Antwerp Kimono Show

Last weekend we travelled to Antwerp to see an exhibition of kimono by the late Japanese master Itchiku Kubota. Kubota is one of my favourite artists and the chance to see some of his pieces that I only knew in reproduction made the trip a must.

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The exhibition was small with just eight kimono, six from the “Symphony of Light” series (the “Universe” set) plus two from his “Mount Fuji” series. The works were fabulous, which I knew they would be, but sadly the quality of the display was very poor with untidy hanging and lighting totally unsuitable for this type of work. The main light came from an internal paved courtyard but this caused so much reflection on the glass that you could only really see the piece directly in front of you. Fortunately we were permitted to take photographs, which is normally strictly forbidden in Kubota exhibits.

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Reflections on the glass made viewing very difficult!

The “Universe” set of kimono represents a mythical dragon within Mount Fuji breathing out flames and magma. They form one amazing continous image which was impossible to photograph but I have put together a set of individual photos to show the effect.

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The Universe set from “The Festival of Light”

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The complexity of the shibori work is amazing

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The subtle areas are among the most beautiful

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One of the Mount Fuji kimono

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The hand-stitched shibori textures are breathtaking!

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The other Mount Fuji kimono

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Kubota would spend as much as a year working on each kimono

The exhibition runs until the 19th June at MOMU – The Antwerp Fashion Museum. Antwerp itself is not a city I had ever considered visiting but proved to be a very pleasant and enjoyable destination.

The Arimatsu Shibori Museum

During the Edo era in Japan, the Tokaido road leading from Kyoto and Osaka to the capital Edo was the nation’s main highway. Near the city of Nagoya a village called Arimatsu grew astride the Tokaido and achieved great prosperity through the production of indigo dyed clothing fabrics that were sold to travelers on the highway. These fabrics were decorated using sophisticated Shibori tie-dyeing processes. Shibori techniques already had a long history in Japan but in Arimatsu many processes were developed and refined that allowed the large-scale production of many complex patterns.

A historic textile warehouse on the little street that was once the great Tokaido

A historic textile warehouse on the little street that was once the great Tokaido

Alex and I visited Arimatsu in 2014. The village has long been absorbed within Nagoya’s suburbs and what was once the great Tokaido is now just a sleepy side street lined with many nice old buildings. Several of the buildings are the great warehouses and mansions of the textile merchants who made their fortunes here, alongside old-fashioned restaurants and craft shops selling shibori items. There is also the Arimatsu Shibori Museum, which was the reason for our visit.

Arimatsu Shibori dyed fabrics on sale in a craft shop

Arimatsu Shibori dyed fabrics on sale in a craft shop

The key to Arimatsu’s success lay in systematising and regimenting the production of small and complex repeat patterns. One important technique was the printing of a guide pattern on the fabric using a fugitive ink. This allowed the craftperson to align many hundreds of small individual elements with great accuracy. Various posts and hooks were also developed to help the worker carry out the arduous task of repeating complex patterns.

A craftswoman tyeing Shibori knots using dots printed in fugitive ink as a guide

A craftswoman tieing Shibori knots using dots printed in fugitive ink as a guide

At the Arimatsu Shibori Museum one can watch craftswomen demonstrate some of their techniques, though when they are working at full speed it is almost impossible to see what they are doing. It is only when they slow down a great deal that one can work out how the seemingly magical knotting techniques are achieved. The ladies we watched were very patient and spent a lot of time showing us exactly what they were doing step by step.

Craftswomen demonstrating at the Arimatsu Shibori Museum

Craftswomen demonstrating at the Arimatsu Shibori Museum

This woman is using a hook tied to a post to help control the complex knotting process

This woman is using a hook tied to a post to help control the complex knotting process

A section of knotted fabric. When the entire bolt of cloth is completed it will be sent for dyeing

A section of knotted fabric. When the entire bolt of cloth is completed it will be sent for dyeing

Pieces of knotted fabric. The completed material beneath shows the final pattern

Pieces of knotted fabric. The completed material beneath shows the final pattern

The Museum features a wonderful display of example pieces that show each traditional pattern from untied material through the tied stage, the dyed stage and on to the finished patterned fabric.

