There is an evocative saying in Japan Nihon no kokoro, asoko ni naru, which translates as Japan’s heart is in the countryside. It’s the untapped routes, remote villages and tireless locals – artisans, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, fishermen, and foragers – who devotedly preserve the true essence of Japan and bring new life to their rural heritage. They generously share the unique side of their country through their craft and omotenashi spirit.
Kyoto by the Sea in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture is one of those untapped passageways to the heart of Japan. Referred as a Source of Japan, it is a collection of seven sleepy towns which weave along the panoramic coast of the Tango Peninsula like a vintage string of pearls. It is where the story of Ancient Japanese history unfolded and blossomed as different Asian cultures docked at its shores in search of a new land. Each city boasts unique sights, bites, culture, and traditions meticulously preserved by locals who still employ the age-old techniques of their ancestors.
In pursuit of their candid stories, I set off on a journey in the back of beyond to meet with local artisans and learn how they make Japan’s ancient heart beat.
Read Part 1 of this story featuring Kurotani Washi Paper-making Village.
Read Part 2 of this story featuring Funaya Boat Houses of Ine.
Further inland, industrial traditions of a different sort have been preserved for over 300 years. The favorable humid climate made Tango region a perfect place for textile and silk production. The region became famous for chirimen technique, which yields high quality and delicate silk crepe introduced here from China in the 18th century. While the industry enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, the region continues to supply roughly 60% of the silk all over Japan, mostly used for tailoring high-end kimonos and obi belts.
My journey along the silk road of Tango started at the doors of Tamiya Raden (access their Facebook page here), the internationally acclaimed silk house owned by Tamiya family. Through an exclusive interview with Kyoji Tamiya, the current head of the company, I found out how his family, with one leg firmly planted in antient traditions, embraced innovation by inventing the modern technique of inlaying abalone seashells in their textiles.
He pointed at the luxurious kimono displayed in the showroom of their family house. Adorned with elaborate ornamental embroidery, it is one-of-a-kind work of art whose price is diligently kept a secret (but I am told it costs more than a Lamborghini or Rolls Royce). Next to it is a framed photo of Empress Michiko wearing their custom-made obi. “The rumor has it, it is her favorite. She wore it a couple of times, once on her birthday,” said Tamiya with a smile, unable to hide a sense of pride.
It was nothing short of mesmerizing to see the elaborate handy-work of shimmering silk, many of which are custom-ordered by the world’s top fashion houses and displayed on haute couture runways in Paris. “I like the challenge of working with western designers. It allows me to reinvent the old ways into something new,” said Tamiya.
Eager to see more behind-the-scenes of modern Tango chirimen production, I visited Tayuh Textile Co., a multiple award-winning factory in Amino. Showing me a basket full of cooked silkworm cocoons, Hayato Tamoi, who is the third-generation company president, explained the intricate process of reeling the baves to produce threads. It takes 2000 to 4000 silk cocoons, he said, to produce enough chirimen silk for a single kimono. We then walked through the rows of roaring mechanized looms to see how different patterns are used to shape these delicate threads into elaborate geometrical designs and the characteristic rippled texture of silk crepe.
“It is important to keep the tradition of tango chirimen alive,” said Tamoi. “If the factories stop producing, they won’t have material to make ceremonial kimono or kabuki costumes, which are an important part of Japanese culture.”
Following the trail of chirimen, I met with Hitoshi Yoshioka, a wholesaler at the Mineyama branch of Yoshimura Shouten quality checking and redistribution house established in 1830.
“We sell the fabric by weight of the roll, just like it has been done for several hundred years,” he said as he lifted a vintage abacus off his desk to demonstrate that the past traditions are still followed to a tee.
I observed one of the employees methodically bring out each roll from the kura – the fire- and earthquake-proof traditional Japanese storehouse serves as a storage annex to protect valuable rolls of silk – and check by hand for flaws over her illuminated desk. If deemed perfect, the rolls are then stamped before being shipped for sale. Yoshioka exuded a sense of pride and dignity, as he bid me good-bye in his silk suit. “I prefer to wear silk over other material because it is warm and light,” he said. “Also, I feel a personal connection to it.”
It seemed only fitting to end my silk road journey by meandering Chirimen Kaido in Yosano, which is a time capsule of the region’s former glory. The former residence of the Bito family Kyu-Bitoke, which had 12 generations of Tango chirimen wholesale merchants, and Tango-chirimen History Museum, a remodeled silk factory dating back to 1935, both provide a closer look into the history of chirimen.
I learned that the historic silk district miraculously escaped the Kita Tango earthquake of 1927, which left a devastating impact on the Tango chirimen industry by destroying most of the buildings in the region. Prior to 1970, there were 10,000 Tango chirimen factories. That number has now dwindled to 780 reducing the chirimen production to a niche industry. But the deep-rooted tradition perseveres.
Outside, I could hear the energetic clattering sound of weaving machines coming from the olden merchants’ workshops – just like a sound of a beating heart – bringing a welcome sense of continuity and tradition to the Source of Japan.
I hope you enjoyed these series and were inspired to tap deeper into the countries you visit to learn about its culture and people keeping it alive.
Access information and other details:
You can try your hand at making silk crepe at one of the handloom weaving workshops offered to visitors (subject to advance reservation, please check official websites) by Tango Chirimen History Museum.
Dyeing Center of Yosano hosts classes in the age-old craft of Yuzen Dyeing, a technique of drawing the pattern on the material with stencil paper and hand-coloring it to create one-of-a-kind handkerchief.
Address: 421-1 Sanjo, Yosano Town.
For inquiries and reservations call +810772-43-1174.
Hours: 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, closed Sat., Sun., and holidays.
Hirose Original Craft Studio is where you can learn how to make a thread wound Japanese paper landers (advance reservation is also needed). Experience takes two hours and requires advance reservation.
Fee: 2625 yen.
Address: 751 Ushirono, Yosano Town.
Hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, closed on random, please call in advance.
Tayuh Kigyo (Tayuh Textile Co., Ltd.) offers free factory tours. Advance reservation is required for large groups. Find more details here.
Address: Asamogawa 112, Amino-cho, Kyotango-shi, Kyoto
From Amino Station (Kyoto Tango Railway), 5-min. taxi ride. Parking is available.
Yoshimura Shouten (Mineyama Branch) offers tours upon request (no English).
Address: Naniwa 17, Mineyama-cho, Kyotango-shi, Kyoto
From Mineyama Station (Kyoto Tango Railway), short taxi ride.
Former Bito Family House on Chirimen Street in Yosano
Hours: 9:00–17:00 (enter by 16:30)
Closed Mon. (open if a national holiday and closed Tue. instead), Dec. 29–Jan. 3
Address: Kaya 1085, Yosano-cho, Yosano-gun, Kyoto
From Yosano Station (Kyoto Tango Railway), take a bus or taxi to Chirimen Kaido.
Admission ¥200 for high school and above, ¥100 for children
Chirimen Silk and Kimono Dress-up experience as a booked tour.
Refer to the official website of Northern Kansai Information Center to plan your travels and request additional details.
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