Monday, 17 October 2011

More About Bryan

This article from 2006 about our tutor and host in Japan next year was published by The Daily Yomiuri Online, here's the link to the original:

Canadian finds his own silk road

At the entrance of his 150-year-old house in Fujinomachi, Kanagawa Prefecture, Bryan Whitehead fixes the shape of a tool, called mabushi, made of straw and used for spinning cocoons.
Whitehead unwinds cocoons while a machine called zaguri reels the silk.
Obi and drawstring bags made by Whitehead
Degummed silk floss waiting to be hand-spun
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
FUJINOMACHI, Kanagawa--Bryan Whitehead is a person of many interests--art, history, antique tools, fabrics and gardening. After spending years going off in all directions, he now lives in an old silk-farming house that satisfies all his interests.
In spring, Whitehead takes the eggs of silkworms, laid the previous autumn, out of the refrigerator. After the eggs hatch, he constantly feeds the caterpillars mulberry leaves until they gain enough weight to enter the cocoon stage. A month later, Whitehead starts spinning silk from the cocoons.
During the winter, he uses natural dyes, including indigo that he grows himself, to dye the silk that he produces and weaves. His silk products range from traditional Japanese bags and other small items to larger items, such as kimono.
He also cultivates mulberry trees to feed more than 10,000 silkworms, which eat about 60 kilograms of mulberry leaves a day. After talking to older residents in his neighborhood of Fujinomachi, where sericulture once flourished, he learned how to make tools that are no longer available.
Whitehead also paints on commission--a subject that he studied for many years--while teaching English.
"Everything fits so well together with the old silk farming house I am living in. All my interests since I was a kid seemed to find a place in what I am doing," the 42-year-old Canadian said.
His respect for a simple, but refined life, close to nature has kept him in the mountainous town for nearly two decades.
"I was dissatisfied with a consumer lifestyle and wanted to live my life as something more than simply someone contributing to the world through purchasing things and being someone who would be often defined by what I owned and wore," Whitehead said.
Japan's traditional arts and crafts helped him achieve his ideal lifestyle. The turning point came when he was invited to a friend's home on Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture shortly after he first came to Japan in 1989.
"I had no idea what to expect and found myself traveling for hours in a van with no one who spoke English in Golden Week traffic," he recalled. "Eventually we stopped in the middle of nowhere and started hiking up through the mountains. We came to a really poor-looking shack with no electricity. There were about 20 people inside with just some candles and kerosene lights."
However, his worries turned to excitement when he saw that the table--which was just a huge slab of zelkova wood--was covered with many beautiful cups and dishes, and that the food being served, such as wild vegetable tempura, came from the nearby mountain.
"It made a great impression on me and I was determined to learn about pottery and this new aesthetic [called] wabizumai, a kind of refined poverty," he said.
The mingei philosophy of Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), who discovered the beauty in everyday objects created by unknown craftsmen, further inspired him to learn about traditional Japanese craftsmanship.
"Some objects made by illiterate potters, weavers and painters are worth millions. Why is this? Why do we never get tired of looking at them?" Whitehead asks.
"I guess it is a kind of Zen lack of ego. My ego functions a bit too well at times, but somehow I figured if I went the whole route of making my own silk fabric...somehow 'I' would disappear and just the work would be left," he said.
Born near Vancouver, Whitehead studied marketing and advertising as well as graphic design at university, but in the end, he became disillusioned with the commercial fields and decided to travel abroad.
"I was being reactionary against store-bought goods after years of studying advertising and marketing. I knew the structure and the games and wanted to avoid that world for a while," he said.
At age 25, Whitehead arrived at Narita Airport with just a backpack, after having traveled in India and Southeast Asia for six months. Initially, he planned to stay in Japan for five years to study sumi-e ink painting.
It was after moving to Fujinomachi that he became interested in raising silkworms, as well as dyeing and weaving textiles. It was a meeting with his neighbor, Minako Kato, that led him into the fields.
When he saw Kato creating textiles from scratch by making raw materials, his desire for producing quality work intensified, and he often visited her to try to acquire the traditional craft techniques, which are often time-consuming and labor-intensive. To weave one kimono, up to 5,000 cocoons are required.
However, Whitehead's enthusiasm overcame the challenges he faced.
"He was really enthusiastic about learning the craft. Also, he was a fast learner and very skillful with his fingers," the 85-year-old Kato said. "Now that he can do anything on his own, I just sit back and enjoy watching his achievements."
Whitehead's current passion is to share the skills he has learned with others. Several times a year, he visits Laos thanks to an Asian Development Bank project aimed at developing the country's silk production and crafts. In Japan, he recently started holding workshops where his students can learn the traditional techniques involved in reeling, plant dyeing and weaving fabrics.
"I am not so proud of being 'hen na gaijin' [strange foreigner] and try to be inconspicuous at times. What I am doing was so common not so long ago, so I don't think it so special," Whitehead said.
But he added, "I love what I am doing and am always enthusiastic about it, so I love to share it."
(August. 13, 2006)
I think there might still be a place available on the Japanese Textile Study Tour (April 2012) but you'll need to be quick, have a look at the tour brochure here.


  1. You found it! Shell we blog about the recliner ad and the photo of the teacher too?

  2. I love this article, I am glad to know a bit more about our host.

  3. What an amazing man and an amazing life he's led. I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time!!
    Teresa x

  4. Oh wow, that will be great! My youngest had silk worms one Christmas, we still have the silk they spun, it's SO light! Beautiful!


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