Kaga Yuzen Dyeing

Yuzen Dyeing is a traditional process for decorating silk which uses a paste resist made from glutinous rice to contain dyes within desired boundaries. It can be thought of as a sophisticated production version of the western “Serti” technique for silk painting. While Yuzen dyeing is carried out in many parts of Japan the most famous traditional area of production was the “Kaga” region, an old province, now part of Ishikawa Prefecture on the North coast of Honshu.

Restrained, traditional Kaga Yuzen Kimono at the Kanazawa Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts

Restrained, traditional Kaga Yuzen Kimono at the Kanazawa Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts

Kaga Yuzen production was centred in Kanazawa and the decorated Kimono silk from this area became famous from the eighteenth century onwards. The distinguishing features were highly naturalistic designs based on plants and animals and a colourful but strictly limited palette.

During our visit to Japan this year, Alex and I travelled to Kanazawa to see what we could learn about Kaga Yuzen dyeing as practised today. Our first port of call was the city’s Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts. This was a very interesting place to visit with some great exhibits by young craftspeople but it only had a few Kimono and very little information.

Kaga Yuzen features fine white lines between the blocks of colour and often has fine shading within the colour areas

Kaga Yuzen features fine white lines between the blocks of colour and often has fine shading within the colour areas (Click to enlarge)

Our next port of call was Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Centre, a sort of co-operative education and marketing effort for all the local producers. Sadly this featured the same disappointments we encountered at a few other venues in Japan: no photography permitted and a distinct feeling that they only really cared about you spending time in the gift shop buying the quite pricey and often slightly tacky souvenirs. Still, the displays did feature many Kimono including some with very dramatic and unusual compositions. We were also able to sit and watch a lengthy TV documentary on Kaga Yuzen dyeing. One thing the displays at this Centre made clear was that today’s Kaga Yuzen dyers have now largely abandoned the traditional restricted and restrained colour schemes in favour of much more exuberant, sweet and perhaps even syrupy hues.

The Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Centre had lots of Kimono on show but was disappointing

The Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Centre had lots of Kimono on show but was disappointing

The next day we went to a privately run Kaga Yuzen studio, the Nagamachi Yuzen Kan. Here we were made very much more welcome with photography positively encouraged and a helpful guide who tried hard to be informative, despite speaking little English. I suspect that this studio makes most of its income through teaching but it had a large gallery full of Kimono on display. The sweet, bright pastel colours were again in evidence but the technique shown was superb.

The Nagamachi Yuzen Kan had a large gallery space and a welcoming atmosphere

The Nagamachi Yuzen Kan had a large gallery space and a welcoming atmosphere

A design drawing.

A design drawing.

The Kaga Yuzen process can be summarised as:-

1. The design drawing is transferred to the silk over a lightbox using fugitive ink that will wash out.

2. The design is outlined in very fine lines using a bag of rice paste and a fine nozzle similar to that used in cake decoration

An artist's work table. Note the heater set into the surface to dry the dyes

An artist’s work table. Note the heater set into the surface to dry the dyes

3. The individual areas of colour are painted in. Artists use an electric heater to quickly dry the dyes so that they do not run and work on the different sections of Kimono fabric simultaneously.

Artists work on several pieces at once

Artists work on several pieces at once. Bent bamboo strips with pins in each end are used to stretch the silk

4. The fabric is given a short steaming to fix the painting before all the design areas are coated with rice paste resist.

5. The fabric is stretched and the background is rapidly coloured in using a large brush.

The black background was painted after the design was fixed and covered with resist

The black background was painted after the design was fixed and covered with resist

6. The fabric is given a final steaming to fix all the colours

7. The silk is washed to remove all the rice paste and excess dye. Formerly this was done in the local rivers but now this only happens during festivals and special events to entertain tourists.

8. After drying and ironing the finished fabric is made up into a Kimono.

A finished Kimono

A finished Kimono

Wai-Yuk Kennedy - Kaga Yuzen artist!

Wai-Yuk Kennedy – Kaga Yuzen artist!

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Japan 3 – Kanazawa

We included the small city of Kanazawa as a destination on our Japan trip for just one reason, the “Kaga Yuzen” textile dyeing tradition for which the area is famed. We also knew that it had one of Japan’s most famous gardens.

