the clothes worn by Japanese people were indigo-dyed.
From the Meiji period onward, aizome faced a decline due to the arrival of chemical dyes and other cheaper indigo imports. Nevertheless, the art is still alive today and even sees a renewed interest due to the qualities of Japanese indigo dye which is known for being safe and environmentally friendly because no chemicals are used in the process, and also the dedication of indigo dye artisans across the country in passing down and promoting the tradition.
The indigo dye used in aizome is made from a green plant called “ai”. While the plant does contain indigo pigment, obtaining the colour is a rather complicated process that takes months. The leaves are first cut, dried and fermented for 100 days before added with lime and wood ash lye and fermented for another week.
When the fermentation is successful, bubbles called “ai no hana” (indigo flowers) will appear on the surface of the liquid, signalling that the solution is ready to be used. You can dye a variety of items using the indigo, from threads and fabrics to garments and shoes.
As with many fermented products, the dye is an organic compound or a “living” thing that requires care and attention to maintain. The dyers must stir and check its temperature, colour, texture and smell several times a day. Ingredients like wheat bran, sake and sugar syrup are also added to the vats as needed to feed the bacteria.
Even so, the hue in each vat of dye can still vary. This has to do with the level of fermentation. In case you didn’t know, Japanese indigo can be separated into a total of 48 shades, with each subtle gradation being given a different name! Dyeing time also plays a role. The longer or more times you dip the item into the indigo, the deeper the colour will be.
Beauty and Function in One
Dyed in elegant Japanese indigo, referred to as Japan Blue by foreigners who first saw the colour in the Meiji period, aizome products are certainly a fine gift you can bring home from Japan. There is a wide range of indigo-dyed items you can get your hands on, not just clothing and accessories like shirts, denim jeans, hats, socks and bags, but also household items like table cloths, bedding and noren (curtains).
Else, roll up your sleeves and try your hand at indigo dyeing! Join an aizome workshop at one of the indigo dyehouses, experience working with the beautiful indigo dye as the dyer guide you through the step-by-step colouring process. Since the result of dyeing differs from one individual to another, you get a truly unique and original souvenir no matter how the outcome is!
Here are some notable aizome facilities where you get to learn about indigo dyeing, purchase indigo-dyed products, or even try doing the dyeing yourself.
Higeta Aizome Kobo 日下田藍染工房
Image: m.t_om_om on Instagram.
Located in a traditional thatched roof cottage, this indigo dyehouse in the town of Mashiko, Tochigi has been operating for over two centuries. Its buildings and operations remain largely the same as they were more than 200 years ago. Its successor, Mr Higeta, does not only dye clothing but involve in cotton cultivation, yarn making, yarn dyeing and hand weaving as well. Visit the workshop to see the artists at work, learn about the place’s history, and marvel at its old dye vats (there are 72 of them!). There are also a variety of indigo-dyed products available for purchase.
Hours: 8:30 AM – 5 PM, closed Mondays
Address: 1 Jonaizaka, Mashiko-machi, Haga-gun, Tochigi.
Access: 15 minute walk from Mashiko Station on the Moka Railway.
Image: erico1012 on Instagram.
Located in Asakusa, Tokyo, Wanariya is one of the few aizome studios in the city where you can shop for exquisite indigo-dyed garments and accessories. It also offers indigo dyeing workshop where you can experience colouring your own aizome piece, the staff will teach you how to add design to the article using shibori tie-dye technique, hot wax or a template. There is also weaving workshop where you will be sitting at a loom learning how to make your own coaster or placemat. Regardless of your choice, they surely are a fun thing to do in the old neighbourhood of Asakusa!
Hours: 10 AM – 7 PM
Price: Aizome experience from 2,000 yen
Address: 1-8-10 Senzoku, Taito-ku, Tokyo.
Access: 10 minutes walk from Iriya Station on the Hibiya Line.
Nagata Senkojo 長田染工場
Image: koharubiyori_koharu on Instagram.
Founded in 1887, this dyehouse in Izumo city, Shimane is the only one remaining in the prefecture that still keeps the Tsutsugaki-aizome technique (out of only 2 or 3 left in the whole of Japan). It involves drawing patterns on fabric with rice paste before immersing it into the dye vat for 10-12 times to achieve a beautiful result, one with crisp contrast of blue and white. Visitors can drop by to view the dyeing process, check out their works and purchase some of them as souvenirs. One of the popular items here is tsutsugaki furoshiki (wrapping cloths) which can be used to wrap gifts and bento boxes.
Hours: 9 AM – 6 PM
Address: 1109 Otsu-cho, Izumo-shi, Shimane.
Access: 15 minutes walk from Izumoshi Station.
Image: watanabe.tette on Instagram.
In Tokushima, the centre of indigo dyeing also the major indigo producer in Japan, aizome still plays a part in the prefecture’s culture and economy. The indigo produced in Tokushima is known as Awa Ai (Awa is the old name of Tokushima). Apart from shops that sell an array of indigo-dyed products and dyehouses that offer aizome experience workshops, in the town of Aizumi there is also Ai-no-Yakata, a museum where you can learn about indigo-dyeing through a series of interesting exhibits.
The old buildings of the museum are actually the former residence cum factory of a wealthy indigo merchant. Inside there are dioramas demonstrating the processes of aizome, from planting the Ai plants to the marketing of the final products, as well as displays that showcase the tools used in aizome. The museum also houses a collection of antique garments and textiles dyed with aizome, and a facility where you can try indigo dyeing at an affordable price.
Hours: 9 AM – 5 PM, closed Tuesdays
Admission: 300 yen
Price: Aizome experience from 500 yen
Address: 172 Aza Maezunishi, Tokumei, Aizumi-cho, Itano-gun, Tokushima.
Access: From JR Tokushima Station, take a Tokushima Bus (Nijo/Kamoshima bound 二条・鴨島行き) for 30 minutes and get off at “Higashi Nakatomi” stop, walk for 5 minutes.