Report

The outstanding kimonos of the Oshima Tsumugi workshop

The Oshima Tsumugi workshop in the north of Amami Oshima Island upholds ancestral know-how devoted to the manufacture of exquisite silk kimonos. Set in an idyllic landscape at the foot of a mountain, the craftsmen and women continue to use natural ingredients to dye the fabric, together with traditional weaving techniques.

Ori Jime, a technique that has remained unchanged for 1,300 years

The Oshima Tsumugi workshop on Amami-Oshima has remained faithful to a traditional technique imported from China to Okinawa Island and then the Amami Islands since the 8th century. The silk woven garments, called tsumugi, were initially worn solely by the staff and family members of the king of Ryukyu, and later by high-ranking members of successive feudal governments. The inhabitants were not authorised to wear such attire, which served solely to pay the taxes they owed to their masters. It was only during the Meiji Era in the late 19C that the handcrafted fabric became democratised and was sold throughout Japan.

 

Time-consuming and painstaking handicraft

Since the early 20C and the increase in demand, numerous improvements have been made to the manufacturing process, but it remains essentially a craft industry. The first dying stage (techiki) involves boiling large vats of chips of a local bush, Raphilolepis umbellata. The silk spun threads are then dipped into the cooled liquid and dried in the sun; a process which is repeated some 15 to 20 times. The dark red colour obtained then evolves into greys and dark blues when the threads are dipped in different types of mud collected from around the rice fields. The mud is highly concentrated in iron, making it possible to dye and also fix the colour on the silk. The indigo shade is obtained using leaves of Persicaria tinctoria.

 

Rare, coveted pieces

The rectangular strips of tsumugi, both highly durable and wrinkle-proof, are used to make kimonos, printed with a wide variety of patterns: straight lines, chains, crosses, tortoise shell… After weaving and assembling the rolls of fabric over several weeks, the price of such garments can often attain several hundred thousand yen and they are often already ordered in advance by the capital’s discerning wealthy.

 

Practical information

The Japanese airline company, JAL and its local partners, JAL Express and Ryukyu Air Commuter, operate daily flights between Kagoshima to the south of Kyushu, and the islands of Amami-Oshima, Kikai, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu and Yoron, as well as daily flights between the islands themselves, making the entire archipelago fully accessible.

For its part, the “A” Line Ferry company offers individual island-hopping tickets, as well as an “unlimited travel pass” (norihodai kippu), valid between all the islands, making it possible to customise your trip at a very reasonable cost.

 

The author

Manuel Sanchez

Writer and photographer who seeks out contacts, other cultural identities, distinctive architectures. As a seasoned traveller, my approach has been honed little by little, from insider hacks to in-depth explorations. I especially love early travel writers, for their detail and their feeling for the sanctity and inviolability of the cultures they describe.

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The tourist attractions mentioned

Ōshima Tsumugi Garden and Kimono Workshop at Oshima Tsumugi Mura Ōshima Tsumugi Garden and Kimono Workshop at Oshima Tsumugi Mura
Ōshima Tsumugi Garden and Kimono Workshop at Oshima Tsumugi Mura
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