What we found was a delightful city that was full of treasures to explore and had most of its tourist sights within one compact area. From the moment we arrived at Kanazawa’s futuristic train station until we left it provided a succession of “better than expected” experiences and I could happily recommend it to any traveller.

Most visitors first encounter with Kanazawa is through its futuristic train station

Most visitors first encounter Kanazawa through its futuristic train station

The great sculptural arch outside Kanazawa station

The great sculptural arch outside Kanazawa station

Kimono on display at a Kaga Yuzen artist's studio

Kimono on display at a Kaga Yuzen artist’s studio

Getting around Kanazawa is very easy, with many of the sights being within walking distance of each other. All the main visitor spots can also be easily reached by the “Kanazawa Loop Bus” that can be used with a convenient day pass.

The quirky tourist loop buses provide easy access to all the sites

The quirky tourist loop buses provide easy access to all the sites

The city has for centuries been the centre of one of Japan’s richest and most productive agricultural regions. This, plus the fact that it was not bombed during the second world war means that it is rich with historic architecture and artefacts. There are still largely intact samurai and geisha districts to wander around with many houses open for visitors. The city also boasts many museums devoted to various aspects of its cultural heritage, far more than we could take in on a short visit. Modern culture is also very noticeable with interesting sculpture dotted all around and a spectacular new Museum of Twenty-First Century Art.

A street in the historic Geisha district of Kanazawa

A street in the historic Geisha district of Kanazawa

The famous Kutani ware ceramics are one of many local craft products

The famous Kutani ware ceramics are just one of many local craft products

The exciting Museum of Twenty-First Century Art

The exciting Museum of Twenty-First Century Art

The jewel in Kanazawa’s crown is the beautiful “Kenrokuen”, a large stroll garden developed over centuries by the Maeda lords of Kanazawa. For lovers of Japanese gardens this is a must see, for others it is a very nice addition to the itinerary if you are here anyway, though I think Kyoto is still the place to learn all about the richness and variety in this nations garden art.

Just one of many scenic views in the Kenrokuen

Just one of many scenic views in the Kenrokuen

The best and biggest surprise in Kanazawa is just across an old castle moat from Kenrokuen. (The moat is now a main city highway.) Here is the great restoration project of Kanazawa castle. The main castle buildings were destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century but parts are gradually being rebuilt through a remarkably impressive combination of archaeology, craft skills and education project.

The results are both stunning and informative. The ability to compare an original gatehouse with a newly rebuilt one using the exact same techniques is surprisingly rewarding, helped for us by a very enthusiastic guide who expounded at length on traditional Japanese woodworking techniques.

Kanazawa Castle is slowly being rebuilt

Kanazawa Castle is slowly being rebuilt

A newly rebuilt castle gatehouse

A newly rebuilt castle gatehouse

A large and bustling food market is another favourite Kanazawa destination

A large and bustling food market is another favourite Kanazawa destination

Kanazawa was full of surprises. We found excellent Sri Lankan food down a little side street

Kanazawa was full of surprises. We found excellent Sri Lankan food down a little side street

I plan further posts on Kanazawa’s delights including my next one on Kaga Yuzen dyeing. I hope that this introduction has made it clear that Kanazawa is a great place to visit!

See also:
Japan 1 – Nishijin Textile Centre
Japan 2 – Matsumoto Castle

Japan 2 – Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture has a unique place among Japan’s historic buildings. The keep (or Donjon) was built in the late 16th century and is the only surviving Donjon built in wood. All other examples either burned down, or were upgraded to stone construction. Matsumoto Castle (originally known as Fukashi Castle) was never upgraded and was lucky enough to escape the vagaries of fire.

Matsumoto Castle - One of Japan's great National Treasures

Matsumoto Castle – One of Japan’s great National Treasures

Close-up of the tower

Close-up of the tower

Nicknamed "The Crow Castle" because of its forbidding black exterior

Nicknamed “The Crow Castle” because of its forbidding black exterior

Nicknamed the “Crow Castle” because of its black exterior, it is now one of Japan’s great National Treasures but it almost faced demolition in the nineteenth century when the Meji Government planned to sell the land for redevelopment. The castle was only saved and restored through the action of a few local citizens.

