In Search of Japan Blue - Indigo Dyeing at Wanariya Workshop, Tokyo
|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.
"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.
|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.
|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.
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.
|After one of the first dips|
When the desired shade is achieved, the cloth is put into a vinegar solution to set the dye and then dried.
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.