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The Colorful World of Kimono


The Colorful World of Kimono

“Color is Eternal” – Inside the vanishing world of yuzen kimono with master textile artist Kihachi Tabata.

IMG_5027Beautiful, mysterious, and iconic: For many Japanese, the kimono is not just a fashion statement but a bridge to the past, with many passed down and re-cut from one generation to the next. As the hub of tradition and art in Japan, Kyoto remains the beating heart of kimono fabrics, with a myriad of styles and methods in use to this day. To learn more, I met Tabata Kihachi, one of the best known kimono dyers alive today, and a regular supplier to the local geisha community.

The fifth in a line of master craftsmen, Tabata took the name “Kihachi” as part of the legacy he inherited. His grandfather, the third Kihachi, was designated a Living National Treasure by the government. Despite this, he insists that his continuation of the family legacy was far from inevitable.

“It’s true I was the elder brother, but my father never said anything about it. When I graduated from high school there were several things I could have done, actually at that time I didn’t much like Kyoto. My father was famous and we were a rich family. There was always a fuss whenever I went somewhere – ‘Where are you going?’ ‘When are you coming back?’” he said.

When he graduated high school, he had different ideas than his parents about what his next step would be. “My parents wanted me to go to Kyoto University, but I wasn’t impressed by the kind of education there. In the end I decided to go to Waseda, where I could study art practically, not as a scholar,” he explained. It wasn’t until he returned to Kyoto to complete his postgraduate that he chose to join the family tradition.

Originating in the Edo period, the yuzen style of dyeing kimono employs a rice-gluten resist, painstakingly applied to inked outlines to act as a barrier to the dye. This is the key to the highly intricate patterns that define the craft. As dye is applied, color emerges in a series of layers.
“It’s like a romance,” Tabata beams. “When you first meet a woman, she might not be wearing much makeup, but if she likes you, then next time she might wear a bit more. She reveals herself this way, and then at the wedding her face is beautifully decorated.”
Coloring can be done by hand (tegaki yuzen) or in sets through special stencils made of paper washed in persimmon-juice (kata yuzen). After the dye is applied, the fabric is steamed, washed and dried, and the color sealed in place with a second layer of gluten.

IMG_5148“Color is eternal,” he says flicking through a series of oversized scrapbooks that he calls the treasure of his family. The pages are lined with cuttings of silk in a beautiful array of hues and weaves. “Even though you might look at something and say ‘this is red,’ it’s ultimately something relative to the person. That’s why it’s important not to be abstract but to have the specific color.”

As for the colors Tabata likes the best: “Indigo is especially versatile. It’s the most natural color – the color of the sky and ocean – and it matches anyone.”
Like many Japanese master craftsmen, Tabata can be a bit reticent about what makes his own work unique. When I ask how a collector or other expert might recognize his work, he waves a hand dismissively. “Oh, just the appearance – you’ll see my work from the appearance of the whole, not a specific thing,” adding that until his father’s generation, the Tabata name was well known for a palette of five colors, particularly green and vermillion, but that he himself chose not to continue this tradition.

With kimono tending to hide the natural contours of the body, the seduction is in the details. “Look at the inner lining of the sleeve,” he says gesturing to a beautifully patterned white-and-indigo kimono, which took a full year to complete. “Everything is hidden – even showing the legs is taboo … But allowing a glimpse of more vivid color inside the sleeve – this kind of detail used to be very fashionable – and expensive.”

Tabata describes himself as more helper than master, someone whose job is to help women “blossom” and find beauty in themselves. “When I see a beautiful woman wearing my kimono, I think, ‘I did it, baby!’ I have to try to understand women – but who can do that? Can you?” he chuckles.

As for keeping up to date with fashion trends, he said “Sometimes I’ll check the department stores and see what color lipstick women are wearing. I try to be ‘half a step’ ahead of the customer.”

He uses the expression shinra bansho to describe the source of his inspiration. Virtually untranslatable, it describes the limitlessness of phenomena. “Nature, personality… and when I change something it comes back to this feeling. Everything has to be studied more; shapes, colors – you have to put all of your soul into it.”

Where sellers like Takashimaya used to boast of their kimono being “100% made in Japan,” today the vast majority of silk is imported from China and Brazil, and only a handful of factories in Gunma and Yamagata prefectures continue to spin raw silk. With the rise of machine-made fabrics, the number of yuzen artists has dwindled to a handful, and of these, fewer still have succeeded in passing on their craft to a successor.

“It’s really hard,” explained Tabata, “Hardly anyone can inherit my way of thinking – it’s almost impossible. Just studying is not enough – it has to include everything. Even the simple basics of a person’s life are so different – westernized – ways of sitting, working, eating… houses and apartments are different. But even young people have a sense of what we call kaiki genshou (returning to one’s origins). The craft will continue somehow.”


Geisha gazing

April is by far the best month to catch a glimpse of real maiko (apprentice geisha) in traditional dress, with a busy schedule of festivals and public appearances. You might even see one of Tabata’s creations!
Prices vary by seating, usually with multiple performances throughout the day.

Miyako Odori

– biggest and most spectacular performance by geisha of the Gion Kobu district, held daily in April.

Location: Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo Theater
Access: 5-min walk from the Higashiyama Yasui stop on the City Bus line
Price: ¥2,000~¥4,500


– second-biggest dance, by the Miyagawa-Cho district, held daily from the first through to the third Sunday of April.

Location: Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo Theater
Access: 5-min walk from Keihan Shijo Stn
Price: ¥2,000~¥4,500

Kitano Odori

– fine performance in a more intimate setting by geisha from the Kamishichiken district, held daily from April 15–25

Location: Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre
Access: 4-min walk from Kitano Tenman-gu-mae stop on the City Bus line
Price: ¥4,000~¥4,500

Kamogawa Odori

– also excellent, with geisha from the Pontocho area, held daily from May 1–24

Location: Ponto-cho Kaburen-jo Theater
Access: 5-min walk from Keihan Shijo Stn, or from the Kawaramachi Sanjo stop on City Bus line
Price: ¥2,000~¥4,500





























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