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Japan – a travelogue, November 2017

Japan – a travelogue, November 2017

JAPAN – back after 47 years!

In 1970, my husband Björn and I went on our first long journey. It was a journey that took us over the North Pole and to the other side of the globe – to Japan, at that time the land of new discoveries and development. When we landed in Tokyo, there wasn’t a single sign written in our Latin script. Everything was in Japanese characters – illegible to us. A small desk served us westerners a hand-written slip to explain how to get where we wanted to go. I also remember seeing many beautifully dressed people – especially women – at our hotel, wearing kimonos with colourful florals or discrete, delicate patterns. There was a constant stream of rickshaws outside our hotel entrance. It all felt so incredibly different and foreign, but still very welcoming. Today – November 2017 – I don’t recognise a single building, shop or street from 1970. Everything seems to have changed completely!​


As I am now travelling with Hemslöjdsresor, the focus is on textile-related excursions and workshops, giving us the chance to try our hand at traditional Japanese handicrafts. These were skilfully made handicrafts involving lots of complex and intricate methods – even trying to make things like thread balls, dolls or wooden lattices was testing. Our Japanese teachers thought we were very talented. But that’s because we all love textiles! 

ON THE LOOKOUT – Japan’s different street styles
I really love arriving in a new country, a new city, a new continent. I normally go out on the lookout for the latest trends, or try to understand where the clothes I am seeing come from and what their origins are. I really like India, where I am increasingly able to understand where someone is from just by their clothes. Similarly, in the Arab world, the different headpieces often signal where someone is from.

Japan and China have very different ways of dressing. From colours to patterns to how clothes are combined, these two Asian powerhouses have very different styles. The skin tones differ, too: Japanese people prefer pale skin and want to keep out of the sun, whereas Chinese people aren’t too fussed either way. But Asians can find it difficult to tell us westerners them, we all look the same! Pink-skinned and blue-eyed.


Lady in a KIMONO
For young women, these can be brightly coloured and floral. Here, for only a few hundred Swedish kronor, you can rent an entire outfit, get dressed up in it and have your hair done in the traditional style. Then you go out into town to have photos taken with one of the beautiful temples in the background. Seems very popular with Chinese tourists in particular.


Mori girl – “forest girls”
I didn’t see many Mori girls in either Tokyo or Kyoto. But I have seen loads of them on Pinterest. Their style: layers of romantic, delicate patterns, low-heeled shoes posed with toes turned inwards in a childlike way, all photographed in a fairy-tale environment or beautiful forest. Take a look at my Pinterest page and you’ll see many, many Mori girls.

Bilder från Pinterest.

The all-black couple
Mostly in Tokyo, I saw lots of completely matching couples dressed entirely in black. The boy/man would be just as interestingly styled as the girl/woman. Normally wearing a long coat, a thick jumper and a big beret or hat. Black boots and a long scarf were also common features of the look.

The slate-grey older lady
This lady I saw mainly in museums. She would be neatly dressed in a plain grey dress, with ankle-length, loose-fit trousers and a beautiful piece of jewellery. Black, low-heeled shoes. Clean, non-fussy makeup. She speaks English with a certain elegance. May even have a single, pillar-box red accessory.


The grey girl, as per the latest trend
Here she combines several different grey, grey-brown and indigo hues. Everything is very well thought-out, topped off with an unusual bag or rucksack. Often combined with a black and white striped vest from Muji. The odd scarf or dotted cardigan may also pop up. She wears wide-leg trousers or an ankle-length pleated skirt and nice black boots, with a bit of sock sticking out.


The unexpectedly colourful “patterned doll”
This doesn’t seem to be so trendy any more. I had expected to see lots of these girls on the streets of Tokyo or Kyoto. This style blends clean, colourful dots with floral elements and striped tops, pushing pattern mixes to the max. I think schoolgirls are the typical manga girls, but not in school as they wear uniforms – normally in black or dark blue.

The modern “kimono” look – often on men!
At breakfast, I saw a man wearing a grey-brown happi coat, puffy linen trousers and an interesting folded hat. In Kyoto, too, I saw men in particular wearing dark grey modern-traditional garments with subtle patterns. These would include layered kimonos/happi coats, a wide sash and either trousers with a sharp crease, or normal wide-leg trousers. When visiting the different workshops, the men were almost always dressed in a traditional Japanese way, in indigo blue. Both stunning and inspiring.


TEXTILE GEEKS working in a workshop somewhere in Japan
This put our patience to the test, that much I can say! Following precise instructions – that’s not something we’re used to back in Sweden. Poor Wanja had to undo hers several times, because she jumped in too boldly and didn’t wait for the exact instructions.


TEMPALA – thread ball
Wow, was it hard to wind this fine thread around a completely round ball! Even with the first layer already done. You chose the colours and then wound them around in a specific way, based on precise instructions. Ah well, we think ours came out nice anyway.

SARUBORO – faceless dol
Red stuffed dolls in loose parts were our next challenge. It took a bit of effort, but we were able to make the hat’s clever folds and sew the head to the body with the long needle. After that, putting on the doll’s apron and jacket was easy enough, and the loop and bell weren’t hard to attach. The dolls were created during/after one of the world wars. They weren’t given faces so that children could project their own emotions onto them – be that happy or sad. All based on how they were feeling.



