Unveiling the Crafts of Kurume – Kurume Kasuri Tour Report

There is a rumor in the air: the fashion-world has cottoned on to Kurume Kasuri. Eager to see what the fuss is all about, Fukuoka Now took a day trip to Kurume City. Kurume, today, is the largest of only three remaining weaving centers in Japan.

Our group assembled in Tenjin, with the crisp morning promising to turn into a perfect autumn day. On route to Kurume, our bilingual guide gave us a brief history of Kurume Kasuri. To produce the distinctive fabric, the yarns of the weft and the warp are resist-dyed (sections of the cotton is tied so that it remains white while the untied yarn picks up the dye). The yarns are then interwoven on a loom to reveal the design, which traditionally feature geometric shapes and are characterized by their slightly blurred appearance. The weaver must precisely match the weft and the warp to achieve the desired pattern. These narrow cotton ikat textiles are perfectly suited to fashion into kimono.

Our full itinerary included visits to two of Kurume’s remaining thirty Kasuri workshops.

The first stop was the Marugame Kasuri Workshop, where the Marugame family uses chemical dyes and machine assistance to make the Kasuri a more economically viable craft. We were able to see some of the machines in action.

The dying machine turns the white, tied-cotton yarns scarlet-red in seconds. This original shade is produced from a blend of chemical dyes. Traditionally Kurume Kasuri is woven in indigo and white, but the introduction of chemical dyes and blending techniques allow for the production of the vibrant and unique Kasuri available today.

Next we saw the preparation of the shuttles for weaving and a demonstration of the looms at work. An expert weaver watches over the mechanic looms carefully as they churn out the Marugame’s designs to ensure that the weft and the warp are precisely aligned. If the yarns do not match-up exactly, the pattern is not achieved. Each weaver can supervise up to four looms, but more complicated designs demand individual attention.

The increased efficiency of machine assisted weaving has allowed for innovation in design. At the Marugame Workshop there are examples of the traditional patterns and more modern designs featuring flowers, animals and even fruits. In their adjoining store you can even buy ready-to-wear fashion made from the Kasuri!

Our second visit was to the Moriyama Kasuri Workshop, where the Moriyama family are one of the few establishments in Kurume that maintain the traditional methods of dyeing and weaving by hand. Mr. Moriyama talked us through his dyeing process, which is both labour and cost-intensive:

He starts with a three-month fermentation of the indigo dye, which is mixed with ashes, crushed shells and Japanese sake.

The dye is mixed and stored in wells dug into the ground of the workshop. Mr. Moriyama must maintain the temperature of the dye year round in order to accommodate the dye’s fermentation. In summer, he relies on the earth surrounding the wells to keep the dye cool. For the colder months, he judges what his dye needs by how he feels in the morning: if he needs to warm up by the stove, then he lights the fire pits dug in between the dye wells. If the temperature is too high or too low then this can affect the colour of the dye.

To complete the dyeing process, each bundle of yarn is dipped into the dye up to thirty times until it achieves the perfect shade of indigo. Between each round of dyeing, the bundle is beaten against the ground to ensure oxygen reaches every strand of the yarn, necessary to activate the natural dye.

Finally, we watched the women of the family at the looms and some of our group even had a go! The traditional designs are beautiful for their bold simplicity. Weaving by hand requires painstaking attention to detail and patience; work on certain complex designs to mark 2017 as the Year of the Rooster is already well underway.

Next was lunch, where I had my first experience of kaiseki dining at Waka Restaurant. The locally sourced and beautifully prepared food was a real treat. Impressed by the craftsmanship we’d witnessed, enthusiastic conversation flowed as course after course arrived.

Following the meal, each participant introduced themselves to the group; among the twenty-four of us, there were at least half a dozen nationalities, several common languages, and people of all ages. In sum, a really diverse and interesting bunch, which definitely made the day-trip all the more enjoyable!

It transpires that, just as there is always room for pudding, there is always room for persimmons. On arrival at the orchard, we were welcomed with freshly prepared fruit and instructions for choosing the best persimmons to pick.

The persimmons sweeten and soften as they ripen. If the skin is lighter and closer to yellow than orange, then the fruit will be crisper and more tart. A deep orange colour means the flesh will be juicier and sweet. Mr Toyofuku waits for the persimmons to reach this darker shade before harvesting them; only then are they calling out to be tasted.

Mr. Toyofuku grows persimmons across 42 hectares in Yamamoto Machi and Kusano Machi in Fukuoka Pref. The orchard grows eight varieties of the fruit including a new species unique to Fukuoka, the Akiokaki. Around 70% of the fruit is sold to supermarkets both in Fukuoka and across Japan. But with 30% of the fruit sold at the farm itself, there’s plenty for you to pick for yourself. Right now, the Fuyukaki (‘rich’ persimmon) are ripe for harvesting. The season will last into December as the different varieties reach their optimums, so there’s still plenty to go round. The fruit are delicious served freshly sliced but adventurous cooks could try something a little different such as serving them in a salad with mozzarella, pine-nuts, and balsamic vinegar!

Equipped with shears and a bucket, we dispersed through the trees. The persimmons hang just above head height. Although, there are also several step ladders if you spy a gem higher up. The only hard part is deciding whether you want to pick the pale or dark fruits. New to the fruit, I returned home with a full spectrum of yellow to orange to test. Laden with our haul and the additional gift of two persimmons each, we headed to our final stop.

We visited a row of haze trees, where the distinctive leaves were just beginning to change colour. The canopy of long thin leaves hides great clusters of nuts, which you shouldn’t touch. These nuts are used to create natural wax, which burns at a low temperature for a long time. The haze wax is traditionally harvested and made into candles. But the wax is also burned at the Moriyama Kasuri Workshop to keep the vats of indigo dye warm through the winter; two traditional industries of Kurume supporting each other. In the shade of the haze trees there was also a vendor selling the local persimmon, a final chance to grab some more persimmon for those already regretting their restraint.

The tour was a fantastic introduction not only to artisanal Japanese weaving, but also an opportunity to escape to the countryside and enjoy Kurume’s traditional food and activities with the added luxury of a bilingual translator!

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Report by Charlotte Frude for Fukuoka Now.

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