Japan’s traditional blues for bright and cheery kids


‘It’s stinky!” shouts my 4-year-old daughter, jumping up and down with an expression of pure glee on her face. The object of her fascination is a large vat containing a dark, murky substance that does indeed have a distinctly earthy aroma.

Its contents? Pure indigo dye, made from plants, into which my daughter is about to happily plunge her arms up to her shoulders (fortunately wearing several layers of plastic gloves to prevent her from turning blue).

Taking part in any activity that involves making a monumental mess — be it Jackson Pollock-style paint flicking or cracking eggs into a bowl while making a cake — is undoubtedly one of my daughter’s favorite pastimes. I knew without a second’s hesitation that, like pretty much all energetic and curious 4-year-olds, she would fully embrace a children’s workshop exploring the world of Japanese aizome — traditional indigo dyeing.

The artisan craft of Japanese indigo dyeing dates back thousands of years to the 10th century — and the process is as complex as it is precise. Indigo leaves are fermented into sukumo (a peat-like substance) at carefully controlled temperatures for extended periods — with frequent stirring — using a range of natural substances including wheat bran, lime, hardwood ash and even sake.

The end result is a large vat of frothy dark liquid — into which fabrics can be dunked and turned a delicious array of varying gradations of blue, from a rich deep-sea navy to light sky blues.

One place where young children are welcome to experiment with all things indigo is Wanariya, a small atelier specializing in both dyeing and weaving that also offers private aizome workshops.

It’s a rainy Sunday morning and we are greeted by Masafumi Oshi — my daughter’s teacher for the day — as we arrive at the studio on a quiet local street not far from the Asakusa district. Appropriately dressed top-to-toe in a symphony of blue, from his knitted hat and jeans down to his indigo-splashed trainers (even his fingernails are blue), Oshi-san, as we call him, first explains that there are a variety of dying techniques.

Spread out on a worktop before us are a selection of fabrics, each with varying patterns created through different origami-style methods of folding that distribute the indigo in a range of forms.

My daughter selects one with a complex geometric pattern before Oshi-san presents her with a plain white tenugui cotton towel and instructs her to copy his folding (with a little help from her mother).

Eventually reduced into a small, compact triangle, she then ties elastic bands around two corners of the tenugui as tightly as she can — and the real fun begins.

Dressed in a denim smock and two layers of plastic gloves, which thankfully cover her entire arms, she is then led to a tiled area in the atelier where the dyeing takes place.

Here, after doing a little jiggly dance of excitement in front of the large vats of “stinky” dye made from plants from Ibaraki Prefecture, she follows Oshi-san’s careful instructions to submerge her hands deep inside — squeezing the air bubbles from her folded triangle as her teacher counts the seconds.

The fun plunging is repeated several times until, with each exposure to the air, the fabric steadily oxidizes from its initial greenish color before transforming into a deeper rich blue that is undeniably indigo. Next, Oshi-san washes the fabric in vinegar (to help seal the dye) and rinses it in water a number of times before tumbling it in a drier and handing it to my daughter, who beams proudly at her indigo-dyed tenugui, which, to her surprise, is complete with a pretty white triangular motif throughout.

But the biggest surprise of all? Despite the enjoyable messiness, at the end of the workshop, there is not a drop of blue anywhere on my daughter — aside from the carefully dyed cloth she holds happily in her hands.

Wanariya — 1-8-10 Senzoku, Taito-ku, Tokyo (nearest station, Iriya) — offers aizome workshops for individuals and groups. Prices vary depending on the product dyed, from ¥1,920 for a tenugui or a handkerchief to ¥4,200 for a large canvas tote bag (other products include shirts, scarves, T-shirts, work caps, baby rompers and coasters). Reservations are required. Recommended for children over the age of 3. Classes in traditional weaving on wooden looms are also available. For more information, visit wanariya.jp or call 03-5603-9169

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