The smell hits you first. That strong smell of fermentation — a pungent, wet-dog odor wafting up as the workers of the Aizumi History Museum in Aizumi-cho, dip bundles of string into deep vats of indigo. Travel is about experience, and I’m here to try my hand at this traditional craft.
Indigo is one of the world’s oldest forms of dye, with a history of over 1,200 years in Japan. It continues to play a part in modern culture as the logo of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is the color of indigo.
The Aizumi History Museum, also known as Ai no Yakata, operates as both a collection, and a celebration, of traditional craftsmanship. While the entrance is a modern structure, the workshop, exhibition hall, and the small museum itself are all beautifully maintained buildings over 200 years old. Life-sized statues stand in the courtyard, depicting an indigo harvest from centuries past, and dioramas in the museum intricately detail each step of the whole process beside a wide collection of the different tools used.
The workshop is a busy place, even though I’m the only student this afternoon. The museum is a locus for teachers and students around Japan to visit, study, and local elementary student also display their work. A large concrete table, inset with metal vats, stands at the center, surrounded by women dunking and squeezing out bundles of string. An elderly man is dressed from head to toe in blue clothes: jeans, jacket, polo and undershirt all dyed indigo. He brings out a Hanshin tiger happi jacket to show us. While I will be practicing a type of shibori today, where folds in my towel prevent dye from seeping through, the more elaborate designs on kimono, scarves, and even wooden utensils are created using stencils and Japanese rice glue, examples of which can be appreciated throughout the Aizumi History Museum. The teacher proudly shows me photos of when the Tokyo Olympic logo designer came to visit the museum, and the special stencil he made for them.
He points out graffiti in the corners of the room, scribbled by other indigo dyers over the centuries. He tells me how indigo once had a very martial association in Japan: The padding beneath warriors’ armor was dyed indigo because of its anti-sweat and medicinal properties.In the Edo era, indigo dye became ubiquitous, and until the mid-20th century everyone from postal workers to train drivers wore clothes dyed in indigo.
A different teacher comes out to show me how to fold my hand-towel like origami, and bind it tightly within two narrow, wooden boards, wrapped with a rubber band.
I strap on gloves while she looks over the vats with a practiced eye, lifting up the wooden lid of one, then choosing the next. “This one,” She decides, “It’s better.”
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“The color of the bubbles.” She explains. They look almost identical to me.
The vat is warm as I dip my towel in for one minute, according to a little, pink egg timer at the edge. I squeeze out all the liquid, noticing a green tinge to the cloth.
“Open it up,” she says, “and leave it to sit in the air.” This allows the indigo to oxidize, bringing out the blue. Twice more, I dip my towel. It’s not until I submerge it into clean water that the beautiful blue comes out fully, while a bright, white arch stretches across the bottom corner.
I hang my towel out to dry, the women get back to their work, and I enjoy a moment in the courtyard appreciating the scene. The warm, late afternoon sunlight soaks into dark wooden walls and ceramic roof-tiles. The scent of the indigo, now a little less pungent than at first, wafts through, and for a moment, I slip back in time.
Photographs by Jason Haider & Text by Felicity Tillack