Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Japan with my beloved, who had a fortnight long work commitment in Kyoto. I took annual leave and went for the ride.
If I’d had the chance to choose where to go, I might have chosen Kyoto. It is a historical wonder even in Japan. It was not bombed and has retained ancient sites of global significance. It is one of the textile centres of Japan from historical times into the present. And it is beautiful. I had less opportunity to prepare than I would have liked because of my own work commitments. But I did what I could and since I have not been much of a traveler, I expected to wander about with my mouth open in awe. Only my attempts to be polite prevented this, and I’m hoping to write a series of posts about this experience, in which some topics will be bigger and some will be smaller, because I was fascinated by small things no less than big ones.
On our last day in Japan, we went the shrine sale at To-Ji Temple, which is a famous flea market and antiques market. There is a lot to say about this amazing event! But I’m going to begin with the string seller. There is a link at the end of the post to the very interesting www site for Aoni Textiles given to me by the man in this picture.
Just quietly, Kyoto was sweltering through record heat the entire time we were there. Australians know what 39C feels like, and it was at least 39C every day we were there. We had the sad experience of sharing the hottest day Kyoto has ever had. I hope their media is not like ours and that it was saying CLIMATE CHANGE. Being in Kyoto did make me think that the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Kyoto surely at least in part because in Kyoto there is much to be lost and therefore much to be gained by concerted international climate action. Anyway–the man in this picture is hot! And he is selling “string”.
By the time we found this stall, I’d been to the Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts with our friend (who shared one of the weeks we were there), in which string is an entirely different category to thread that would be used, for example, for weaving garments. It seemed to encompass things I would think of as rope (for industrial use) as well as things I would think of as strapping or narrow weaving. But of a quality unknown in most contexts where any of these things are used where I live. This was (mostly) not string in any sense I have known it. Some of what was on sale here was extremely fine and came with example knitted lace garments. Some was robust and quite thick. Some was plied, quite a bit was singles (not plied). While I don’t doubt the complexity of translation is part of it, and so is my ignorance, I think string is treated with more respect in Japan. I have not seen such quantities of rope made from natural fibres since I was a child, and perhaps not then.
Some of the fibres on sale seemed to me to be one of the lesser known silks. The cocoons (if indeed I have understood what I was looking at) in the bowl at bottom left in the image above were huge by comparison with those for regular old silkworms, and the yarns made from them were relatively thick and coarse.
This might be hemp or ramie fibre (and just look at the way it comes wound, with a waist on the “ball”–something I’ve never seen before). After some time with the three of us muddling our way through conversation and speculation, the stall owner put down his fan and pulled out a guide to the fibres he was selling that confirmed some were ramie, some hemp, some banana fibre (but not as I have previously known it), some pineapple leaf fibre–and there was more I was unable to understand, and the pressure of time and heat and the enormity of the flea market. The bunches of strappy materials visible hanging from the canopy in the first image were mostly hemp which I assume was being sold for other people to spin or use for basketry and other crafts/purposes. But perhaps this is all my imagination!
Should you wish to see more, the www site can be found here. As I write it is in Japanese, and Google translate helps a little but in a poetic rather than an entirely informative way. It is richly illustrated and there are some amazing videos. There is also an inactive button/link that makes me think they intend to translate into English but haven’t quite got there yet. So if, like me, you speak English but not Japanese–maybe more will be revealed in the future!