The art of shibori at Bunzaburo in Kyoto

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Katayama Bunzaburo Shoten’s flagship store in Kyoto

 

When I was going through my pile of leaflets/ business cards that I picked up from my previous trips to Kyoto, one particular leaflet caught my attention. It was from Bunzaburo, a tie-dyed/ shibori (the term means “to squeeze or wring”)  company in Kyoto. Oddly enough, I couldn’t recollect much from my previous visit, so I decided to pay another visit to its shop while I was in Kyoto.

Opened in Kyoto in 1915 by Bunzaburo Katayama, Katayama Bunzaburo Shoten specialised in the manufacturing of high-end kimono silk fabric with shibori tie-dye decorations, especially Kyo Kanoko Shibori (tiny dotted pattern that resembles a young deer’s back). Although Shibori is often associated with Arimatsu in Nagoya (which I will write about in the forthcoming entry), the Kyo Kanoko Shibori technique was created in Kyoto and has been handed down without cessation for over 1,000 years by a number of craftsmen.

 

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Unfortunately, like many of the traditional arts and crafts in Japan, the kimono industry is under threat in this and age, and many producers have to either adapt or face closure. At Bunzaburo, “Tradition exists in innovations” is the motto of their third generation president, Kazuo Katayama. For over 100 years, they have continued to innovate and merge traditional techniques with new designs; one of their design concept is “Wearable Art” – using bold designs to create a fusion of fashion and art. And in 1991, they won the Best Design Award in the Made in Kyoto Award (appointed by Kyoto Prefecture) for their creation, Aimu – a glass plate which allows a thin piece of Japanese indigo-dyed hemp fabric to be sandwiched in the middle.

When you step into their shop housed inside a traditional Japanese house through the shibori noren, you would be surrounded by beautiful and elegant shibori lighting and accessories. I literally felt a sense of exhilaration as soon I walked in.

 

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Having previously learnt some basic shibori techniques, I understand how time-consuming it is to create these work, though this may not be the case for the shop’s visitors. Hence, in order for customers to understand the processes, they have an area displaying and explaining various shibori techniques, which I think is fantastic.

When the friendly shop assistant came over for a chat, she was extremely thrilled when I told her that I will be doing a workshop on indigo dyeing and shibori. She started explaining their products to me, including a new range of leather handbags and shoes that feature shibori patterns (and she kindly modeled the shoes for me). I could sense the pride she felt for her company’s products, and she was more than happy to give me their brochures to take home.

The shop offers a wide range of fashion items and accessories including wearable bracelets and rings, which are affordable and great as gifts. If you are interested in shibori, then this shop is a ‘must’ stop in Kyoto.

 

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KATAYAMA BUNZABURO SHOTEN

221 Hashibenkeicho Takoyakusidori Karasuma Nishiiru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto

 

Gardens, temples, and zazen in Kyoto

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A view of Tofukuji’s Tsutenkyo Bridge

 

It is on every tourist’s itinerary to visit at least one/two karesansui (dry landscape garden) in Kyoto, but during the peak season, it is best to avoid the famous ones and head for the less crowded gardens. A few years ago, I visited Kyoto in February and did an intensive garden tour (with less visitors) in the Northwest Kyoto and Arashiyama, hence I decided to focus more around the central area on this trip.

Before my trip, I started to read books on Japanese zen gardens, but I don’t think learning the symbols or trying to understand the layout and design make much sense until you immerse yourself in that environment. I started studying and practising Zen Buddhism about 4 years ago (after trying out different practices with various organisations for years); its teachings emphasise that Zen is not an intellectual practice, but something that one has to experience to understand. Meanwhile, if you try really hard, you are likely to fail, too. I feel that one has to treat zen/dry landscape gardens as abstract art/ sculptures, and it is up to the viewers to ‘feel’ and find their own emotional connections with these gardens.

 

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Tofuku-ji Temple and garden

 

My previous experiences at the extremely touristy and crowded Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji temple and Ryoan-ji Temple were anything but tranquil, which is a shame because the essence of these temples and gardens are somewhat ruined by tourists who only more concerned with picking boxes on their packed itineraries.

Luckily, there are thousands of temples and gardens in Kyoto, so you are likely to find some off the beaten track spots that have not been invaded by package tour groups. Located in southeast Kyoto, Tofuku-ji Temple is extremely popular during the fall season for its stunning foliage, but otherwise it is fairly quiet. Founded in 1236, it is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and one of the five great temples in Kyoto. The Sammon Gate from 1425 was designated as one of the Japanese National Treasure Buildings, and the gardens are designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.

 

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The Hojo gardens at Tofuku-ji Temple

 

The main building, Hojo, was was reconstructed in 1890, and has four gardens arranged around the building. These gardens were laid out in 1939 by the famous artist/landscape designer, Mirei Shigemori (who also created the gardens at Koyasan’s Saizen-in featured in my earlier entry), who intended to express the simplicity of Zen in the Kamakura period with the abstract construction of modern arts. The most unique and famous one has to be north garden featuring squared stones and moss arranged in a chequered pattern. It is intriguing and original; I love how moss is being used here, which creates a strong contrast against the solid grey stones.

 

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Chishakuin temple and garden

 

Chishakuin Temple is another large temple complex that is visited more by Japanese visitors than foreign tourists. It is the headquarters of the Chisan School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, originally located in Koyasan.

