A beacon of history on the remote Shikoku island, the small Japanese town of Mima was founded on the indigo trade - yet its young craftspeople are reinventing time-honoured traditions.
The Yoshino River is known lovingly as the "third son" of Japan. Spanning all four prefectures of Shikoku (whose name, in turn, means "four provinces"), it runs from the foothills of Mount Tsurugi to the flood plains of Tokushima, en route to the Seto Inland Sea. Here in the east, the rich river-silted soils have long been a source of agricultural prosperity and reverence. No crop is more esteemed than the persicaria tinctoria, a species of buckwheat and the source of one of the world's oldest textile dyes: indigo.
As early as the Edo period, the region prospered as an important centre of natural indigo manufacture, centred on Mima, a town fortuitously sited on the banks of the river. Centuries on, the grandeur of Mima's historic centre is preserved in rows of elegant merchants' houses flanking the main street. Wooden facades ripple with carvings of family crests, fish and protective demons, while the distinctive Udatsu house walls - characterised by dazzling protrusions of white stucco - reveal not only early efforts in fire protection, but ornate displays of wealth.
The fortunes of this single town belie the complex beginnings of the art of indigo (awa-ai). Harking back to ancient civilisations as far flung as Peru, Iran, Egypt and India (among others), the practice of indigo dyeing seeped into Japan around the 8th century, with small-scale, disparate producers developing their own traditions. Not until the Edo era (1603-1868), did indigo gain widespread popularity - in part as a consequence of strict dress codes enforced by military rule. Since indigo was one of the few dyes compatible with hemp or cotton cloth, it became worn increasingly by Japan's working population, who were banned by law from wearing luxurious or patterns fabrics, such as silk. Soon, "Japan blue" became the dominant uniform across the archipelago, and for centuries the dye was an indispensable commodity in daily life, used not only for its majestic, steadfast colour, but also its medicinal properties as an insect repellent and antiseptic.
Nevertheless, as industrially manufactured indigo dyes began to be imported from China and India, many local centres of natural dye production dwindled into obsoletion. Today the commercial, synthetic manufacture of indigo comes at a fraction of the price of natural dye, not to mention without the 10 years of apprenticeship required of master dyers. In Mima and across Japan, only a handful of traditional producers remain, each striving to uphold their unique traditions.
The Yamauchi Workshop, in the historic indigo district of Wakimachi, is one of such surviving bastions. Upon entering the studio, a potent fragrance betrays something of the bewitching process at hand. Indigo dye extraction is a process of fermentation, yielding not only a potent dye, but a pungent aroma. From April to July, then again from September to October, mature leaves are picked from from knee-height straggly plants in nearby fields. The leaves, at first green, are collected in dense wicker baskets and laid out in the sun, when the first glimpse of blue emerges. With water from the town well, the leaves are dampened, for the start of fermentation - 18kg of leaves in a single vat of ferment. After a week, the young solution (sukumo) is fed with a concoction of wheat bran, slaked lime, wood ash and Japanese sake for further fermentation - the recipe is unique to each dyer, and affects the quality of the resulting dye. Every five days the pot is stirred and eventually, after 100 days or more, the indigo dye is ready.
On the workshop counter, starched cotton is twisted, knotted, folded or stitched - techniques used to resist the dye in certain areas, thereby creating a design. For the most elaborate patterns, delicate paper stencils are handmade from washi (paper hardened with persimmon fruit), then used to apply a glue resist onto the fabric, yielding intricate repeating motifs. Katagami - as this paper craft is known - is as much an integral part of visual Japanese culture as the indigo dye itself, perfected over the course of centuries.
When, at last, the dyeing commences, gloves are donned and the fabric plunged without hesitation into a vast vat of blue, swirled with precision to expose all areas of the fabric underwater. Through a sequence of carefully timed submersions, the colour transforms from an earthy green to an ocean blue. Dunk, squeeze, rinse. Dunk, squeeze, rinse. In a matter of minutes, the dyeing is complete.
The art of indigo has a magical quality. Only the craftsman knows how the fabric will respond; how the precise strength of each dye will react. The marriage of textile and dye is something like an underwater symphony, a cosmic collision or a lovers' waltz, greater than the sum of its parts. On the walls of the studio, myriad textile designs encompass the workshop's centuries of devotion to its craft. Shawls and wall hangings, shirts and rugs, all bestowed with the timeless appeal of indigo in its myriad shades, from cerulean to sapphire to deep midnight blue. Nothing, however, compares to the timeless, sublime intensity of Japan Blue.
To witness the ongoing dedication of the Yamauchi Workshop is to glimpse the meeting of tradition with contemporary culture - it's an ethos to which the rest of Mima town attests. Up and down its main street, artisan workshops nestle among design boutiques, while organic cafés and artisan coffee roasters settle in the eaves of historic shopfronts. In the converted post office, a wagasa studio making Japanese umbrellas upholds its 400 year-old craft, making delicate parasols from whittled fronds of bamboo, washi and silk, with designs ranging from the auspicious to the theatrical.
Yoshida House, once home to the indigo-trading Yoshida family, is a spectacular specimen of 18th-century Edo architecture, with rooms of perfectly flowing geometry bordered by a tranquil garden bearing yuzu, grapes and hassaku oranges, as well as its own preserved aigura (an indigo store house).
Past persimmon trees and the town well, Udatsu Old Street winds up to the riverbank, where the 1934 Wakimachi Theatre prevails. Once a playhouse showcasing traditional forms of storytelling such as kabuki and rōkyoku, then reincarnated as a popular movie theatre in the post-Second World War era, its renovated architecture serves as a cheery relic of 20th-century Japan.
Mima is a beacon of heritage, craft and contemporary culture on the remote landscape of Shikoku island. Founded on the historic indigo trade, now harbouring emerging talents and reinvented traditions, the town is aligned as much to the future as its past. Indeed as the ancient Japanese saying goes: "the blue of indigo dye is far greater than the plant from which it came." Such words serve as a metaphor for the potential of apprenticeship, and present an outlook of optimism for the next generation, which is encapsulated by Mima's artistic community.