The Kurume Kasuri Discovery Tour, organized by Fukuoka Now in conjunction with local government offices and the Kurume Kasuri Cooperative Association, set out to introduce this traditional craft to foreigners in Fukuoka. Our group comprised of both long-term residents and tourists here on a short stay, hailing from places as varied as America, Singapore, Sweden, Russia, Philippines, France, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sudan, Yemen, and Ireland.
Den Inoue was born in 1788 to a rice seller in Torihoka-machi, Kurume. Like most girls in the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), she started weaving at a young age to produce clothes not just for the household, but also to supplement the family’s income.
One day, she became intrigued by an old, indigo kimono that appeared to have developed white specks. Desiring to reproduce the effect, she experimented, and at the age of thirteen, invented kasuri.
Kasuri is an double ikat technique. That is, it employs ‘resist dyeing’, where methods are used to prevent the dye from reaching all the cloth, thus creating a pattern. Double ikat is where both the warp (yarn wound onto the loom) and weft (yarn that is woven into the warp) yarns are resist-dyed prior to weaving. It is only produced in three countries: India, Japan, and Indonesia.
In Japan, Den Inoue’s invention became so popular that by the time she was forty years old, hundreds of her disciples had spread out all over Japan, making kasuri into an archipelago-wide phenomenon. However, its origin and production center remained in Kurume.
Kurume kasuri is traditionally dyed using indigo, which is a plant dye. Ninety percent of the indigo used in Kurume comes from Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku Island and ten percent is from Hokkaido.
Our first stop of the day was the Ikeda Kasuri Kobo, where we had the chance to try the dyeing process ourselves.
The experts use hemp as a resist, but us amateurs employed rubber bands and chopsticks in our artistic endeavors. Some of us clearly knew what we were doing; others (including the writer) less so!
The next step was to rinse our products in a large sink. Then, on to one of several vats of indigo to dye them. Dyeing involved dipping, raising, then wringing the cloth. We did this until the cloth had turned almost black.
Then, it was time to rinse it in water again. The last step was to peg it up on a wash line to dry.
While we waited, the tour guide walked us to the municipal hall. Our tour had coincided with the Chikugo Village Open House event. In this biannual event, seven Kurume kasuri studios open their doors to visitors, allowing people to learn more about their craft.
Free rental bicycles and shuttle buses were available to ease getting from studio to studio. The tour participants scattered to explore as they wished. I, for one, got on the shuttle bus back to Ikeda Kasuri Kobo, where I entered the weaving section of the studio to see the weavers, who were very happy to talk to visitors as they worked.
According to one, it takes about ten minutes to weave twenty centimeters of cloth, and that one bolt is about twelve meters long.
Outside the weaving section, there was a store where visitors could buy a number of different kasuri products, including bags, hats, caps, Western-style clothing, and slippers. In recent years, kasuri studios have also expanded beyond the traditional indigo dye, incorporating various colors into their work, such as pink and green.
An hour later, we returned to the main part of the studio to collect our masterpieces. It was exciting to see how well everyone’s had turned out, and how unique each pattern was.
The next stop was a lunch of unagi seiro mushi at Tomimatsu Unagi. Grilled once, and steamed eel coated with a rich and savory sauce served on a bed of rice in a bamboo container. The dish is associated with Yanagawa City, but thanks to the Chikugo River that runs through Kurume and is a source of fresh produce, there are several good unagi restaurants to be found here as well. Tomimatsu Unagi is one such restaurant.
After a delicious lunch, it was time to go persimmon picking.
Persimmons are known as kaki in Japanese. There are two classes of persimmon: astringent and non-astringent. Non-astringent persimmons can be eaten when picked, and are sweet and crisp. Astringent persimmons need to be left for a few days after they have been picked, at which time they are soft and even sweeter than their non-astringent counterparts. They are also often eaten as dried fruit.
The class of persimmon we picked was the non-astringent variety. In particular, the fuyugaki or Fuyu persimmon, which is one of the most common types on the market.
Toyoji Ueno, who is the tenth-generation owner of the orchard that we went to, showed us how to cut the persimmons from the tree and gave us tips on how to pick the best ones. In essence, the larger, darker, and firmer, the better. He also warned us to check for bruises and to cut the stems properly so as to prevent further bruising. We were allowed to pick four persimmons each for free. However, some of us, wanting more delicious persimmons, bought an additional kilogram’s worth for ¥500 (a very special price!)
Weighed down with our persimmons, we made our way to our final destination: the Kurume kasuri exhibition and shop at Jibasan Kurume.
A guide took us around the museum, explaining the complex 30-step process, and showing us examples of kasuri products. It was interesting to learn that in the past, kasuri had been used to make futons, thus leaving behind enormous pieces that would be rare in the present day. There were also kasuri pieces that had formed part of dowries, which the bride took with her from her home on her wedding day.
The short tour ended with the guide giving us a practical demonstration of weaving at a manual loom. For those who knew Japanese or were content to watch the process, there was also a video guide to the different steps of the kasuri process.
All in all, the Kurume Kasuri Discover Tour was an amazing experience. Well-paced and with friendly, helpful guide and staff members, the process was both enlightening and entertaining. It was an opportunity not just to learn more about the traditional craft of Kurume kasuri, but to experience a quieter, more rural area of Fukuoka.
Tomimatsu Unagiya (富松うなぎ屋 荒木店)
480-5 Araki-machi Araki, Kurume City, Fukuoka
Jibasan Kurume (地場産くるめ)
5-8-5 Higashi-aikawa, Kurume City, Fukuoka
Report by Chui-Jun Tham