Kita- a Japanese Mountain Village

Janine and I are currently on the indigo trail. We have visited two indigo workshops in Kyoto and one in the north in Mashiko. Today we are making the trip to the Miyama Valley and the little village of Kita. This is rumoured to be a very pretty village of thatched roofed houses a few hours north of Kyoto in a mountainous region. although this sounds gorgeous, it is not the real reason to search it out.

The valley isn’t on any main road or train line, so the trip can be quite a long one, even though the distance isn’t particularly great. The isolation of the village has been its saving grace in terms of architecture, as not much has changed there in a long time.

We are advised to allow 3 to 4 hours for the trip. We can’t know the exact time, as we don’t know all the service times and connections. The journey will involve 2 train journeys and two bus trips. As it turns out, we seem to end up catching the wrong train, even with advice from the tourist information bureau. Our train stops a few stations short of the station that we need to get to in order to connect with the next train. We are a bit lost and bewildered by this, so by the time we get to ask the station master which platform we need to be on to get the next train north, he tells us that it has just left on the other side of the station.

This is a bit of a bummer, as the next train isn’t for another hour, then we need to connect with a local bus, that connects with a much smaller local bus to get us up the mountain to where we need to be. Our incompetence with the language and life in general puts a bit of a limit on our travels sometimes, but our optimism and luck is a good counter-balance on many an occasion, so we make the best of our situation. We decide to sit in the sun outside the station, but on the way out we see this sign.

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Luckily for us we have time to burn, so I decide to try and decipher it. Luckier still, it has some English on it. We march back in and ask the station master. He nods, Yes, the bus departs from outside in half an hour and goes direct. It has nothing to do with the railways. We will have to work it out for our selves. We sit and wait in the sun and as 10.30 arrives, a big coach pulls into the parking area. I wander over and ask in my clumsey, half-baked, abreviated Japanese. “Miyama desuKa”. The driver nods, “Hi desunae”.

It’s all good. We’re off again.

As it turns out, it just happens to be the first day of the summer tourist coach service company’s new offering to run a coach from this station to Kita village direct. It turns out to be a very comfortable one hour luxury coach service. As I remember, it cost us just $12 each. Excellent!

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We arrive in the village cool and relaxed. As we desend from the bus, the driver is there at the foot of the steps holding a sign in Japanese that i can see has the time 15:30 written on it. I understand from this that we had better be back here a few minutes earlier than that time. I look at the driver and point at the ground at our feet. He nods. Here!

The village looks beautiful. I love Japanese thatched roofed houses at any time. The loverly and I made the pilgrimage to Shirakawago village up in the snow country a few years ago. That was a great experience. Staying overnight in an ancient thatched roofed minka house was a real cultural experience. The ancient lady who owned the ancient house cooked us a lovely multi-course dinner from an ancient recipe. I wrote about it at the time, it will be here on this blog back in the ancient past-posts somewhere, so I won’t bore you with it again here. Only to say that there are some similarities with Kita.

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The big difference between them is that where as Shirakawago is all a ‘level 2 national trust preservation environment’, so nothing can be changed, up dated or altered, only maintained as-is. The up-side there is that you have to pay a fee to enter the ‘National Park’ status environment and all the money goes to the village to pay for it’s up-keep and re-thatching. Here in Kita Village, everything is privately owned and all the buildings are just peoples ordinary houses. The residents are farmers and some are commuters, so there are signs everywhere to remind us that we are on private property and not to disturb the residents or try to enter gardens or houses.

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Kita is beautiful, but the main reason to come all this way is to visit the ‘Little Indigo Museum’. Hiroyuki Shindo came to live here many years ago to site his indigo dyeing workshop here. He has been working here ever since. His museum is situated at the top of the village and was once the village Headman’s house. It’s a large house with room for him to raise his family in one half, while his workshop is in the other side of the ground floor. His private museum is located in the roof, and what a beautiful roof it is. All bamboo poles lashed together with rice straw rope. A traditional thatched roof is a truely exquisite piece of craftsmanship.

