Sunday, August 14, 2016

Textile Trails

Once upon a time in Japan, pilgrims donned handwoven hemp jackets like this as they traveled from temple to temple. At each stop, the jacket would be stamped or inscribed with sutras. These days, pilgrims generally carry books to receive such blessings. This jacket was probably made around 1900. We'll post more lore about this piece as we uncover it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Mr. Abe's Neighborhood

The Ajimi team found a trio of komebukuro, which are decorative patchwork bags meant to carry rice as offerings to temples and shrines.  The lining of each bag was inscribed with the name of a man, Abe Sukezo;  his business, Abe Beikokusho (a rice shop); some dates, March and April 1915; and some vague addresses that didn't quite tell us where his stomping grounds were. Our conjectures about Abe-san's life and the bags themselves appeared in a previous post, History Embellished.

Friends who read Japanese better than we do set us straight on the place names - and helped us do some Google-sleuthing. Lo and behold, we found the neighborhood - even if we didn't find Abe-san's shop.

We now had two place names  to work with: Shirone and Ichinocho.

The pieces fell into place pretty quickly. Abe-san lived and worked in the city of Niigata in  Minami ward, about 7 or 8 kilometers from the city center. The neighborhood is a bit of a backwater, and was probably even more so a hundred years ago.

Ichinocho 1-chome was written on the linings of two bags and Inaricho 3-chome on the other.  These are two different blocks in the same general area.

The 1-chome address is largely occupied by a shrine. Did Abe-san write down the destination for the rice rather than his own address?

However, in 3-chome, a classic run-down block of mostly shuttered  businesses,  one building was identified on Google Maps as a rice shop. It's the one on the left, below. It appears to have been closed for some time. Was this Abe-san's place of business?

We did find, a short toss of a rice bag away, a genuine, old-fashioned, still-functioning rice shop associated with someone named Takahiro. We like to imagine Abe-san and his family had a place like this.

Here's a link to the neighborhood in Google Maps.  Please visit, and let us know what you find.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

History, Embellished

Let's say you were a prosperous rice merchant named Abe Sukezo, living in Japan in the early years of the 20th century. You'd be expected to make offerings to the local temple, assuring not only continued good fortune, but establishing your presence and beneficence as an upstanding member of your community. Your offering? Rice, of course. It was not only your business, but a form of currency in a land where it was the main food staple. You'd bring your offering in a special bag, a komebukuro - a patchwork of fine fabrics from retired kimonos worn by the women of your household.

The Ajimi team came across a trio of Abe-san's komebukuro about 100 years later. We put together his story from the things he wrote on the linings of the bags - his name and that of his business, his address and the date. His shop was called Abe Beikokusho. It was located in Shiranemachi, Sannocho. Two of the bags were dated March, the 4th year of the Taisho era, or 1915. We put on our detective hats to track down the exact location of the shop. We did find Abe Beikoku, a rice business in Yamagata. Is it the same business? There are few Shiranemachis and Sannochos around Japan, none corresponding to the same location. Names change. Townships and neighborhoods are subdivided and incorporated, their original identities disappearing from the collective memory.

However, some evidence gets left behind - here in a trio of komebukuro. Each tells its own story, about the fabrics it was made from and the women who wore them, of the man who carefully wrote his name, address and the date inside, of life at the beginning a century of profound change.

Imagine Sukezo-san, dressed in his finest kimono. It's a fine, sunny day in March. The air is still a little winter brisk.  He's walking to the temple with his wife and young daughter. He carries a komebukuro filled with rice, the bag's rich silk patchwork contrasting with his dark haori. His wife carries a similar bag. Her simple pale green kimono is offset by a bold haori splashed with branches of red and pink cherry blossoms. Their daughter follows behind with a smaller offering, in a garment strewn with white ume blossoms, symbols of spring. They make their rounds - the temple, a tea house, a sake merchant, then return to their home above the rice shop.

Stories are found in any number of things. Sometimes they're obvious. Sometimes you have to do a bit of sleuthing. And when the reasearch only takes you so far, you sometimes have to let your imagination fill in the rest.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Tip of a Textile Iceberg

Hiroko Iwatate began traveling the world to collect textiles about five decades ago and has not stopped since.  Her Indian collection alone amounts to several thousand pieces, a fraction of the overall inventory.  Southeast Asia and Japan are also heavily represented. Her small museum can accommodate only a fraction of what she owns at one time, but the exhibitions are beautifully curated.  Iwatate-san is usually on hand during the limited opening hours and, if she’s not busy, she’ll tell you the stories behind each and every piece.  

Up now at the Iwatate Folk Textile Museum: Homemade Children's Garments - India to Japan. All but a few of the items are from Hiroko Iwatate's vast collection. We visited yesterday and got a personal tour. The photo is from the museum's home page.

It's an amazing place, one we'll highlight in our upcoming guide, "Textile Lovers' Tokyo." To receive your free copy, click the Ajimi Ichiba link on the right side of this page and sign up for news and deals at the bottom of page one. We'll pop the guide into your inbox as soon as it's available.

Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm (last entrance at 4:30 pm) during exhibitions.
Address: Jiyugaoka 1-25-13, Iwatate Building (岩立ビル) 3F
Telephone: 03-3718-24 61

Nearest station: Jiyugaoka on the Tokyu Toyoko Line and the Tokyu Oimachi Line.
English website:

Monday, April 18, 2016

Haori: The Inside Story

It can be tough to assign a precise date to antique and vintage haori.  One helpful hint: the more elaborate the lining, the older it is.  The patterns on the linings of many early 20th-century haori in our collection are almost as exuberant as the patterns on the outside. By the mid- to late-20th century, haori linings had become far more tame.  They were still made of silk, and sometimes out of rinzu brocade, but in shades of ivory and pastel rather than the riot of colors and images of a half-century earlier.

One line of thinking is that, under centuries of sumptuary laws that dictated what kind of clothing people could wear - class by class - the lower orders got accustomed to hiding their most elegant textiles where the authorities couldn't see them.  That applied to garment linings, as well as undergarments such as juban whose fabric designs can be quite elaborate.  Or maybe the pattern-mad Japanese designers of 100 years ago simply couldn't resist covering every square inch of fabric with as much color and imagery as possible.

We hope you enjoy these examples from the Ajimi Ichiba collection.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Natsukashii Nihon

We on the Ajimi team frequently find ourselves feeling nostalgic for disappearing features of Japanese life that we didn't even know existed before we arrived.  Case in point - oden carts.  These handmade, portable dining establishments used to be a frequent sight outside Tokyo train stations. You lift the plastic curtain on a cold winter night and get blasted with vapor rising from a simmering pan of assorted bits of tofu, meat, squid, daikon and hardboiled eggs.  Pull up a stool, and enjoy the warmth of hot sake, conversation and temporary community.  The experience reminds us of the kind of blanket-over-the-dining-table tented fort we built as children - but with booze.

Alas, the forces in charge of the Singaporeification of Tokyo have decided that these cozy little outposts must go.  New licenses are not being granted so the tradition is dying off along with the proprietors.  Granted, these places don't have bathrooms and most of them are pretty far down on the sanitation scale.  Plus, the income they generate is probably barely enough to keep the boss in Golden Bats.  But still.

Fortunately, in the first weeks of the year, Brigadoon-like, a couple of these old warhorses return to the street leading to Fukugawa Fudoson in Monzennakacho.

We ducked into one the other day, joining a young, vaping Japanese couple cradling a pair of tea-cup terriers.

Once we established that we could speak a bit of Nihongo and handle chopsticks without putting an eye out, the conversation turned to the fate of the oden cart, and old Tokyo generally.  Our host has a license to operate in Kayabacho until March.  Then, it's sayonara.  Soon, his will join the retired fleet of oden carts scattered throughout the city.

But nearby, modern takes on traditional Japanese watering holes are popping up that retain some of the old-style hospitality.  We are speaking, of course, of the kadouchi (角打ち) or tachinomiya(立ち飲みや), stand-up, corner bars where people rub elbows while they drink.  A few steps from the winter quarters of the doomed oden cart is Orihara Shouten (折原商店).  The main attraction here is the nihonshu.  They have scores of bottles of all kinds, any of which you can sample.  Paradise.  The hosts are welcoming and helpful. Conversations with fellow tipplers have been known to break out.

And for those of you who are also pining for the street food of yore, they offer piping hot bowls of oden.


Friday, June 26, 2015

The Frogs of Yayoi

Kuniyoshi / Frog Wars

The Ajimi team has worked on and off at Todai University. This year, only one of the team makes his daily rounds to the old institution. The commute involves getting off at Nezu station and walking up a small hill toward the campus' Yayoi Gate. Once you get to the top of the hill, you hit a road just in front of a taxidermy shop that's been closed up for quite a while now. Time was the shutters were up on a window that had an array of stuffed small mammals and birds in absurd juxtaposition creating a surreal version of the peaceable kingdom. There was always a small rack in front of the door festooned with tanuki tails. Across the street from the shop is a fenced off section of the campus. Behind that fence are some small gardens and greenhouses. This time of year, tsuyu (the rainy season), the heat and humidity begin to rise. Not yet overbearing, it's the perfect time of year for frogs to come out and get a little frisky. The evening air fills with croaking. It's one of the rare places in the concrete and asphalt environs of Tokyo where you can hear a chorus of something non-human that's not machine. And a delightful chorus it is! The joyful chirpings of horny frogs breaks the monotony of passing cars. A small connection, a remembrance of the natural world breaks down, if only for a short while, the artificiality of the city. A small bit of the peaceable kingdom reigns in the heart of the urban jungle.

In the tradition of Basho, whose most famous haiku is about a frog, this Ajimi-ster wrote a haiku about the frogs of Yayoi. Like Basho's poem, which is pretty much untranslatable into English, mine is pretty much untranslatable into Japanese. The Zen-like conundrum of Basho's piece (What is the sound of water?) has managed to stump a who's who of English-writing poets. The double-entendre of my poem has no analog in Japanese.

Here's Basho's


furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

And here are 31 translations of it.

Here's what the frogs inspired in me.

Across the roadway
from the taxidermy shop
dozens of frogs croak

Here's what they sound like (with the sound of passing cars breaking the rhythm).