This temple is best known for its mural paintings (National Treasures) and a beautiful garden that features a pond and artificial hills inspired by the area around Mt. Rozan in China. This temple was quiet and peaceful during my visit, and it was particularly interesting to see the monks playing musical instruments while striding towards the main hall.

 

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Monks gathering and playing musical instruments outside of the Chishakuin temple

 

Although the Soto Zen school is the largest of three traditional sects in Japan, many of the well-known temples in central Kyoto belong to the Rinzai sect, and some of them also offer zazen sessions to the public. I wanted to attend a session at a temple, and even though I am a Soto Zen practitioner, I wasn’t too bothered about the lineage as long as it served the purpose.

I chose to attend an one-hour afternoon session at Shorin-ji Temple, a sub-temple of Tofuku-ji Temple. And to my surprise, the room was completely full with attendees including Japanese office workers, high school students, foreign visitors, and even young kids. It was especially encouraging to see young children sitting still for two 15-minute sessions. A monk priest conducted the session and gave instructions in Japanese, while foreign visitors were given some basic instructions on paper.

 

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Zazen at Shorin-ji Temple

 

I have heard a lot about keisaku (awakening stick), which is a flat wooden stick used during periods of zazen to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration, but I have never been hit before ( nor did I want to). Here, it is possible to request the monk priest to hit your shoulder by putting the palms together, and then lowering the head and body forward slightly. I am no sadist, but I couldn’t resist my curiosity… when the priest struck me, it somewhat took me by surprise and all I could feel was pain. Then gradually the pain eased away and I felt more relaxed and alert at the same time. During the session, I asked to be hit twice (so did the young girl/kid opposite me) and did not mind it at all, which was quite a revelation to me. If you want to try a zazen session in Kyoto, I would recommend a visit to this temple.

 

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Reikan-ji Temple

 

Along the Philosopher’s Path, there are some beautiful lesser known temples and gardens that offer serene settings with few visitors. Honenin temple (see my earlier post) is one of them and the other is the charming Reikan-ji temple, which is only open only for 2 weeks in spring and 2 weeks in autumn. This temple is famous for its camellias, and I arrived at the right time for it.

Reikan-ji is a monzeki (abbess-princess) nunnery of the and part of the Nanzen-ji School. It was established in 1654 for the tenth daughter of the retired Emperor Go-mizunoo. The temple houses screen paintings by Kano Eitoku and Kano Motonobu, numerous treasures related to the Imperial family and a collection of traditional Kyoto dolls (Gosho Ningyo). Yet  it was the wonderful garden that captivated me most. Not only visitors could admire camellias in full bloom, but the grounds were also covered in petals from the cherry and camellia trees. The sea of pink petals looked almost like snow in winter – it was a mesmersising sight. This is one of my favourite gardens on this trip.

 

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Reikan-ji Temple

 

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Eikando Zenrin-ji

 

At the southern end of the Philosopher’s path lies Eikando Zenrin-ji temple, the head temple of the Seizan branch of Japan’s Jodo-shu Buddhist sect originally founded in 853. The temple has a long and complicated history, and houses many National Treasures including a famous Amida statue and Buddhist paintings since the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

The temple is famous for its autumn foliage, and it is less busy at other times. Nestled in Kyoto’s Eastern Mountain, Higashiyama, parts of the temple offer a nice view over the city. I was too exhausted to climb up to Tahoto, the pagoda that offers the best view at the compound.

 

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Yudofu Hitotori (Boiled Tofu Set) lunch at Okutan in the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple

 

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Nanzenji Temple

 

Next to Eikando Zenrin-ji is Nanzenji Temple, the head temple of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen. This large complex contains many temple buildings including multiple sub-temples. Founded in the 13th century, the temple was burnt down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Its famous Sanmon gate was originally constructed in the 13th century, destroyed in 1369 at the order of the government, and reconstructed in 1628. The hojo garden is considered to be one of the best examples of karesansui gardens, and was created by the notable feudal lord/gardener and tea ceremony master, Kobori Enshu, in the 17th century.

After a long day of visiting various temples and gardens along the Philosopher’s Path, I was feeling exhausted and templed out by the time I reached Nazenji. As much as I wanted to visit its famous garden, I decided to skip it (the crowd was also a bit off-putting) and headed straight to my last temple visit of the day – Konchi-in, a small sub-temple at the Nanzenji temple complex.

 

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Why Konchi-in? While I was planning my trip, the “crane and turtle” garden at Konchi-in was mentioned in my Zen garden book and praised by various articles as one of the best examples of shakkei (borrowed scenery) in Kyoto. Also, the temple’s tea ceremony room is one of the three major tea rooms in Kyoto. And unlike Nanzenji temple, there were only a few visitors when I visited this temple and garden, so it was a refreshing break from the crowds.

Founded in the 15th century, this temple was relocated and made the residence of the Nanzenji’s Abbot, Ishin Suden, in 1626. As a connoisseur of the tea ceremony, he built a new hojo and created a new tea room. He commissioned Kobori Enshu (who was also responsible for the hojo garden at Nanzenji) to design a new garden that payed homage to the Tokugawa dynasty, which resulted in the “crane and turtle” garden.

 

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Kochi-in Temple and its famous “crane and turtle” garden

 

I sat quietly opposite the garden to look for the crane and turtle but failed. However, it is a beautiful and tranquil garden, so even if you can’t read or understand the symbolic meaning of the garden, you could still appreciate its picturesque and relaxing setting.

