Aizenkobo is Utsuki Kenichi’s home and indigo dyeing workshop. I don’t have an appointment, but Mr. Kenichi is welcoming when I arrive. I explain that I’m in Japan for textile research and he immediately begins talking about indigo. He repeatedly says that he uses a natural process for dyeing indigo and that this is the only way to maintain the true blue color. Using chemicals can achieve a dark blue, he says, but it fades over time and begins to look grey. He’s adamant that his products are different because of the all-natural dye and the consistency of the blue color.
He leads me to his showroom in the back of the house and says that I can’t take any pictures. I’m frustrated by his request because there are so many great photo opportunities! I manage to sneak a couple of photos in, but I feel a little guilty. There are racks of winter and summer jackets hanging (bottom right). They are dyed a deep blue. He says that I’m a small size, but I shyly let him know that the jackets are far too expensive for me. He leaves the room and returns with a shibori dyed scarf (bottom left). He says that he will sell it to me for a good price because of the small line that runs through part of the pattern. I can’t help but to take him up on the offer.
He also explains that he’s strictly an indigo dyer. He doesn’t tie the shibori fabric or make katazome stencils. He works with shibori artists who are trained in a specific design in order to create the patterns. He shows me a sample of the fabric tied with string before it’s dyed (above left). He says that a shibori artist will spend a lifetime tying the same string pattern onto the fabric. Each pattern has a name like “Spider Web” or the one that he sells me is called “Beating Heart”.
Mr. Kenichi (above) brings me into another room and pulls out several photo albums. The first album has pictures of the entire indigo process. There are photos of the seeds being planted and the plants growing tall. He says that the flower isn’t needed for dyeing, but the seeds are required for next year’s crop. The indigo is harvested and then fermented. There are many pictures of the labor-intensive process that is eventually completed in November or December. After this, the dye must be made. There are several steps to creating the dye so you must know what you’re doing in order to achieve a successful batch.
He has a small ashtray on the table and takes a piece of indigo dyed cloth and sets it on fire. The material burns, but leaves an oily resin behind. The indigo will not burn, which is why old firemen’s jackets and hoods were made from indigo dyed material. He pulls out an example of a fireman’s coat to show me. Indigo is also thought to be a type of insect repellent. Mosquitoes and bugs don’t like it, so they won’t eat it.
He finally takes me outside to the indigo vats (left). He gives me some of the dried fermented indigo (right) and tells me that I can take it home with me. He warns me not tell customs about it because they will think it’s marijuana!
He has been living in this house for his entire life. He says the house and workshop are very old and that he has lived here for 65 years.
As I’m leaving he points to a small statue perched above the door and says that he protects the house from evil.