Studying at The Best Exotic Indigo Hotel

Studying at The Best Exotic Indigo Hotel

What do you think of when people speak about Japan and Japanese textiles?
I was fortunate enough to join the inaugural Japanese Textile Study Tour and travel to Japan in April 2012 where I stayed in a small mountain village, which was once an important silk farming centre, with eight like-minded "Indigo Sisters", and spent ten days immersed in traditional Japanese textile techniques. The aim of this article is not to give an academic account full of Japanese terminology (although I have included a short glossary) but to share my time in Japan with my fellow quilters, to give you a flavour of the experiences I had and hopefully to inspire others to look at traditional techniques and a slower way of life.

The Indigo Sisters were gathered, by the power of the internet, from around the world and we were quite a talking point in the village of Fujino. Neighbours of our sensei, Bryan, would arrive unprompted, often with a gift of food as gift-giving is a strong element of Japanese culture, to meet us and a barbeque was arranged for the local people, many of whom had helped Bryan prepare his house for us. We were described as the "Western Lady Bomb" in a vintage textile shop in Tokyo and Bryan was unable to relax in the local onsen (where men and women bathe separately) for the grilling he received from his neighbours about his house guests. The onsen was one of several aspects of Japanese culture we were able to experience, along with a variety of restaurants than tourists would rarely discover and the amazing privilege of being invited to take part in a tea ceremony. I have rarely been as nervous as when I was making tea for Tae, the lady our sensei calls his Japanese mother (Bryan is originally from Canada and has been studying, practising and teaching Japanese textiles for nearly 25 years).

During my time in Japan I saw how to create the beautiful indigo dye of Japan, from planting the seeds, harvesting and fermenting the plants and balancing the elements of the dye vat. I learned how silkworms are raised and the silk reeled from their cocoons and I was delighted to be able to complete my own piece of woven cloth. In fact with a lifetime's practice of the skills I learned during my time in Japan it would be possible for me to make my own kimono, with my own homegrown silk, woven on a traditional loom, dyed and either katazome printed or shibori dyed with indigo and tied with silk kumihimo cords. With Bryan every step of every process is traditional and he strives for perfect execution. He worked us hard, from breakfast until late in the evening, and it was an unforgettable experience.

Before I joined the tour I had a few days in Tokyo and caught up with some quilting friends who live in Japan. With Carin I visited the wonderful Amuse Museum, showing Chuzaburo Tanaka's collection of boro beautifully displayed and which we were able to both touch and photograph. Julie and I visited an exhibition, "Sakura, Horses and Indigo" staged by Amy Katoh of the well known Blue and White in Tokyo, again touching was allowed, as was trying on some of the less fragile items. I can appreciate how some people don't understand boro, likening it to dirty old rags, and that the Japanese people themselves are ashamed of it as it shows how poor they were. However, for me it is the ultimate in recyling, in repairing rather than replacing and of creating something both beautiful and useful. I was in awe of the bodoko, the donja and that in the past only property owners could have control of fabric scraps; the size and quality of one's scraps proving your social status and wealth. The sashiko stitching, originally only a rough tacking to hold pieces together, developed into an intricate art with a wealth of stitch patterns being used.

We enjoyed a few days away from the indigo vat during our time in Fujino. One day we travelled to one of the shrines at the base of Mount Fuji (who remained sulkily in the cloud all day), enjoyed visits to a talented local potter, a glass artist (and I couldn't resist one or two handmade beads) and then to an incredible exhibition of the kimonos of Itchiku Kubota. On another day we were inspired by the collections of the Japan Folk Crafts museum, founded by Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) who worked closely with potter Bernard Leach.

One of the highlights of the Japanese Textile Study Tour for me was the visit we made to the indigo master, Noguchi san.

In his katazome studio in the suburbs of Tokyo, Noguchi san works with his son, Kaz, who is now the eighth generation of stencil dyers in the family. The family lives within the studio and the whole place had the atmosphere of being in a timewarp. We felt incredibly privileged to visit the studio and more than one Indigo Sister described it as a spiritual experience. Noguchi san has many vats of fermented indigo and creates double-sided katazome printed yukata bolts. The cotton is sized, ironed and stretched on long maple boards, which reminded me of pasting tables. The stencils are exquisite and Kaz showed us how he prepared the paste and applied it to the fabric and dried it in the sun before helping us to create a piece of katazome of our own which Noguchi san then helped us to dye in his fermented indigo.

Back in Fujino in Bryan's farmhouse, christened 'The Best Exotic Indigo Hotel', we sat on floor cushions around a low table and learned, sewed, ate and talked. We used naturally dyed silk threads to create kumihimo to tie our shifuku made of our katazome pieces and lined with vintage kimono silk. It had been Bryan's plan that we should also use our woven fabric to make a second shifuku but few of us could bear to cut up fabric created by a process we found so slow and backbreaking. I also found weaving to be a lonely process, it was not possible to chat above the banging of the loom and the need to concentrate on so many aspects of the technique. However, with so many techniques I did enjoy maybe it was good to discover one I did not want to continue once I got home.

Since being home I have done some indigo dyeing (although not by fermenting the indigo I confess) and I have practised various shibori techniques. I have continued to practise sashiko. I have done a lot of reading to develop my knowledge of Japanese culture and I have continued drinking green tea. I find my existing stash of fabric to be mainly bright and brash and I still feel quite overwhelmed by what I learned and experienced in Japan. I have shared my visit to Fujino with many people. What do I think of when people speak about Japan and Japanese textiles? I think of an elegant and respectful people, I think of a lifestyle in tune with nature. I think of indigo blue, the aroma of the vat and the magic of the dye's development from murky green to rich blue in contact with the air. I think of Ogata san, a 94 year old heroine and neighbour of Bryan's who climbs the Fujino mountains to gather seasonal vegetables to eat, works the land around her home, who prepared udon noodles for us, who was more sprightly on the ladder stairs of the Best Exotic Indigo Hotel than any of the Indigo Sisters and who creates the most wonderful textiles.

© Lis Harwood 2012

More information and photographs can be found on my blog and on Bryan's blog

Glossary of Japanese Terminology

bodoko - pieces of hemp and cotton cloth stitched together to make sheets, often used to deliver a baby upon

donja – heavyweight kimono style night blankets of many layers, the outer layer often made of sakiori

katazome – paste resist stencil dyeing

kumihimo - 'coming together of threads', braid making
onsen – hot water baths often with several different baths, each with a different mineral composition.

sakiori – woven rag rug

sashiko - 'little stabs', stitching to darn, reinforce points of wear or patch items, now often for decorative purposes

sensei – respectful title for a teacher or master

shibori - tying, stitching, folding fabric to block the dye and create designs. There are many styles of shibori, each with their own name

shifuku – small decorative pouches made to protect the items used in tea ceremony

yukata – summerweight casual kimono

© Lis Harwood 2012


  1. I just asked Bryan for information about the workshops in 2015. When i read your story i already know that i am going!!!!!!! I am Dutch and live in France. I am a quilter and eager to learn new things, although i already am 67 years old.....

  2. I just asked bryan for information about the workshops in 2015. After reading your story i really want to go there. I am Dutch and live in France since my retirement in 2004. I read that you were some days in Tokyo before the workshop. I don't know how much information you get from Bryan, but should it be possible that i ask you some questions if i have some?
    Greetings from France, Baukje


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