Examples of just a few of the many classic Arimatsu Shibori patterns

Examples of just a few of the many classic Arimatsu Shibori patterns

Each sample shows every stage from blank white cloth through to finished pattern

Each sample shows every stage from blank white cloth through to finished pattern

A close up showing the different stages

A close up showing the different stages in producing one design

There is also a display area showing Kimono and other items created from Arimatsu Shibori fabric.

Gallery display showing Kimono with Shibori designs

Gallery display showing Kimono with Shibori designs

A famous Kimono with Hokusai's "Great Wave"

A famous Kimono with Hokusai’s “Great Wave”

A contemporary Shibori wall hanging

A contemporary Shibori wall hanging

The museum features a large shop with a wide range of locally produced textile goods ranging from small “touristy” items up to very fine goods such as Kimono at truly eye-watering prices. Sadly, even with the local craftspeople’s great speed and skill, such labour intensive items now struggle to find a market at a viable price. Much of what looks like Shibori fabric sold in Japan today is in fact printed and we discovered that much of the genuine Shibori made for the more commercial end of the market is now sent from Arimatsu to Korea and China where it can be knotted by much cheaper labour.

Japan 6 – Food on a Budget

Alex and I both love Japanese food but eating in fancy restaurants in Japan can be extremely expensive. On our trip there last summer our target was to eat as cheaply as possible but without entirely missing out on the wide variety of culinary experiences Japan can offer. Of course you could stay in Japan’s cities without trying anything beyond McDonalds and KFC (we used to know people who did just that!) but you might as well stay at home. Noodles are the other obvious low cost food option that is available everywhere but is lacking a bit of variety if you choose it every day.
(Click photos to enlarge)

Japanese restaurant chains offer a wide choice of delicious food

Japanese restaurant chains offer a wide choice of delicious food

Our approach was to eat as cheaply as possible for most meals and then splash out a bit more once in a while for something special. Most days we ate convenience food for at least one meal. Fresh ready to eat meals in Japan are very different from Western equivalents. Typically they consist of meat and vegetables over noodles or rice in a plastic tray or bowl but things like dumplings or sushi are also available. We started out using convenience stores such as Seven Eleven. These were good but the food had a mass produced feel and seemed a little pricey for what you got.

Seafood with rice and vegetables. Convenience Store meals are tasty but basic

Seafood with rice and vegetables. Convenience Store meals are tasty but basic

Later we discovered that big supermarkets and department store food halls offered even better choice and value. Japanese supermarkets time-stamp all sushi and start marking it down after about four hours.

Even budget sushi is great quality in Japan

Even budget sushi is great quality in Japan

Simple but delicious snack for lunch. A slice of grilled salmon with grated daikon and soy sauce

Simple but delicious snack for lunch. A slice of grilled salmon with grated daikon and soy sauce

When we stayed in a traditional inn or Minshuku we splashed out on the Japanese breakfast. Fish, rice, pickles and miso soup are not everyone’s favourite start to the day but we love it.

Japanese breakfast in a traditional inn

Japanese breakfast in a traditional inn

We also splashed out on a wonderful evening meal at an inn one night.

The evening meal at an inn

The evening meal at an inn

Not all our meals were traditional Japanese food. One night in Kanazawa we had a very fine Sri-Lankan curry meal. On a rainy afternoon in Matsumoto the only eating place we could find open was a Japanese “Hawaiian” themed burger restaurant which proved to be amazing. The burgers were pure steak and made on the premises – a real surprise!

Sri-Lankan food in Kanazawa

Sri-Lankan food in Kanazawa

A wonderful "Hawaian" burger

A wonderful “Hawaiian” burger

Japan has many different budget restaurant chains serving all types of food. We decided that our favourite was “Yayoi”, a big chain with outlets all over Japan (and a number of other Asian countries).

The Japanese take on the concept of a mixed-grill

Japanese take on the concept of a mixed-grill in a Yayoi restaurant

Finally, you cannot talk about food in Japan without mentioning the ubiquitous plastic food models on display outside almost every budget restaurant. While many of the big city food outlets now make an effort to cater for customers who cannot read Japanese, the food models are still a great help in deciding what you are going to eat.

Plastic models of food are seen everywhere

Plastic models of food are seen everywhere

Mmmmm! yummy plastic food

Mmmmm! yummy plastic food

The Horniman Museum

I have discovered a new favourite museum! Hidden away in Forest Hill, South London is a late-Victorian gem – The Horniman Museum.

