Indigo-dyed cotton takes on a soft, luminous quality as it ages that's almost like velvet. That characteristic isn't apparent in historical black and white photographs of people wearing garments made of indigo. Experiencing the beauty of old indigo is just one of the reasons to visit Kantha and Sashiko - Needleworks from Bengal and Tohoku at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum or 日本民芸館. The show features embroidery from two very different cultural traditions which both demonstrate the amazing creativity that can emerge from humble materials.
The indigo garments come from Tohoku, northeastern Japan. Cotton only became a common clothing material there fairly recently, perhaps 150 years ago. But once it arrived people made the most of it, embellishing everyday objects with meticulous stitching known as sashiko (刺し子). The designs range from simple lines of thick, white thread inching across a blue field, to wonderfully intricate motifs in threads of many colors that must have required countless months of work to execute.
Bengal is represented by kantha. Colorful imagery spills across large fields of cotton and, occasionally, silk. Rivers teem with happy fish. Elephants, horses, birds, lions and birds surround scenes of human festivity. The stitching gives the figures a nice 3-dimensional quality. Some of the pieces reminded me of New England samplers, slightly crude but highly expressive in their execution. Great joy emanates from every piece.
This show is exceptionally fine, but I will go to almost anything the Mingeikan puts on. It has a huge collection of wonderful objects with a rich history and the building itself is a delight. It may have the best museum shop in Tokyo.
I do have two gripes, however. First, the English interpretation leaves something to be desired. There was a good, concise English description of the show in a flyer we received as we entered. But beyond that, the only English to be found was in signs saying, "Don't touch." This is not only a problem at the Mingeikan: Japanese museums and public places in general are pretty poor at explaining things in English. I hope as the 2020 Olympics approach venues of all kinds will work harder to meet the needs of their foreign visitors.
Then there is the photo issue. You can't take any photos in the Mingeikan. This, again, is typical of Japanese museums - and fabric stores, too, for some reason. I can understand a "no tripods, no flash" rule, but most US and European museums I'm acquainted with allow visitors to take photos, perhaps since they're aware that pictures posted on blogs and social media are a great source of free promotion.
A little background on the kantha pieces on display. They come from the collection of Hiroko Iwatate, who also runs the Iwatate Folk Textile Museum in Tokyo's Jiyugaoka neighborhood. The museum is small but her collection is massive. When we visited a few months ago, she told us her South Asian collection alone contains several thousand items. If you are lucky enough to visit on a day when Iwatate-san is there, she may describe for you, as she did for us, in English, the history and composition of the pieces on display. You might be able to touch them and, yes, take photographs.