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Shindo san is an internationally recognised indigo dye artist and luckily for us, he is a really nice guy who speaks quite good English. We get a tour of his workshop and some work in progress. He shows us how he winds the cotton fabric to get a striped effect in the dye bath and also shows us a finished piece of the work.

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We buy a small piece of his work, We have to think small as we are in the first week of a 5 week journey and we have to watch our weight limits. Interestingly, Shingo san’s daughter is a potter and has her own show room on site. However, unfortunately, she is away at the time and the show room is closed.

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Most of the houses have vegetable gardens in their back yards, it’s a nice place for me to wander, being a bit of a back yard gardener myself. The village has a restaurant – which you have to make advance booking for. That counts us out. Luckily for us it has a small cafe as well, right at the top of the hill. They use ‘illy’ coffee too, so the coffee is the best that we have had in Japan. The owners have spent time in Italy and the cafe is called the ‘Milan’ cafe.

We make our way back down the village and walk along the river to the bus stop, it’s quite idyllic. one of the beauties of living in a small village is the trust that the locals have for each other and everyone else here. The bus stop has a bunch of cushions provided by the residents for everybody to use while waiting. It’s a beautiful gesture.

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The Fabric of Japan

After we leave the Aizenkobo indigo workshop, we walk back to the main road and cross over to the Kyoto Archaeological Museum. It’s a small un-assuming building with a couple of exhibits on two floors, plus a research library. It’s free and quite informative of the local city archaeology. It dates back to the earliest inhabitants tools and objects, through the early ‘Jomon’ ceramic period, up to more recent periods. I liked it. We spent an hour in there.

Back out onto the road and we walk back to the big intersection where I know there is a big textile museum. I walked up to this part of town in the 80’s when I first came here. I remember, more or less where it is. The Nishijin textile museum is quite interesting, but not as interesting as being in an indigo artist workshop. We watch an old lady weaving with gold thread on an old wooden Jacquard card-programmed, semi-automatic loom. She is very quick at it after a lifetime of practice. We watch for 15 minutes and she gets just 1/4″ of an inch completed. She is working with some hundreds of threads per inch. it is unbelievably fine work. God only knows how much this length of fabric will end up costing? It’s destined for someone’s very special kimino I suppose.

We stop there for lunch in their cafe. Miso, rice, pickles, tempura and tea, all simple and just what the doctor ordered at 2.00pm after a long walk and a busy morning.

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We walk back across town and wait for a bus to take us halfway back to the city centre. This time we are heading for the Kyoto Shibori Museum. We find it easily, first time. It turns out to be exactly where I thought that it might be according to the map I have. I see it’s distinctive facade at a distance as we walk down the street. It looks a bit cheesy at first entry, but the girl at the door speaks really good English and welcomes us in, explaining what goes on here and how she can help us.  As well as being a private, family-run museum, they also teach Shiburi classes here, but that is not what we are looking for today. We want to see their private museum upstairs. We pay the $5 and she takes us up to the next floor so that we can watch an introductory video. We know next to nothing about shiburi techniques, having never attempted it, just a little general knowledge, so it is all very informative for us. It’s a really good video, well done and primes us to go into the museum to look at all the examples of what we have just seen on the screen.

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A detail of a tightly knotted piece before dyeing.

This stuff is insane! We can’t believe what we are seeing and handling. This ought to be impossible. But here it is being done right in front of our eyes. The guide tells us that it is getting harder to get done, as a lot of the people trained in doing this are very old and are dying off. Soon there will be very few people left that are capable of doing it properly.

It’s a dying trade. Just like so many other skill-intensive craft-based industries. This loss of skill is not unique to here! But while it’s still being produced, it’s a joy to see and handle.

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This white, tightly-bound Gorgons head of fabric becomes an amazingly compact stretchy scarf after dyeing and un-binding.

What an amazing experience to see a whole lot of techniques explained in such a short period of time. I loved it. I was informed, educated and entertained.

Wow!

