Monday, January 30, 2017

In Search of Japan Blue - Indigo Dyeing at Wanariya Workshop, Tokyo

Shop Hands
Shop worker hands


Located in the Taito district of Tokyo, the Wanariya workshop is tucked away on a small street with a relatively inconspicuous sign written in Japanese. It's actually a little hard to know you're there, but then you smell it - the unmistakable and unique scent that I came to know as Aizome, or Japanese indigo dye.

Indigo Vats
Indio vats

"Japan blue" was first coined in the 19th century by British chemist R.W. Atkinson to describe the deep shade of blue achieved by Aizome, a process that dates back in Japan almost 1500 years. In fact, there are almost 50 different shades of Japanese indigo, but in modern times we're used to seeing Aizome in Japanese brands like Blue Blue Japan, Japan Blue, Kapital, and other specialists that have come to shine a spotlight on Japan as the premiere manufacturer of indigo dyed clothing in the world.

After poring over Styleforum's trip to Japan trying to map out my own last year, one of the things I knew I had to do the minute I came across it was to visit an Aizome workshop.  However, with wife in tow I knew I wouldn't be able to take a long trip out of central Tokyo as the StyFo crew had to the outskirts of the city. After some research I found Wanariya, and it was with a lot of excitement (and a little trepidation) that we made our way to the workshop on one of our last days in Japan.


Shibori Scarves

Some displayed shop products

Upon entering, we were greeted in a large workroom filled with indigo products - shirts, scarves, sweatshirts, all hanging on the walls. Our host for the day brought out some indigo leaves for us to examine and then explained the process of dye fermentation in simple English. We then picked out some items to dye from the store's stock of plain tees, button up shirts, scarves, and bags. Unfortunately, they were out of sweatshirts that day, so I took a plain tee and a scarf to work with and my wife made her own tee shirt. You can also bring your own articles to dye as long as they are made from suitable materials (undyed natural fiber cloth works best).


You have several options related to the different patterns you can make. The first is stenciling, where you apply a paste to the shirt over a stencil, cover it in sawdust to protect the pattern, and then dye the shirt. 

Stencil Patterning
Applying stencil pattern

The second is shibori, a traditional resist-dyeing technique that relies on folding, tying, and binding cloth to create patterns - one version of shibori is commonly known as tie-dye in Western culture. The third method is another resist achieved by melting wax and applying it in a free form pattern by hand. For the purposes of experiencing as much as possible, I decided to make a shibori scarf and a wax dyed tee shirt, and the wife made a stenciled flower. To be honest, I'd normally rather own a plain indigo version of both, but for the purposes of the experience decided to try my hand at the other techniques.

Shibori Technique
Shibori technique

Indigo Vats

After the pattern is applied, the next step is to take it into the indigo vats, where you dip your items into the dye and massage it into the cloth for a few minutes before taking them out, wringing tightly, and then waiting a minute or two for the dye to oxidize. Interestingly, the first shades of the indigo are actually more of a greenish blue, but with each successive cycle you can actually see the color getting darker and the dye oxidize right in front of your eyes.

Dyeing

Initial dips
After one of the first dips

Stenciled shirt

When the desired shade is achieved, the cloth is put into a vinegar solution to set the dye and then dried.

Finished Shirt

Indigo Dyeing - Wanariya
The whole process, minus drying, took around 1.5-2 hours and cost approximately $30-50 per article to dye (there's no additional lesson or shop fees), depending on the item. Considering what it can cost for some finished indigo products on the market, I'd say it's remarkably inexpensive - especially when you take into account the individualization and processing time. Looking back, it was one of the best experiences we had in our two weeks in Japan, even for my wife, who has zero interest in this sort of thing normally.



If you are interested in visiting the shop, you can reach out to Wanariya online through the email address listed in their contact page to make a reservation, though note that it usually takes them around three days to get back to you in English (it was closer to a week for me). For those that love indigo it's really a no brainer, but I'd recommend making a stop if you have time in Tokyo regardless. You leave with a unique piece of Japan anchored in centuries-old tradition that, like your memories, will slowly and beautifully fade, yet become more cherished as time goes by.


4 comments:

  1. Love your blog. I actually had zero interest in indigo before (uhhh it's navy blue dye whoop dee doo) but the process and pictures really made appreciate the craft. Keep up the great work.

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    1. Thanks! That means so much to me - I really appreciate the kind words, and glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. Hi there. This is just fantastic info. I am having trouble finding info like this in english. I go to japan eveery few years for work but next month I have 5 days to myself. And i need to find how to get to this wonderful place. THANKS AGAIN.

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    1. Hey, that's awesome! I agree, it's really hard to find English information on a lot of stuff in Japan. I really envy you - I'd love to do it all again in a few years now that I know a bit more about where I like to go and how to get around (and to bring more cash). It's a really quaint, unassuming shop and is a nice, relaxing hour or two that can slot in easily with other activities in the area. I would definitely shoot them an email and try to set up a date if you're going to be around Taito - my wife and I spent the morning at the nearby shrine and then walked over after lunch. If you're in the area around dinner time, check out a small restaurant named Ooriya (you can search for them on instagram for their address or on tabelog, which I have no idea how to use), which we happened across and loved (small Okinawan restaurant run by a really awesome trio). If you order a sake, however, be prepared for them pouring you an entire tumbler full and getting way drunker than you had intended.

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