May 17, 2019

by Genki Ueno & Sakoda Shumpei

Japan is home to arguably the most unique cultures in the world, with its unique blend of old
tradition and a technologically advanced society. For many newcomers, it may feel like
walking through a couple of centuries of rich history in only a day. Hence it comes as no
surprise that since a few years ago, Kyoto, the heart of old Japanese tradition, has become
one of the most famous and popular tourist destinations in the world.

Foreigner Appeals: Kimono

Some traditions are still practised in Kyoto today, the most well-known example perhaps
being the fascinating world of the geisha. Geisha often, if not always sport a painted face with
jet black wigs adorned with beautiful accessories, but it is the beautiful traditional item of
clothing known as a “kimono” that they wear that piques the interest of many tourists, as they
flock from around the world to try this special garment. As the number of visitors from foreign
countries has been increasing, producers have been making kimono in “foreigner sizes” to
further appeal to tourists, encouraging them to try this experience. It is only after try wearing it
that they will truly realise its beauty and intricacy. Kimono has a set of complicated rules, and
it is a major task to coordinate all the pieces properly. People usually need help from the shop
assistants, and the process is quite time-consuming, and it is not exactly the most
comfortable thing to wear. As tedious as it may sound, wearing kimono is truly an art, and is
extremely special for anyone who is fortunate to have the experience of wearing one.

The Art of Nishijin

There are many kinds of Kimono; the one chosen for discussion is a woven Obi called
“Nishijin-ori”. Nishijin weaving, the type of weaving used to make these obi, originated in
Kyoto over 1200 years ago. It uses many different types of coloured yarns, which are weaved
into decorative designs. Nishijin-ori is the most sophisticated and treasured Obi in
Japan. Each obi is unique and are known to have spectacular designs, largely due to the fact
that Nishijin weaving employs very tedious and specialised procedures, thus ensuring the
quality of this art form.

As mentioned, the Obi is undoubtedly what represents the craftsmanship of the Nishijin-ori
art. Its threads come in many colors, including gold, and it is glamorously thick and rich, so it
goes without mentioning that they are very heavy as well. Though Nishijin Obi are indeed very
expensive, one is enough to last a lifetime. In recent times, more items of clothing have been
made employing the Nishijin technique, such as neckties. From a large obi to a small key
holder, it is assumed that no matter the size of the item, products from Nishijin-ori are always
impeccably made with remarkable quality. Due to its popularity and unique beauty, Nishijin-ori
also receives many orders from famous designer brands around the world such as Chanel,
Louis Vuitton and Dior to make other products, such as wallets, bookmarks and other
accessories. Known celebrities have also commissioned such items. Products that are made
of Nishijin-ori are great to own and can be enjoyed for a long time — it is rare to find such
timeless beauty.

History and Origin

While Nishijin-ori‘s origin lie in Kyoto, it’s beginnings are specifically linked to the Yasushi
family, who immigrated to Kyoto from China around the 5th to 6th century, and introduced
how to make silk textiles to the local people. By the 8th century, the royal court had created
an official branch to supervise the textile artists, and their production. In other words, this was
a government owned and operated industry. These artists used to live together around
Chouza machi, Kamigyo ku, Kyoto, which later on became a textile city. Between 1467 and
1477, during the Onin war, Kyoto suffered a long period of civil war between the East and the
West, and many artists fled Kyoto. As a result, the whole industry was almost extinguished.
Though the demand for these products dwindled in the 15th century, it regained popularity
soon after the war ended, and the art of weaving began to thrive once again. The textile
industry was revived in the area of Imagawa, Omiya.The growing weaving community
supplied materials for products commissioned by the Imperial Palace and samurai lords. As
these products were almost exclusively commissioned by aristocratic figures, the community
was rewarded generously. This increased productivity, leading to the development and
refining of new procedures to create newer, more intricate designs, such as the use of the
gold brocade and Damask silk that originated in China, during the Ming Dynasty. The literal
translation of “Nishiji” is “the West position”, referring to to the area in which many Kyoto
residents returned home after the war ended, in 1480.

However, the art of Nishijin faced another crisis in 1837, as there was an abrupt stop in trade
due to the unavailability of materials due to crop failures. Kyoto as a whole faced hard times,
and when the new capital of Japan was announced to be Tokyo, this was thought to be the
end of the Nishijin era. Thankfully, the art was brought back to life nearly half a century later,
after the Japanese travelled to Europe and learned new weaving techniques (such as the
Jacquard loom and the flying shuttle), later incorporating them into their own traditional
techniques. By the end of the 19th century, the Nishijin textile trade was well-developed and
possessed technology shared by the Europeans. This also marked the beginning of the use
of machinery in Japanese trade.

Nishijin in the Present and Future

Today, Nishijin weaving is seen more frequently in Japanese ceremonies, most prominently in
traditional Japanese weddings. It can be seen specifically on the bride’s kimono, which have
usually been handed down from many generations. These designs typically range from
scenes of nature, different breeds of birds, and several different types of flowers.
Taking into account its rich history, it is unsurprising that the intricate art of Nishijin weaving
still thrives even to this day. Commissioning or purchasing an item of Nishijin origin is
expensive, and only those of great affluence are able to afford them.

However, the Japanese textile community has dedicated the “Nishijin textile center”, rightfully located in Kyoto, to anyone and everyone who is interested in experiencing the meticulous process of Nishijin
weaving, as well as seeing the spectacular art up close.