 

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Murin-an

 

Situated near Nanzen-ji temple, Murin-an is not a popular destination for tourists because it is not within a temple compound. It is a Meiji period strolling garden built between 1894 and 1896 by Yamagata Aritomo, a former two-time Prime Minister of Japan. He was a keen gardener, and worked with Japanese master gardener Ogawa Jihee on this plot of land bought from Nanzen-ji. Interestingly, it is in an East-meets-West style that is influenced by English landscape gardens and Western architecture.

The garden uses the eastern hills of Kyoto as a viewpoint, adopting the technique of shuzan – so that it appears as an extension of the mountain scenery. There is also a small stream that is fed by the waters of the nearby Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. I particularly liked this garden because the scenery is perpetually changing as you walk further away from the building. There is always something unexpected hidden from your view as you walk forward, and it gives you a sense of exploration and anticipation.

 

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Murin-an

There are two buildings here, and one of them is a Japanese style wooden villa with a tea room where visitors could rest and have tea opposite the scenic garden; the other is a Western brick building where meetings of foreign policy took place before the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, I urge you to look for some lesser-known temples and gardens where you are likely to be pleasantly surprised. And best of all, you could take your time and enjoy the garden quietly with very few visitors.

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Kaikado tea caddies shop & cafe in Kyoto

Since I only had four days in kyoto (including a day out at Miho museum with my friend), I didn’t manage to fit much shopping in. Hence I targeted a few shops either close to where I was staying or near a sight I wanted to visit. One of the shops that was high on my agenda was a small tea caddy shop near my lodging in the Kawarmachi district.

Kaikado is a traditional tea caddies maker established in 1875, which makes them the oldest handmade tin tea caddies maker in the world. And it all started from the tin plates imported from Cornwall of all places!

 

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Using imported tin from England, the company’s founder, Kiyosuke kaikado, designed the first generation of tin tea caddy. His aim was to provide a well-designed, functional tea caddy capable of storing the type of tea leaves commonly sold by tea dealers and merchants. His successors later added copper and brass to their collection, developed a two-tiered design, whilst still maintaining the traditional techniques and basic shapes. Their iconic Chazutsu (the standard Kaikado Tea Canister) involves a 130-step fabrication process, and are still being produced and used across Japan including the Japanese Imperial household.

 

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Their small shop near the canal is easy to miss, and I had to walk back and forth a few times to check the number. Also, I wasn’t sure if it was opened either, and I hesitated a while before entering inside. Once inside, I felt as if I had walked into a craftsman’s workshop and mini museum… there are tools on display and lots of beautiful tea caddies everywhere, including labels that indicate how long it takes for the colours of the metals to change. It is the changes of metal colours that make these caddies so unique. Since the philosophy of wabi sabi is deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture and aesthetics, it enables them to appreciate the beauty of rustic objects, imperfection, and embrace the state of impermanence. Hence, these tea caddies are not just about good design and craftsmanship, they also embody the essence of the wabi sabi philosophy and aesthetics.

 

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Located not far from the shop is their spacious cafe housed inside a restored 90-year-old listed building that used to be a garage and administration office. Opened in 2016, the cafe was designed by Thomas Lykke from Danish design and architecture studio, OeO. The tea caddies are displayed on shelves and behind the glass cabinet, and they blend extremely well with the Nordic/Japanese style decor.

The simple menu offers snacks, cakes, as well as coffee from Japanese roaster Nakagawa Wani Coffee, black teas from Postcard tea London, and green tea from Rishouen tea Uji. I had their Ice matcha latte and it was very good. Prices here are not cheap, but I liked the relaxing ambience and decor, and best of all, it wasn’t packed with tourists even during the peak tourist season. Believe me, tranquility is worth the extra two hundred yen!

 

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Kakaido shop: 84-1 Umeminatocho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto

Kakaido cafe: 352 Sumiyoshi-cho, Shimogyoku, Kyoto

 

Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum in Kyoto

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I have wanted to visit Japanese potter, Kawai Kanjiro‘s former house – now his Memorial Museum for a long time. Yet for some reason, I never made it until this trip… it was a timely visit as the museum was like a quiet sanctuary compared to hassle and bustle in the centre of the city.

Born 1890, Kawai Kanjiro was a prominent figure in Mingei (Japanese folk art) movement founded by Japanese philosopher, Yanagi Soetsu, in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the studio pottery movements led by Bernard Leach. According to Yanagi, everyday and utilitarian objects made by the anonymous craftsmen are ‘beyond beauty and ugliness’. They are inexpensive and functional ware made for ordinary people, rather than ornaments to be placed on shelves as decorations.

Kawai acquainted and collaborated with British potter, Bernard Leach (who founded Leach Pottery with another well-known Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada) throughout his life, hence he often combined English with Japanese elements together to create pottery pieces that are asymmetrical.

 

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Luckily, Kawai‘s beautiful wooden farm house seems to be under the tourists’ radar, so I was able to wander and absorb the subdued and tranquil setting. Designed by Kawai and built by his brother in 1937, the house had been left untouched since his death in 1966. It is not hard to see the influence of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of wabi sabi (the aesthetics often associated with ‘imperfection’) at this house, in particular when he talks of ’emptiness’ in the his essay titles “We Do Not Work Alone”:

“When you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally then your work truly becomes a work of art… Everything that is, is not. Everything is, yet at the same time, nothing is. I myself am the emptiest of all.”

