I unashamedly love Japan. Many years ago, I lived and worked for several years in Tokyo for an American company, and I had a wonderful time. I love Japan’s politeness, its safety, its quirkiness and its traditions. I love its food, its history, its culture, its gardens, its countryside and its cities. I love how taxis have lace curtains and toilets need instruction manuals. I love Japanese customer service. I love how even though I speak the language (enough for everyday life), I still have a lot more to learn about the country.
My husband and I recently spent a fortnight travelling around Japan with a Japan Rail Pass, and I made a few craft-related purchases along the way.
We were walking back to our hotel after dinner in Kobe one night, and I noticed a bookshop still open in the basement of our hotel building. I sent my husband back to our room, and I went browsing until the security guard politely told me it was closing time at 9 pm. I was in my Japanese zone – in Japan, it is acceptable to stand in the convenience store or bookstore reading all the magazines while you decide whether any are worth buying.
I had no luck finding copies of Quilts Japan (キルトジャパン) or Patchwork Tsushin (パッチワーク通信), but I found these two books in the clearance section for a fraction more than $5 each. I doubt I will ever need a quilt pattern again, I have so many, but I love making small things, and these books have lots of ideas for small hand-made gifts, such as slippers, bags, book covers and coasters. With these weighing down my suitcase, I stopped looking for the magazines.
We were in Kanazawa, admiring Kenrokuen (兼六園), one of Japan’s famous beautiful gardens. Within the garden is a museum that displays the region’s traditional products and crafts, the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts. The museum is well worth a visit, and in the little gift shop on the way out I found these: a tiny sewing kit in a wooden box and a well-crafted pair of thread snips. The sewing kit was too dinky and cute to resist!
As Japan is a country famed for its knives, I am confident these snips will be good.
Vintage fabrics and scraps
I never knew that the town of Takayama in Gifu prefecture (also known as Hida-Takayama to avoid confusion with other places named Takayama) had so much crafty temptation. We visited the town as it is famous for its old quarter and because I knew the mountain scenery on the way would be lovely. A section of Takayama retains traditional wooden buildings, and it is a part of Japan I had not previously visited.
In the old part of town, a number of shops sell locally made clothes, bags and other fabric items. They also sell bundles of scraps (hagire or はぎれ). Hurrah!
My first purchase in Takayama was from Odori-ya (小鳥屋 ). These scrap bundles were only ¥800 for the large and ¥300 for the small, the equivalent of roughly $8 and $3. The lovely shopkeeper ran out the back and scooped up a few more scraps for me when I started chatting in Japanese.
Warabe Mingei (わらべ民芸), also in the old part of Takayama, is a shop in which an elderly chap was working on a loom and weaving strips of old silk kimonos into new fabric. The fabric he made had a lovely texture and beautiful designs. His shop sold a variety of fabric goods, including bags dyed with the natural by-products of sake production. I bought some silk scraps, and I was very excited to see both genuine hand-tied shibori and silk scraps from men’s kimonos. (An Australian website, Mingei Store House, explains well the spirit of mingei, the idea of preserving Japanese traditional crafts.)
Back in Tokyo, I visited an old haunt. My office was near Omotesando-doori, between Harajuku and Omotesando stations, and I used to love browsing in a recycled kimono shop just a few blocks from work, near a few of my favourite lunch spots. Almost two decades later, Gallery Kawano (ギャラリー川野) is still there. If you are on Omotesando-doori, turn down the side street next to the Apple store (on the Harajuku end of the Apple building). Walk straight ahead until the T-junction (good soba restaurant here), turn left and then immediately right, and you will find Gallery Kawano on the right-hand side. This shop sells vintage kimonos. You can buy a kimono to wear or display, or pieces of kimono fabric to use in sewing projects. It is open from 11 am until 6 pm. They also have a store in Yanagawa, Fukuoka.
I had promised my husband I would not linger. I would only have a very quick look. I could have spent all afternoon there, but I just quickly popped my head in, grabbed a business card and a scrap bag and popped out.
If you are in the area and like tonkatsu, look for the signs pointing to Maisen (まい泉), a little further from the main road. Shopping is hungry work.
Across on the other side of Omotesando-doori, towards Harajuku station, is Oriental Bazaar. They also sell recycled kimonos upstairs and are a great one-stop shop for quality souvenirs. They do not sell fabric scraps, however, and I find it next to impossible to cut up an intact kimono.
New fabrics and notions
The reason I could not linger in Gallery Kawano is that the afternoon before I had dragged my husband and a Japanese friend (my bridesmaid) to Yuzawaya (ユザワヤ) on the eleventh floor of the Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku. Yuzawaya has much bigger stores, but this one was conveniently located for us.
Visiting Yuzawaya took a little longer than I expected. Even their small store is packed full of stock. I did not anticipate the choice overload or the queues. I suspect that everyone was shopping that day as it was a Saturday afternoon and heavy rain and a typhoon were forecast for the next few days. The queue to the fabric cutting table was at least 20 people long and then, once the fabric was cut, the queue to pay was just as long again.
I do not think it is normally that hectic, but if you go to Yuzawaya, I suggest you visit on a quieter weekday and leave your husband and other travelling companions somewhere safe, perhaps somewhere with beer or coffee or both. I was stressed about them getting bored, and I rushed. I did not admire the amazing range as it deserved. I know there was stuff in there I did not see. I saw a lady with a beautiful bolt of fabric in her trolley, but I was not prepared to give up my spot in the queue to follow her and find out where she got it from. They do not sort fabric bolts by designer, with a few exceptions such as the impressive Liberty range, so you will have to set aside some time to look for your favourites.
I had planned to make only one fabric-shopping stop on my Japanese holiday, and Yuzawaya was it: a one-stop shop. It has everything from yarn to needles. By limiting my fabric-shop visits to one, I thought I could allow my husband to enjoy his holiday without my fabric obsession taking over. The other purchases were stumbled on by accident. However, if you have lots of time to focus on fabric in Tokyo, check out the Tokyo Craft Guide and the Tokyo shopping guide by Alyce of Blossom Heart Quilts. I think a trip to Nippori would be lovely if time allowed.
I did buy some other new fabrics in Japan, apart from those in Yuzawaya. Earlier in the trip, back in Takayama in a shop called Maruni (マルニ), I found indigo-dyed cottons and other Japanese fabrics. Some fabrics are on the bolt and others are pre-cut. When you cannot decide, buy a bundle. And when you cannot decide which bundle, buy two! Well, that is what I did. Each bundle of five fat quarters was only ¥800 .
I do not know if furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloths, count as fabric purchases, but I did buy some. I have to find some things around the house to wrap in these beauties.
I did not buy anything here, but if you are a fan of sashiko, this is the shop for you! Hida Sashiko (飛騨さしこ) in Takayama sells kits and threads and fabrics and everything sashiko!
Another shop in Takayama, Sanmachi (さんまち), also sells their products, but the head office has a larger range.
All of the shops I visited in Takayama are in a small, easily walked part of the old town. If you plan a holiday there, let me know and I will send more precise addresses. The old quarter is in such a small area that you will probably accidentally stumble on them as I did. I have written shop names in Japanese to help you spot their signs. (You thought I was just showing off, right?)
And finally, just to prove I was in Japan …
Seriously, if you have not visited Japan, put it on your to-do list! How can you resist a country that makes teeny-tiny fabric sushi and vegetables? Go in spring to see the cherry blossoms, in autumn to view the changing leaves or in winter for the skiing, and you will not be disappointed.