Japan Blues

Janine and I have spent a short time in Japan. We are on our way to the UK via Korea, so decided to spend a week or so in Kyoto on our way to break the trip. We love Japanese culture and often visit Kyoto when we go to Japan as it is a favourite of ours. While in Kyoto we do all the usual ceramic related things, and spend time in the Higashiyama pottery district, looking at the ceramics, galleries, potteries and Museums, I have written a lot about this in the past so won’t bore you with it here. However, on this occasion, we also take a little bit of time to explore the north-west of the city and the fabric district.

I have had an interest in indigo dyed fabric for many years and always go looking for old second-hand indigo dyed fabrics when we visit the antique markets that are held towards the end of the month in the temples around Kyoto. I usually organise our visits to Kyoto to coincide with these markets each time. Some years ago, on a previous visit to Japan, we spent some time traveling in the north of Japan and found a very old indigo workshop that had a 600 year-long history. It was in a very beautiful old building constructed from twisted and bent beams, all mortised together in that unique Japanese way with amazing craftsmanship. Janine bought a lovely fine shiburi patterned top on that occasion. She still wears it often and has actually brought it along on this trip.
We take the subway to the north and then walk half an hour across town to the west to find a small indigo dyeing workshop called ‘Aizenkobo’ hidden away in a very tiny back street, or possibly more properly described and a lane way. The workshop wasn’t particularly well-marked on the day that we first arrived there, as it was a bit overcast and showery, so there were no signs out. I knew that we had found it however, because I took the liberty of looking it up on the internet before we left, so I had an idea of what I was looking for. On subsequent visits, the day is clear and the signs are out, but I already know where I am on these later occasions.
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We are welcomed in by the owners, a husband and wife couple, possibly our age or a bit older? Janine gets to try on a 100 year old patchwork coat and an amazing fireproof, indigo dyed and hand stitched, multi-layered old fireman’s jacket and hat.
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Janine buys a scarf that has been tied in the amazing shiburi style of micro tying technique and then dyed in multiple different strengths of indigo. A truly astonishing piece of work. We get to handle the product in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ states.
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Before and after. This generous scarf which started life at 1.5 metres long, is reduced to 400 mm long after all the shiburi knots are tied, but before dying.
We are taken for a tour of the workshop and get to see the dying vats and hanging and drying areas out the back.
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One vat is slowly fading, as another is in full bloom, the older vat will be cleaned and re-charged with a new batch of indigo. It takes about two weeks to get the fermentation going and up to full strength. A vat lasts about a month, so the process is repeated on a regular basis to keep a continuous supply of fermenting indigo ready for use. As the traditional method requires a natural ferment of indigo, the temperature is critical to keep it alive and active. In the winter, the vats have to be kept wrapped in a doona-like cloth to keep them warm.
The workshop uses 4 x 60kg = 240kg packs of local composted and dried Japanese indigo leaf ‘cake’ each year.
Indigo is a very ancient dying technique and has been developed on most continents independently through time, with each continent using a different local plant material to obtain the blue dye. However, the resulting technique is remarkably similar. Washing the fresh leaves in water and thoroughly oxidising the watery mix, then reduction through fermentation, which is when the dye becomes active. The dye only affects natural fibres. So indigo is only used on silk, wool, hemp, cotton and/or other natural plant fibres. I saw one piece of cloth that had been stitched with nylon thread, so that after dying, the cloth was dark blue but all the stitching on the seams was stark white. I didn’t think that it was particularly attractive look, but I’m sure someone will love it. I didn’t.

Magnitude 6 Earthquake

Janine and I find ourselves in Japan for a short time. Just in time to be here in Kyoto to wake up to a magnitude 6 earthquake, very exciting!
It’s the second time that I have been here and experienced an earthquake. Luckily we are staying in a 200-year-old wooden building that has survived worse than this, but it was exciting. After the 60 seconds of violent shaking and rumbling that started off slow and then increased to a maximum crescendo, the building was left rocking for another minute until the energy slowly dissipated.
We went down to the ground floor where we met our host in the corridor. I asked if we should go outside, but she said NO! We’ll go and watch it on TV and see what has happened.