The facade of the original Horiniman Museum building

The facade of the original Horiniman Museum building

Founded in 1901 by Victorian tea trader Frederick John Horniman, the museum contains an eclectic mix of displays including natural history, ethnology and musical instruments. The original building was designed in the Arts and Crafts style by Charles Harrison Townsend who also designed an extension opened in 1912. New buildings were again added in the 1990’s, including a grass-roofed Centre for Understanding the Environment.

Townsend's 1912 extension

Townsend’s 1912 extension

The CUE building (Centre for Understanding the Environment)

The CUE building (Centre for Understanding the Environment)

This is a very traditional museum with many of the natural history exhibits being slightly faded examples of the taxidermist’s art, but they are a major part the place’s charm. Other display cases contain particularly good educational explanations.

Scarlet ibis

Scarlet ibis

Slightly faded and scruffy but still very beautiful!

Slightly faded and scruffy but still very beautiful!

Beautiful if slightly dusty insects abound

Beautiful if slightly dusty insects abound

The museum has a vast collection of musical instruments, from ancient to modern, with many beautiful specimens.

A case of musical instruments

A case of musical instruments

One of the Benin brozes in the Africa gallery

One of the Benin bronzes in the Africa gallery

Mask

Mask

One of the delights of the Horniman is it’s freedom from the modern “sanitised” display aesthetic. Many of the ethnographic displays are housed in dark old wooden cabinets, often with an eccentric mix of items displayed side by side.

Model of a north-African doorway behind a case of stuffed birds

Model of a north-African doorway behind a case of stuffed birds

One of the fossil displays

Fossil Ichthyosaur fore-limb

A beautiful set of teeth!

A beautiful set of teeth!

Lettuce Coral

Lettuce Coral

One of the many fine moths and butterflys

One of the many fine moths and butterflys

The Ruined City of Jiaohe

I can often find great beauty and inspiration in old, abandoned objects. This blog is about an entire abandoned city, which strikes me as being both very beautiful and rather eerie. The photographs were taken by my husband Alex and daughter Isla during their trip along the silk road in 2010. Alex has provided the information on the city’s history.

Jiaohe ruins

Jiaohe ruins

Our daughter Isla feeling the 38C heat

Our daughter Isla feeling the 38C heat

The city of Jiaohe was built on an islet in a river, with the high cliffs around its plateau forming a natural fortress. No one knows when it was first settled but it first became the capital city for the Turpan region in around 180 BC and remained an important centre on the silk road until it was abandoned after being sacked by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. At its peak the city is thought to have housed around 7,000 people during the Tang dynasty.Jaiohe_1

Buildings were a mix of carved loess soil and mud brick

Buildings were a mix of carved loess soil and mud brick

The city is protected by steep cliffs all around

The city is protected by steep cliffs all around

The Turpan area is a bleak desert that bursts into life where there is water

The Turpan area is a bleak desert that bursts into life where there is water

Jaiohe city walls

Jaiohe city walls

Centuries of weathering carves mud bricks into fantastic shapes

Centuries of weathering carves mud bricks into fantastic shapes

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A buddhist temple can still be recognized

A buddhist temple can still be recognized

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJaiohe_4In the early twentieth century, the archaeologist Aurel Stein complained that local people were carrying away material from the site to make new buildings but today the ruins are protected by the Chinese government. New paths have been laid for tourist access and a lot of conservation work, plus some restoration has taken place.

Chelsea Physic Garden

I recently paid a delightful visit to Chelsea Physic Garden, the first time I had been there in many years. For those who love plants, this is one of London’s great hidden treasures. Being someone who is inspired by natural forms, I found many unusual shapes and textures that can serve as inspiration for my work but the garden is a great place for anyone to visit.Physic_garden_3Chelsea Physic Garden is one of the oldest horticultural establishments in the world. It was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries as a place to train apprentices in growing and using medicinal plants.Physic_garden_8Physic_garden_9Physic_garden_10 Physic_garden_5Physic_garden_1 Physic_garden_6 Physic_garden_4 Physic_garden_2 Physic_garden_7Despite its long history, the garden only opened to the general public in 1983. Prior to that time it was almost exclusively a place for scientists and students to study and today the garden remains a centre for education and scientific research.