An Indigo Dyeing Experience in Tokushima

An Indigo Dyeing Experience in Tokushima

Melissa Le Roux

One of the most well-known colors to come out of Japan is Japan blue, better known as indigo. It’s always been popular throughout the country. During the Edo era (1603-1868) the Shogun imposed sumptuary laws that outlined the quality, type of fabric, and colors that people could wear depending on their class and status. Indigo was one of the few bright colors that the common people were allowed to wear and aizome (indigo dyed) garments became very popular.

This vat of indigo dye is ready to be used.

This vat of indigo dye is ready to be used.

There are a few places in Japan that produced exceptional indigo and are still very well known for it today. Aizumi Town, in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku is one of the most famous producers of indigo. The indigo produced in Tokushima is known as awa ai. Awa is the old name of Tokushima, and ai is the Japanese word for indigo. Even the town of Aizumi itself takes its name from indigo. Ai = indigo and zumi = to live. It’s safe to say that indigo was, and still is, a big part of life here.

The centerpiece of the museum is this statue illustrating the process of creating aizome. The original buildings and living quarters are in the background.

The centerpiece of the museum is this statue illustrating the process of creating aizome. The original buildings and living quarters are in the background.

Aizumi has a wonderful little museum called Ai No Yakata that teaches visitors about the process of creating indigo dye. The buildings themselves were once the home and workshops of a prosperous indigo producer and merchant, and they look like very little has changed since they were built in the early 1800’s. Some of the exhibits are in buildings with dirt floors and low ceilings. The original house and living quarters is still open to the public and you can explore the traditional tatami rooms (remember to take your shoes off!) as well as the garden courtyard, reception room, and kitchen.

All of these garments have been dyed with indigo and have survived remarkably well.

All of these garments have been dyed with indigo and have survived remarkably well.

These original buildings are supplemented with a small, modern museum. Their collection of old kimono and textiles that have been dyed with indigo is impressive and spans over two floors. Some of the pieces are around 100 years old and part of their survival can be attributed to indigo’s natural ability as an insect repellant. Textile lovers will love seeing the wide variety of dyeing methods on display here. Shibori (resist dyeing or tie dyeing) is the most common method, but you can also see pieces in which the threads were dyed in indigo first, then the fabric was woven from the dyed threads.

These dioramas are a great visual guide to the process of creating indigo dye.

These dioramas are a great visual guide to the process of creating indigo dye.

In the old, dirt-floored storehouses and workshops, it’s possible to see displays of the tools of the trade. Don’t be turned off by the gloomy entrance to the buildings. You are welcome to explore. Dioramas have been set up to explain the long process of growing and creating indigo dye. There is an English language brochure available at the front counter that can give more details into this process. It takes a year from planting the seeds to getting a useable dye and includes a fermentation process that takes 100 days.

You can choose the design you want on your own dyeing project.

You can choose the design you want on your own dyeing project.

This fermentation process is what gives indigo it’s unique and sometimes strong smell. Don’t let it turn you off! You can also experience dyeing your own scarf, handkerchief, or washcloth at the museum. There are several experienced dyers on hand to walk you thought the process. They usually only speak a few words of English, but through demonstration, hand gestures, and a few key words, communication happens! And don’t worry about getting dirty. Aprons and plastic gloves are provided. You can choose your design and shade of indigo and have a unique souvenir to take home with you when you’re done.

Practical information
Hours of operation: 9:00-17:00 (the dyeing experience ends one hour before closing)
Closed: Tuesdays (unless it is a holiday) and Dec 28-Jan 1.
Admission Fee: ¥300 (discounts apply for children and groups of 20 or more)
Dyeing experience: Items such as handkerchiefs, scarves, placemats, coasters, and small towels can be purchased from the front counter at the same time that you pay for admission. Prices range from ¥500 to ¥3000.
Access: From Tokushima station, take the Tokushima Bus #29 from terminal A3. Get off at “higashinaktomi” (40 min ride). The museum is a 5 minute walk away.
Address and Phone: 172 Asa Maezunishi, Tokumei, Aizumi-cho, Itano-gun, Tokushima-ken, Phone number: 088-692-6317