I’m totally amazed that within 60 seconds of the quake dissipating the TV channel was broadcasting automated quake readings and a map showing the epicentre just to the southwest of us. It was a magnitude 6 and centred between Kyoto and Osaka. They even had live video coverage from the top of major city buildings showing the degree of  the rocking and shaking of the tower.

I’ve experienced 3 earthquakes and 2 of them have been here in Japan. We were in Mashiko just a few weeks before the big earthquake and tsunami at Sendai that caused so much devastation in that area and the ongoing radioactive problem that still isn’t fixed.
Interestingly, both times here in Japan I have been here with Janine and she has either been in the bath, or this time just returned from the bath, with only just her flimsy cotton ‘yakata’ gown. She was understandably reluctant to run out side! So I’ve learnt something, beware when Janine has a a bath, the earth can move.

The third earthquake was at home in Balmoral Village in 1976 or 77. It was short and sharp and came and went with a sudden ‘crack’ sound. It rattled the window panes but little else in the house. I rushed outside and every bird noise had stopped. It was almost totally silent – except for the sloshing sound of the water in our big water tank outside, up on the tank stand. Ten tonnes of water sloshing back and forwards in the tank. That took many minutes to slowly dissipate. It takes a lot of energy to move 10 tonnes of water so violently.

We are fine and so is everything and everyone else in this city it seems. It’s just another magnitude 6 quake. Just another day. We look forward to seeing a lot of pots, potters, pottery shops and galleries,  and eating a lot of sushi in the coming days.
Everything normal.

Nice wood fired pot

This is a nice bowl from our wood kiln firing. Wood fired porcelain bowl with pale celadon showing some light ash deposit on the fire face with a little ash glaze crystal growth build-up on the exposed clay at the foot with carbon inclusion. The celadon style glaze is limpid pale green on the inside and grey/green on the out side with a little yellow ash deposit and some grey carbon inclusion at the rim.

A very nice little pot. What more could you want from a simple rice bowl? You couls even drink tea from this little beauty.

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Red Risotto

We decide to make a vegetable risotto for dinner. There’s plenty in the garden to choose from, but i decide to go with a mostly red theme tonight.

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We have beetroots a plenty, as well as red rice, red capsicum, red chillis, red cabbage as well as red tomatoes, both dried and fresh.

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I de-glaze with red wine. We have some fish stock from the night before so it’s all go.

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To deepen the flavour profile, I add a slice of frozen marrow bone stock and a slice of frozen basil in olive oil.

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The dish is finished with the addition of fresh herbs and fresh picked broccoli from the garden.

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It’s a quick and easy meal on a cold night and very warming. We are forecast to get our first frost tonight.

Another One Smites the Dust

If we are going to be saddled with extended drought into the future, we are ethically bound to respond in a creative and positive way. We try to avoid being a drain on anybody, any thing or any institution, including government. This is all part of our commitment to a philosophy of living an independent life. Possibly something akin to true philosophical anarchism. It’s not a matter of bringing down any government, but rather a case of being so independent that government atrophying due to lack of need.

So the drought continues and we have ordered 2 new water tanks. The first has already arrived and been installed on the smaller front section of the Old Railway Station roof a few weeks ago. The new, and slightly larger tank arrived today and we installed it on the back and slightly larger section of roof. With 4,500 and now 7,500 litres of added storage, the Old Railway Station building is now adding to our overall commitment to self-reliance in drinking water. Another one smites the dust.

The Old Station is not a very big building. In fact its tiny, but every bit of roof space is now important in the endeavour to catch drinking water when it rains, which isn’t very often these days. Funnily, it starts to shower as the delivery truck arrives, so Janine and I install in the rain. Tragically, it clears up just as we finish, but we are ever hopeful that it will continue over night and for the next few days.

The previous new tank is now half full from the occasional showers that we have managed to now capture. Every bit counts if we are to continue watering our garden plants with drinking water, while we wait for that big storm that must come someday and fill the dams again.

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The new, larger grey tank is down the back on the right, under the bottle brush tree.

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We bake vegetables fresh from the garden for dinner, finished with a bechamel sauce. It’s delicious and uses so little water to prepare.