 

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One of the most impressive sights at the house is his huge kiln at the back, which has been well preserved. Beside pottery, Kawai also did wood carving, furniture design, metal casting and calligraphy, and these works can be seen around the house/museum. I found the museum and his work utterly inspiring, and I think it is possible to imagine the kind of person he was from his craft, designs and writings. The aesthetics of this house is so sublime and understated that it would take some time to grasp it, and you may need to return again to appreciate it fully.

 

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Hiroyuki Shindo’s Little indigo museum in Miyama

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Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much planning you do before your trip, things would still go wrong… but miraculously, some kind strangers/ locals would appear out of nowhere to help you out. I am sure many people have had these experiences when they travel, and I think it is probably the most ‘rewarding’ part of traveling. This happened to me when I traveled from Kyoto to Miyama, a small remote village in the mountains 50 kilometers north of central Kyoto.

Miyama is famous for its traditional, thatched roof (kayabuki) farmhouses scattered around the valley. I have read about The little indigo museum before my trip, and I really wanted to visit this museum. However, the journey from Kyoto to Miyama would require a train ride followed by a very infrequent bus service, which would take around 2 hours. Hence, I decided to spend a night there and I contacted the local tourism office 3 months ahead to book a room at the village’s only minshuku.

 

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Yet a few weeks before the journey, I found out that the museum closes every Friday – the day I was planning to visit. I wrote an email to the museum asking if they could open earlier on Saturday before my bus journey back to kyoto, but I didn’t hear back and I got slightly worried. Meanwhile, the weather in Kyoto also changed drastically – from sunny 27 degrees to heavy rain and 17 degrees overnight.

Finally, the night before my departure, I received an email from Mr Hiroyuki Shindo, the owner of the museum apologising for the late reply and said he would welcome me at the museum on Friday afternoon. It was a relief for me (for a while) until I arrived at the station for the bus transfer, where I found out from a Japanese couple by the bus stop that the bus was not coming. Confused, wet and frustrated, I ended up sharing a taxi with four strangers (including an elderly Japanese lady and a Taiwanese tourist) heading towards the next town for the bus, which was about 30 mins drive away. The whole experience was quite surreal, but I was glad to have met these kind strangers and we had an interesting conversation during our taxi ride.

Two bus rides later, I finally reached Miyama, and I quickly rushed over to the minshuku, but no one was in. I decided not to wait around and and headed straight towards the museum.

 

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I couldn’t believe the journey it took me to get to the museum (1 train, 1 taxi and 2 buses), and the downpour didn’t help either. Hence, it was a consolation when I was greeted by the friendly and hospitable Mr Shindo and his wife when I entered the house.

Housed inside a 200 year-old thatched roof farmhouse, the museum was established by Mr Shindo in 2005. The museum on the top floor displays some of his larger installation work and his collection of indigo textiles from around the world. On the ground floor is his indigo dyeing studio, where both he and his son work. He said that his son and family have moved back to Miyama from the city and is now working in the studio while he takes a step back from work.

Although Mr Shindo was not born in this village, he has lived and worked here for over 30 years. As a world-renowned indigo/textiles artist, his abstract and bold contemporary textile works have exhibited around the world in leading museums. I was notably awed by the precision of the dye in his works. When I asked him if teaches/conducts workshops, he shook his head and said that it would be impossible to learn this craft within a few hours or even a few days. I understood what he meant and agreed with him.

 

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I was impressed and intrigued by Mr Shindo’s beautiful collection from different parts of the world, which includes several traditional woodblock prints featuring shibori textiles. One particular item caught my eye and it was an indigo-dyed rucksack with straw backing. Mr Shindo explained to me that it is a vintage bridal rucksack that used to carry the bride’s essentials on the wedding day. I think the rucksack could still be used today (perhaps not at a wedding) and it would not even look outdated.

 

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little indigo museum

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After the museum tour, Mr Shindo invited me for some tea downstairs and we spent the next hour of so chatting about indigo, his work and my trip etc. I told him that I became interested in shibori after seeing a Japanese textiles exhibition at MOMA in NYC years ago, and to my surprise, he said that he also took part at that exhibition. I also learned that he is good friends with textiles artist, Hiroshi Saito, whom I ran into a few days ago at the temple, and Mr Shindo was amazed by my chance encounter with him.

Acknowledging my interest in shibori, Mr Shindo took out an A4 size box full of shibori techniques which he produced when he was a youngster. He explained that there are hundreds of shibori techniques, and it took him a long time to compile and create this reference box. I have never seen anything like this before and I was quite blown away by what I saw. Later, when I told him that I would be visiting Arimatsu the next day (a village famous for shibori in Nagoya), he quickly told me where to visit and even drew a map for me. Before I departed, I bought a DVD on the history of indigo, as well as some coasters and a scarf made by Mr Shindo and his wife.

 

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little indigo museum

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I had such a fascinating conversation with Mr Shindo,and I completely lost track of time. I must have spent over 2 hours at the museum, and it was getting dark outside, so it was time for me to head to the minshuku. Yet within 15 minutes’ time, I was back at the museum feeling confused and anxious…

I was in shock when I got to the minshuku and the owner said that there was a ‘mistake’ and his place was ‘full’! He couldn’t speak much English, so he suggested that we return to Mr Shindo’s and ask him to translate. It turned out that he had overbooked and despite the fact that i had booked months in advance, all the rooms were occupied that night. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I was feeling anxious as I was told that there is no other accommodation in the village. Finally, a phone call later, he said that he could drive me to a bigger guesthouse nearby as they have a room available. He was very apologetic and said he would cover the extra cost of the room as it was his fault. I didn’t care where I would spend the night as long as it was safe, clean and warm, so it was a relief to know that there would be a shelter for me that night.

