Not long after arriving in Japan I met a paper-craft artist named Kunio Ekiguchi. [He is most noted in the West for his packaging and paper-craft books published through Kodansha, International.] He took me under his wing and while earning my way as his assistant, he introduced me to my katazome teacher and many others who proved to be of great help to me.
Wanting in some way to indicate my gratitude, I decided to dye a noren (an entry way curtain) for his new studio. Ekiguchi Sensei was born in the year of the horse and was also partial to indigo blue, so that helped me to settle on my design.
I bought a bolt of hand-woven cotton in the traditional 14″ width and went about the business of plotting the dimensions and sketching my design on the cloth. I applied the image of the leaping white horse with rice paste squeezed through a paper tube – a bit like writing with frosting on a cake. Up to this point I had never attempted a piece so large, nor had I ever dyed with indigo in vat form.
While living in Japan I had a tiny 4-1/2 mat apartment (only about nine feet by nine feet plus a toilet and hot plate counter) so there was certainly no chance of keeping an indigo vat going. However, I was able to locate a dyer in Saitama who rented out his studio.
This required two trips – the first to dye the fabric with the large horse in place, which gave me a white image and a solid, pale indigo background. Back in my studio, I applied the second layer of paste to both sides, the small leaping horse and iris pattern, and then off again to the indigo studio for my second round of dunkings in the vats. I washed the fabric out in the river to remove the paste and once home, joined the tops of the panels, added tabs, and was set to go!
Ekiguchi Sensei was kind enough to actually use my first attempt at vat dyeing as the entry curtain to his studio for over well over thirty years. Just before his death, he returned it to me so that now I have it with me as reminder of my time as his apprentice and assistant.
The trip to the indigo dye studio is a bit of a story in itself…
It was about a two hour train ride to the indigo studio. Armed with my pasted fabric and stretching equipment, looking much like a quiver of arrows, I left before dawn on a Tuesday morning in the early fall. Heading out of Tokyo in the morning meant that there was hardly a soul on the train. Sitting opposite me in the otherwise empty car was a middle-aged woman, also carrying what appeared to be a quiver of arrows wrapped in a furoshiki.
Wondering if she was on the same field trip as I, I tried to make eye contact. She was obviously not interested in conversation, so we both enjoyed the scenery, passing through rice fields and trees just beginning to change color. Eventually I arrived at my station.
Up my would-be travel companion popped and was out of the train before I was sure I even had the right stop. Being in no particular rush, I took my time gathering my things and making my way to the only exit, but there was no stationmaster to take my ticket. The station seemed to be deserted. Eventually I was able to rouse a rather sleepy-eyed someone.
I explained where I was headed and was told there would be a taxi out front. The stationmaster told me that there normally is, but that there was someone before me and now it’s gone. Since there is normally so little business, the stationmaster thought that the cab driver would likely go fishing instead of coming back!
After waiting around an hour, the station master was kind enough to call the wife of the cabby and ask her to go get the driver for me. And two hours after getting off the train I was at the indigo studio, but again not a soul to be seen!
I wandered until I came across the area that looked as if it would house the indigo vats, and in the Japanese tradition, opened the door and called out, “Gomen kudasai!” to let them know I had arrived.
Before my eyes could adjust to the inner darkness of the studio, I saw a flash of movement, and the door was slammed in my face as someone screamed, “Haitcha dame!” (“Stay out!”). Not knowing what else so do, by now it was nearing 11:00, I sat down on the step and contemplated my sins in the warmth of the autumn sun.
It wasn’t long before a kindly looking, elderly man came out and motioned me to follow him to the side of the building. He was deeply apologetic for what he described as the rude behavior of his customer. He confided that she was very protective and secretive of the techniques she employed, and he went on to describe each step she followed in great detail! It seems that each of her works requires dozens of visits to the indigo studio, which meant that each completed piece would have several hundreds of dollars invested in it in dye costs alone.
By noon, this mysterious customer joined me in the yard, and as you may have guessed, it was indeed my traveling companion. She was very gracious and solicitous, wanting to know all about what I was doing, who I was studying with, what I may have seen when I opened the door upon arrival, and so on. I had a bad case of not being able to speak Japanese but offered her some of my lunch.
Soon her work was dry enough to take home, and I was allowed, with some trepidation, to begin work on my noren. Once the once customer finally departed several members of the household came out and made a point of being very chatty with me. I wound up getting a full tour of the facility, had afternoon tea and a snack with the grandfatherly dyer and was encouraged to come back whenever I liked.
All in all, it was a very educational experience!