The Town Where Indigo Runs Deep: Mima, Shikoku, Japan

The Town Where Indigo Runs Deep: Mima, Shikoku, Japan

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

The Yoshino River is known lovingly as the “third son” of
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:

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

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

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.