 

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miyama

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After a short drive from the village, we arrived at Miyama Nature and Culture Village Kajikaso. Before I left the museum, Mr Shindo assured me that the guesthouse is decent and has a nice onsen, and he was right. After a stressful day when almost everything went wrong, I couldn’t have been happier to be bathing alone outdoor in bath covered with pink cherry blossom petals while the rain fell onto my head and skin. After bathing outdoor by the river at Kawayu Onsen and inside a cave facing the sea in Kii Katsuura, this was my third onsen experience on this trip, and it was as blissful as the previous two. Yet the most unexpected surprise came in the morning when i walked into the dining room for breakfast – all i could see was pink cherry blossom outside of the window, which was utterly stunning.

Around 7 am I received a call from the reception informing me that Mr Shindo was in the lobby to see me. I quickly got dressed and went downstairs to meet him. Mr Shindo said he felt bad that I never got to see the village yesterday because of all the misfortunes I experienced yesterday, and he offered to show me around before I headed back to kyoto. He said he would come and pick me up after breakfast and would also drop me off at the bus stop afterwards.

 

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Words could not describe how grateful and touched by his offer, and it completely took me by surprise. With only about an hour to spare, he drove me to the Chii Hachiman Shrine, a historic local shrine that has been designated as the Kyoto Prefectural Cultural Property. Although the rain hadn’t stopped, the mesmerising view of the village, thatched-roofed farm houses and misty mountains looked almost magical and fairy-tale-like to me.

 

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After saying goodbye to Mr Shindo, I left Miyama full of gratitude and joy. My disastrous day turned out to be one of the most memorable day of my trip, and I felt blessed that I was helped by all the strangers I encountered on the day. And most of all, I would not forget the generosity and kindness of Mr Shindo, who is not only a master of his craft, but also an incredible person. If you love indigo textiles, then a trip to Miyama’s Little indigo museum is a must on your itinerary even if it is not the easiest place to get to. I guarantee you that it is worth the effort and time.

 

I.M. Pei’s Shangri-La – Miho Museum

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“The Peach Blossom Land” was a Chinese fable written by poet Tao Yuanming in 421 CE about a fisherman’s discovery of a hidden valley – an ethereal utopia where contented people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. It is similar to the mystical and harmonious valley Shangri-La described in the novel “Lost Horizon” by British author James Hilton. Interestingly, human beings have always longed for an utopia like Shangri-La, yet we never seem to be able to live harmoniously with nature, and we have irrefutably destroyed countless of Shangri-Las since human civilisation.

If Shangri-La does exist, what would it look like? Chinese/American architect I.M. Pei created his version in the mountains of Shigaraki about an hour outside of Kyoto. A friend strongly recommended the Miho museum to me years ago, but sadly it was closed for months during my last visit to Kyoto a few years ago. During this trip, I met up with a friend who was spending a few months in Kyoto, and she was keen to return to the museum despite having visited it a few weeks earlier. She told me that the museum’s famous cherry blossom was the reason for her to return to the museum, and suggested that we depart early to avoid the crowds. (N.B. the trip to the museum requires a train journey followed by another 50-min bus ride).

 

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It turned out that other visitors had the same idea, so we had to travel with heaps of tourists heading towards the museum. The bus usually departs from the train station at every hour, but due to the unprecedented numbers of visitors, additional buses were deployed to cope with the mass numbers. Several buses full of visitors heading up to Shangri-La was not what I expected, and I doubt Mr Pei would have foresaw this either.

 

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Opened in 1997, the museum was commissioned by the controversial heiress Mihoko Koyama and her daughter Hiroko to house her private collection of Asian and Western art and antiquities. Mihoko Koyama was the founder of the new religion movement Shinji Shumeikai, which is widely regarded as a cult group. From the museum, visitors can see the headquarters of the group and a bell tower, also designed by I.M. Pei in 1989. I am surprised by Mr Pei’s decision to work for a suspected cult leader, but I guess nothing is quite black or white in our complex world.

 

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Perhaps Mr Pei was impressed by the site, which is located in a stunning nature reserve. There were many challenges that Mr Pei had to overcome, and one of them was to create harmony between the building and its surrounding environment and topography. And he succeeded this by burying eighty percent of the museum beneath the surface of the mountain. The museum itself is reachable through a tunnel and a suspected bridge, and the sight of the cherry trees is spectacular during the cherry blossom season. It is no wonder that so many tourists would make their way out of Kyoto to visit this museum.

 

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The museum collection is not huge, but it is remarkable and fascinating. Best of all, it is complemented by the equally impressive architecture that emphasises on natural lighting and geometric forms – elements that is often seen in Mr Pei‘s works (e.g. Louvre’s Pyramid). I think the elegant and understated style resonates with the traditional Japanese aesthetics. Personally, I think this is Mr Pei‘s masterpiece, and one of the most stunning museums that I have ever visited. It felt like a discovery experience because you are never quite sure what you would encounter next.