ORIGAMI – beautiful paper, intricately folded
This is an art that has also spread to the west. Precision is everything if you are to succeed in this noble Japanese art of folding cranes and the like. Of course, the more precise you are, the more beautiful the results. 








Dyeing with INDIGO – brilliant!
On one of our last days, we got to travel out into the countryside around Kyoto. Hidden in a lovely old house, we found an entire workshop for indigo dyeing and other natural dyes. We had a fun few hours of knotting, fixing in “magic water” and dyeing with indigo in big pans. And we were all proud of ourselves for getting through it without getting blue all over our hands and clothes. Here are Wanja and I taking a breather with a cup of tea after some dyeing. Lovely aprons, don’t you think?


Ideas for new PATTERNS
I found these everywhere. There are lots of similarities between the Japanese pattern language and my own way of creating patterns. Everything is flat and quite stylised, if you take a closer look. My favourites were of course the flat flowers, which can have four, five or more petals. Ideally with twisting stalks and stylised leaves. I also found myself in Sousou, a fabulous little store in Kyoto that sells patterns like my own, or like the Finnish Marimekko. An interesting link between our cultures. The colours at Sousou also reminded me of the colour schemes I often use.



as Marie from Sätergläntan Institute found, came in lots of interesting patterns and shapes. The love that had gone into these iron manhole covers never ceased to amaze us. They inspired me to create even more winding, geometric and dotted patterns. In Japan, dots seem to be very popular as embellishments, in clothes and more







There is also a really CHILDLIKE element to Japan’s pattern flora, including small cats, fish, birds, flowers and a host of other figurative pattern shapes. All in pastels or bright – child-friendly – colours. We found lots of these sorts of things stores like WabiXSabi, where they sell all manner of small towels, wash cloths, purses, pens, pots, bowls, mugs and more. So much to take home with us – even if it’ll probably end up in a drawer somewhere, perhaps even forgotten. Regardless, this abundance of items certainly made for some fun browsing!



We textile geeks also visited some fabric stores and haberdashery markets, getting our highs from hand-wrought darning needles, yarn skeins in every colour imaginable, and buttons with that little extra flourish to them. Some of us spent hours in a three-storey haberdashery store. Luckily there was only one man in our group!








The JAPANESE CHARACTERS are also a typical feature of Japan’s decorative culture. Beautifully executed, they appear on different textiles like door curtains and kimonos, and on porcelain and paper products. I can’t even count the number of pictures I have of door-toppers from the Japan trip. Unfortunately, no purchases were made – I’d have loved to get one, but my bag was already full to bursting with all of the inspiring things I had picked up on my wanders through streets, alleys and markets.


PLACES we visited
TOKYO – the city of 8 million, with an endless sea of tall buildings. It’s a concrete city, with no old homes in the centre. Nipporo is the place to go for fabrics, haberdashery, ceramics and more.


MATSUMOTO – a smaller city dotted with bustling markets, beautiful temples, a castle from the ages of the Samurai and springs/wells with crystal-clear water. We were spellbound by the flea markets and their old dolls, second-hand clothes, weaving bobbins and silk cocoons.
Matsumoto is also where famous artist Yayoi Kusama (she of all the dots) was born.



TAKAYAMA – we visited an open-air museum of these beautiful traditional houses with thick thatched rooves. It’s a world heritage site called Kamiokamotomachi. We stayed in a ryokan, slept on a hard mattress on the floor and washed in warm springs. It was certainly an experience, but, for an old lady like me, it was hard to sleep on something so hard, sadly. 








KANASAWA – we made a stop on the way and did some origami together. We visited a fish market, where we got some incredible food from a little hole-in-the-wall-type place. We also visited a beautiful old geisha house. Unfortunately, it was packed with visitors, so we never got a true sense of the atmosphere of that beautiful old house, with its tatami mats and thin screen walls.


KYOTO – the old capital was my absolute favourite. We stayed in the centre of town, with everything at an easy distance. There was so much to explore down the little alleyways: unknown brands, the odd café and souvenir shops selling stunning paper products and typical Japanese ornaments. There weren’t many international brands at all – the only ones I saw were Paul Smith, G-Star Raw, Conran and H&M. But I did see a number of well known Japanese brands like Muji and Uniqlo.
We ended up at a shibori museum, small and welcoming. Here we learnt how to knot and dye using the shibori technique. It’s a very delicate process, and this exquisite craft requires a lot of expertise. It exists in other parts of the world, too: I have seen it in India, but there the processes are much simpler than in Japan.


I have chosen to write about the places and activities you probably won’t find in a guidebook or on Google. The typical tourist attractions – temples, monuments, parks, etc. – those you can learn about in the normal, traditional ways. These are just my own observations and thoughts on the two weeks I spent with my fellow textile geeks on Hemslöjden’s 2017 Japan tour, organised by Hemslöjdsresor. Our fantastic guides Kerstin, Peder and Mikisan showed us around and answered all manner of questions about the Japanese textile culture. Many thanks to all three for translating from Japanese to English to Swedish!



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