The small North-West Tower (on the right) has a hidden floor where troops could be massed

The small North-West Tower (on the right) has a hidden floor where troops could be massed

Militarily, the castle has some interesting features. The main tower is entered through an adjoining smaller tower, which appears to have three floors from the outside but has a fourth, hidden floor where defending troops could be massed. All the stairs in the keep were also designed with defence in mind. Every stair is different, with extreme changes in angle and step spacing so that invading troops could not easily rush upwards. The climb to the top of the tower is very difficult even with modern lighting and helpful guides to assist with the steepest climbs.

I"m sure that real samurai were more menacing (and bigger!)

I”m sure that real samurai were more menacing (and bigger!)

An interior view of the wooden structure

An interior view of the wooden structure

One floor of the castle has an exhibition of guns, with a fascinating display showing the early development of firearms in Japan.

The firing mechanism from an early matchlock musket

The firing mechanism from an early matchlock musket

A display showing how early muskets were made

A display showing how early muskets were made

A fuselock musket with fuse in place

A fuselock musket with fuse in place

Decorated roof tile from the keep

Decorated roof tile from the keep

The astonishingly complex roof structure at the top of the tower

The astonishingly complex roof structure at the top of the tower

The view down from the top of the keep

The view down from the top of the keep

And the view in the opposite direction

And the view in the opposite direction

Matsumoto is a very nice city but tends to be rather out of the way for most western tourists. We got there on a beautiful, exciting (and sometimes scary) bus journey over the Japanese Alps from Takayama but it can be reached from Tokyo in just over 2.5 hours on the fastest train. For the castle alone it is well worth a visit.

See also: Japan 1 – Nishijin Textile Centre

Japan 1 – Nishijin Textile Centre

Japan

This summer we spent a glorious two weeks travelling in Japan. This was a trip my husband and I had been planning for years and we had reached the point where we just had to make it happen. In addition to visiting many of Japan’s historic craft textile areas we also saw many examples of other traditional crafts; also beautiful scenery, exotic gardens, ancient castles and temples, plus lots of fabulous food!

Sadly the best textile museums we visited did not allow photography which limits my ability to share all I saw.

Nishijin Textile Centre

The Nishijin district of Kyoto has been home to fine fabric weavers since the fifteenth century. The Nishijin Textile Centre is dedicated to this great woven textile tradition.

One of the many beautiful looms on display at the Nishijin Textile Centre

One of the many beautiful looms on display at the Nishijin Textile Centre

An exhibit showing the life cycle of the silkworm

An exhibit showing the life cycle of the silkworm

The museum also has models of many types of loom

The museum also has models of many types of loom

Clearly this was a venture that was set up with a grand vision but there is now a slight air of a place that has seen better days. The Centre has some good educational exhibits, examples and models of many types of loom and a gallery with examples of traditional Kyoto weaving (no photography).

This is a commercial machine-embroidered kimono in the style of traditional Nishijin weaving

This is a commercial machine-embroidered kimono in the style of traditional Nishijin weaving

Detail of the modern kimono fabric

Detail of the modern kimono fabric

There are also a large number of looms used for teaching and demonstrations but these have a sense of being squashed into a corner by the large sales area stocked with very expensive but not always high quality Nishjin weaving souvenirs.

Demonstration of weaving on a Jacquard (punched-card) loom

Demonstration of weaving on a Jacquard (punched-card) loom

The Centre has many interesting machines and exhibits but they are crammed together to make space for the large souvenir shop

The Centre has many interesting machines and exhibits but they are crammed together to make space for the large souvenir shop

Rather than people interested in woven textiles the Centre now seems heavily focussed on the endless stream of coach tours that disembark for twenty minutes, take a few photos of the “Kimono Fashion Show”, buy some gifts then depart to make way for the next coach. So far as we could tell, at least 95% of the visitors did not bother visiting the gallery and museum floor at all.

Sadly, the "Kimono Fashion Show" did not feature traditional Nishijin weaving. Many kimono were in commercial printed fabrics

Sadly, the “Kimono Fashion Show” did not feature traditional Nishijin weaving. Many kimono were in commercial printed fabrics

Another model in the kimono show

Another model in the kimono show

A Nishijin weaving loom

A Nishijin weaving loom

If you manage to visit Kyoto you will never be short of places to see there but if you are interested in textiles The Nishijin Centre is worth a visit despite its slightly over-commercialized atmosphere.