 

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After spending some time wandering around the museum, the crowds started to disperse and we were able to enjoy the space more. At lunch time, our stomachs were rumbling and we headed to the restaurant only to be told that lunch had sold out already! The waitress apologised politely and suggested that we go to the cafe near the parking to try our luck. Unsurprisingly, there was a long queue at the cafe and so we ended up buying some bread (not sandwich, but plain bread with no butter or filling) at their bakery as there was nothing else nearby. I was flabbergasted by how ill-prepared the museum was in regards to the high numbers of visitors, and got more agitated when I saw the long line of people waiting for the bus. Packed like sardines for almost an hour, we were transported to the train station, and I felt relieved to finally get away from other tourists.

It was a shame that my visit to the museum was tainted by the overwhelming of numbers of visitors – I think I would have enjoyed it more during the off-peak season. When I remembered my pilgrimage hike in Kumano Kodo just the week before, I realised that I had already found my Shangri-La – it is a tranquil and unspoilt place where nature rules. If men can learn to respect and listen to nature more, then we can see that Shangri-Las are everywhere, and it is not a special place that we have to seek.

 

Textiles of Hiroshi Saito at Honen-in in Kyoto

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Honen-in temple by the Philosopher’s path

 

The older I get, the more I believe that everything happens for a reason, which includes the people we encounter over the course of our lifetime. And since I started running my own business, I discovered that when you follow your heart and passion, you are likely to attract the right people and opportunities. The road may still be bumpy, but perseverance and patience will get you through if you believe you are on the right track.

My interest in Japanese textiles started in 1998, after seeing an awe-inspiring exhibition at MOMA in NYC. Since then, I have taken various part-time courses on textiles, but it remained as a hobby after work. Last year, I decided to take a sabbatical to pursue my interests properly as I realised that I want to return to my roots – to design and create – and step back from the business side.

The itinerary I created for my Japan trip combined textiles, paper, nature and hiking – things and activities that I love. Although textiles was not on my agenda in Kyoto, I was fortunate enough to meet Kyoto-based textiles artist Hiroshi Saiton by chance at the Honen-in, which was a wonderful serendipitous encounter.

 

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Like I mentioned in my previous entry, the Philosopher’s path in Kyoto can be quite daunting during the cherry blossom season due to the amount of tourists. Nonetheless, there are some smaller or less well-known temples near the path that are quite tranquil even in the peak seasons, and Honen-in is one of them. I remember visiting this delightful 17th century temple 12 years ago, which has changed little since my last visit. Yet what caught my attention this time was a poster of a textiles exhibition (for 1 week only) pinned on a wall outside of the temple…

 

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With no clear signage, it took me sometime to find the exhibition hall, but as soon as I walked into the building, I was immediately struck by the beautiful textiles hanging at the entrance. I felt so excited to see all the vibrant colours, abstract forms and nature-inspired motifs hanging around the hall/corridor. Then I saw the friendly Kyoto-based textiles artists Mr Hiroshi Saito explaining his work to a korean visitor, and when they finished their conversation, I went to him to ask him more about his work. Mr Saito told me that in his eary career, he specialised in the traditional yuzen-dyeing techniques, and spent decades using synthetic dyes, but in recent years, he switched to natural dyes and has not used the synthetic ones again. It was very encouraging to hear, and when I showed him some photos of the natural and indigo dyeing workshops that I did in London, he looked thrilled and patted on my back with with a big smile on his face.

 

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Mr Saito was deeply affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 (which was partly why he switched to natural dyeing), so he started to travel to the Tohoku region to organise textiles activities for children to take part in. He also showed me photographs of the amazing paint brushes that he created out of various plants in place of conventional brushes. At the end of our conversation, I told him that I really like his beautiful shirt, and would have to take a photo of it (see above). I was very touched by Mr Saito‘s generosity, openness, and his inspiring textiles designs. I really hope that I can pay his studio a visit the next time I am in Kyoto.

There is not a lot of English info on the artist via the internet, but you can find his work on his studio/gallery Kaze Kobo‘s Facebook page, and his community work here (in Japanese only but there are many lovely photos).

 

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‘Kanko kogai’ (tourism pollution) in Kyoto

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The usually tranquil Philosopher’s path was full of tourists with selfie sticks during the cherry blossom period

 

I have been warned and I knew when I struggled to find accommodations three months before my trip, yet I still went to Kyoto during the sakura season. It was not my plan to visit Japan during the sakura season, but due to the timing of the indigo dyeing workshop, I reluctantly ended up in Kyoto during its peak season – something I would normally avoid as much as possible. I don’t know how the residents cope with the mass tourism during the cherry blossom season, but I totally empathise with them since London also struggles with mass tourism in the summers. These days, mass tourism is having a negative impact on the infrastructure and environment around the world, and governments need to take measures to tackle this modern-day phenomenon to minimise further environmental and other damages.

 

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According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), around 28.7 million tourists from abroad visited Japan last year, and with the 2020 Olympics coming up, the numbers are likely to surpass 40 million. Some Japanese media even dubbed this issue as ‘kanko kogai‘, or tourism pollution. Even though tourists from around the world flock to Kyoto during the cherry blossom period, the most notable ones are from China. It is hard to ignore the rise of Chinese tourists around the world in the past decade, and Japan is one of the their favourite destinations partly due to the proximity between the two countries. Now more than six million Chinese tourists visit Japan annually, and they are not all welcome by the Japanese because of the differences in etiquette and behaviour. What is worse is when they rent kimonos and roam around Kyoto/Tokyo in non-Japanese manners; it is not hard to understand why the Japanese are secretly rolling their eyes.

 

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The famous Ginkakuji temple was almost congested at 10am

 

My advice is to avoid Kyoto during the sakura season, because it is unpleasant and stressful. I have previously visited Kyoto during the winter, and it was relatively warm and sunny, with few tourists and better services. After spending days hiking in forests where I saw only trees and few humans, it was like a shock to my system when I arrived in an overcrowded Kyoto. Four days in Kyoto turned out to be a quest to try and get away from crowds and tourists, which was a challenge and it completely tarnished my views on Kyoto. I made a mistake of visiting the Philosopher’s path and Ginkakuji (where I visited about 12 years ago) in the morning, and it was completely packed. The cherry blossom was beautiful, but being surrounded by tourists taking selfies with their selfie sticks was hardly tranquil. Previously, when I visited the Philosopher’s path in the summer, we were able to stroll and enjoy the sights and shops along the path at a leisurely pace and with few tourists around us. Those were the days…

 

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Streets of Kyoto

 

Many of us would rather be seen as a traveler than a tourist, but is there a difference between the two terms? I think so. Years ago, I read the novel by American writer, Paul Bowles‘ ‘The Sheltering sky’ (and watched the films many times), and the protagonist distinguishes the difference as follows:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home… Another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.’

According to the above paragraph, a majority of us would be considered as tourists in Paul Bowles‘ eyes, but this was written in 1949, so I am not sure how many ‘travelers’ still exist today. I would love to be a traveler and just drift around the world for years, but this lifestyle is probably reserved for the more privileged. Yet the last part of the paragraph seems to imply that travelers are more thoughtful when they travel, and they would question and compare rather than just follow the crowds.

 

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Kyoto at night

 

Personally, I felt that my 5-week journey around Japan was unlike my previous ones, because it revolved around craft and nature. And most of the local people I met during my journey appreciated that I wasn’t just there to visit famous sights or to eat and shop. All the artisans and craftsmen I met were very proud of their craftsmanship and traditions, and they welcome visitors who would take the time to try and understand their culture beyond the surface.

Perhaps the definitions of the two term are not that important, the more important point is the attitude and mindset. If we want to be likable tourists/travelers, we have to respect other cultures and etiquette when we are there. Let’s all try to be responsible tourists/ travelers from now on.

 

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Exhibitions in Kyoto & Tokyo

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Left: Different exhibitions’ leaflets on display; Right: exhibition entry tickets

 

Tokyo is a cultural hub where world-class art, crafts and design exhibitions are constantly taking place. I could spend days visiting museums and galleries when I am there, but on this trip, I only picked out a few due to time constraint.

On the day when I left Kyoto for Tokyo, I made a special trip to see Robert Doisneau‘s retrospective at Isetan’s gallery within the Kyoto station complex. Over 200 photos are exhibited including his famous “Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville”. I have never seen such a comprehensive collection of the photographer’s work, so I was quite intrigued, though it is fair to say that his later colour work are not as striking as his black and white ones taken at the height of his career.

In Tokyo, I decided to spend a day around Ueno Park where I visited the Chocolate exhibition at the National Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibition’s information and displays are all in Japanese, but it was still interesting to see an exhibition dedicated solely to chocolate.

 

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Top left: Robert Doisneau’s exhibition poster; top right/ bottom left and right: chocolate sculptures at the chocolate exhibition. Main: National museum of nature & science

 

Not far from the Nature and science museum is the Tokyo National Museum, which houses a large and beautiful collection of arts and crafts items. Besides the permanent collection, I also visited the two special exhibitions: Enku’s Buddhas: Sculptures from Senkoji Temple and the Hida Region ( until April 7th) and Wang Xizhi: Master Calligrapher ( until 3rd March). The first exhibition displays outstanding carved Buddhist wooden statues by a Buddhist monk and sculptor, Enku, from the 17th century.

Enku was a poor pilgrim who during his travels around Japan, believed to have carved about 120,000 wooden statues of the Buddha. His statues not only display his highly skilled craftsmanship, they are also incredibly mesmerising and touching.

The latter exhibition being held at the Heiseikan building, showcases a large collection of calligraphy work related to the famous Chinese calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (303–361). None of his original work remained today, but there are reproductions and traced copies of his original work, including a rare copy that is being displayed for the first time at the exhibition.

 

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Top left & right: temporary exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum; Main: Main building; bottom left & right: illustrations on coal-miners

 

After spending hours wandering inside the museums, I headed away from the park and walked towards Scai the bathhouse, a contemporary art gallery converted from a 200-year old public bathhouse. This gallery is known for discovering and promoting young Japanese artists, but interestingly, the current exhibition is on British artist, Haroon Mirza ( until 23rd Feb). Mirza’s interactive installations are a mix of objects, lights and sounds that work especially well with the bare white gallery space. Unique and very interesting.

 

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Scai the bathhouse and another gallery opposite ( bottom right)

 

Not far from Shinjuku is Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, where I saw Arai Junichi: Tradition and Creation and Project N: Abe Minako ( until 24th March). Many years ago, I took some short courses on experimental textiles and I fell in love with the techniques of shibori ( tie-dying). Before the courses, I had no idea that textiles could be manipulated in so many ways, it was a revelation to me. Hence I was keen to see work produced by legendary textiles designer Junichi Arai. Unknown to many outside of Japan, Arai has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the fashion world like Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo since 1970s. Arai‘s ability to merge of traditional techniques with unusual fabrics or materials has created many innovated and experimental pieces that can be seen, touched or walked through at the exhibition.

 

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Top left: Tokyo opera city’s foyer; top right: Antony Gormley’s Two times (two); main: Junichi Arai’s work; bottom left: Abe Minako’s work; bottom right: cello made of flowers

 

While I was visiting Muji’s shop in Yurakucho, I came across their free White shirt exhibition ( until 3rd March), which examines the brand’s well-known creation, a simple white shirt. Yes, it’s all about shirts but as you can see from the photos, it’s actually more than a simple white shirt…

 

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White shirt exhibition at the Muji shop in Yurakucho

 

Shopping in Kyoto

My last Kyoto blog entry is on shopping…

Since I spent much of the time in the rural area exploring temples and gardens, there was barely time for shopping. The day before I left for Tokyo, I went into the city centre during the late afternoon and spent a few hours exploring the shopping district.

 

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Traditional shops selling local crafts and souvenir on Saga-Toriimoto preserved street

 

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Kitsch-style shop and geisha-themed stationery

 

Food

Nishiki Market, known as as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, has been trading since 1310 is a must for foodies. There are fresh seafood, vegetables, dried and pickled food, knives and cookware etc. The market is one of the cleanest markets I have been to, unfortunately, I arrived quite late and many stores were closing, otherwise, I could spend hours here…

 

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Nishiki market

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Beautiful food packaging and different types of Kit Kat including matcha flavour & a Kyoto edition

 

Stationery & paper crafts

As a city known for its strong heritage and traditional arts and crafts, it would be a waste not to visit the stationery or paper crafts shops while I was there. However, these shops are scattered in different parts of the city and due to the limited time, I was only able to visit a few of them within the same district. It is essential to do a bit of planning beforehand as some of them are not easy to find, but shops tend to open until 7.30 or 8pm, so I was able to do some last minute shopping.

 

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Traditional stationery shops can still be seen in the city centre

 

Suzuki Shofudo – this 115-year old paper craft shop not only sells colourful and graphical washi paper and stationery, it also provides paper-making workshops at its premise. If time is limited, this shop is a good place to visit if you are looking for stationery with a traditional touch. I also love the shop’s “frog” identity, it’s just too cute ( see below)…

Not far from the shop is Rokkaku, a more contemporary paper shop that designs and prints customised invitations and cards, but it also sells greeting cards and letter sets. Many of the cards are letterpressed, they are simple and yet elegant and come with very nice envelopes.

 

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Main, middle left & middle: Suzuki Shofudo. Middle right & bottom: Rokkaku

 

Benrido – I stumbled upon this stationery shop when I last visited Kyoto and I could still remember my excitement when I stepped into the shop. I love the art-inspired stationery and postcards. I have this odd passion for plastic folders and I have a few of them in A4 and A5 sizes. I find them particularly useful when I travel, but it’s only in Japan where I can find different graphical patterns. Here, the shop has a variety of plastic folders with traditional and contemporary motifs and patterns, which made me very happy. This shop is also a great place to find traditional-inspired stationery for friends back home.

 

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Benrido

 

Uragu – this tiny paper shop hidden in an alleyway was surprisingly busy when I visited. It was not an easy find, but the traffic police knew the shop as soon as I showed him the address. There are beautiful greeting cards, postcards, letter sets and notebooks neatly displayed on dark wooden shelves here. The prices are not cheap but the items are one of a kind and are hard to find elsewhere.

 

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Design

Opposite Benrido is the Kyoto design house, located on the ground floor of the Nikawa Building, designed by architect Tadao Ando. There are many beautiful design items on sale here from contemporary to more classic designs that showcase Japanese traditional craftsmanship.

 

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Kyoto design house

 

Fashion

Although I love new and cool designs, I also love traditional designs that beautifully crafted by hand. And in Kyoto, I was constantly drawn by various hair combs and pins behind the glass displays while walking down the streets. Besides hair accessories, graphical tenugui ( a traditional cotton towel or cloth) and tabi socks can also be seen in many shops here.

 

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Traditional fashion accessories

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Main: sushi-inspired accessories; Bottom left: tabi socks; Bottom right: tenugui bags

 

From its cool shop display, it would be hard to imagine that Raak has been around since 1534. It specialises in tengunui, which can be used as a scarf, wine bottle wrapper and even bags. There are many colourful graphical patterns available and are mostly seasonal, a visit to the shop will make you realise how creative one can be with just a piece of cloth.

 

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Raak

 

SOU SOU is the Japanese equivalent of Marimekko and is one of my favourite Japanese fashion brands, originally from Kyoto. I bought a pair of canvas shoes from their Tokyo shop a few years ago and I think they are cooler than Converse. In Kyoto, their main shop occupies three floors selling tabi socks, shoes, bags and their collaboration with Le coq sportif. Opposite the building, there is a womenswear shop, a menswear shop further down, as well as a few shops specialising in childrenswear, soft furnishing and textiles nearby. I love their bold graphical prints and their merge of traditional craftsmanship, techniques with modern designs. As far as I know, most items are made in Japan, so the quality is ensured.

 

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 SOU SOU

 

Beauty

When in Kyoto, it will be hard to miss Yojiya‘s brand identity… a simple black and white sketch of a woman’s face. Founded in 1904, this cult beauty shop is famous for its “Aburatorigami” (Oil blotting Facial Paper), which is particularly useful in summers. There are several shops located in the city but my favourite is the one on Philosophy path, which has a shop and a tea house next door.

 

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Yojiya’s window display and green tea solid perfume made and sold at Taizo-in