The 2019, June 29th broadcast of Japanese TV show, BuraTamori featured the Nishijin area of Kyoto.
Nishijin is famous for the beautiful fabric made in the area, called Nishijin Ori. (Ori means textile in Japanese)
The theme of this episode is
“How did Nishijin become the most famous textile town of Japan?”
The origin of the place name “Nishijin” was also introduced.
What is Nishijin Ori?
The episode starts in a street near Honryuji Temple in Kyoto.
Today’s guide, Mr. Torii was born and raised here in Nishijin.
He works as a tourist guide in and around the Nishijin area.
Nishijin Ori is famous in Japan as a traditional Japanese upper-class fabric.
The current Japanese Empress, Masako, married into the royal family in 1993, and the traditional dress used in the wedding ceremony was Nishijin Ori textile.
In addition, Nishijin-ori cloth is used as the interior decorations of the Akasaka Rikyu in the national guesthouse of Tokyo, which is generally open for tourists.
Also, Nishijin Ori is often used for traditional Noh (ancient Japanese musical) costumes and geisha’s formal wear.
However, Nishijin Ori does not refer to one particular method of weaving.
Actually, any cloth woven in the area of Nishijin is called “Nishijin Ori”.
There are many kinds of weaving methods practiced in Nishijin.
For example, the weaving methods below were introduced in the program;
- Nukinishiki: A traditional weaving method that came from the Chinese continent around 200 BC.
- Veludo (Velvet): It was brought from Portugal and was a favorite of famous Samurai lord, Oda Nobunaga who lived in the 1500s.
Other various weaving methods were born and developed during the long history of Nishijin Ori.
In the program, a special weaving style was introduced by the actual craftsperson, Keiko Mori.
Ms. Mori’s weaving style is called “Tsumegaki Hontsuzureori”.
Tsuzureori is a know style of weaving, but her style is special because she uses her nails as a miniature comb.
In the name “Tsumegaki”, “Tsume” means nail, and “gaki” means to scratch.
When weaving the yarn, in parts of the fabric where the pattern is large, she uses a large comb to fit the woof into the warp. Then, for parts where the pattern is small, a small comb is used.
Finally, for parts where tiny patterns are required, she uses the jagged edges of her fingernails cut in the shape of the warp.
Below is the nails of another weaver.
In this way, she produces fabric with patterns of animals or landscapes.
The process of weaving with nails takes a lot of work, and she says that it is just possible to advance about 5 cm of fabric working the whole day.
The weaving method of Nishijin-ori is divided into more than 20 processes, and each process has skilled craftspeople specializing in that specific process.
The combination of the work by all of these people makes a piece of Nishijin-ori.
Origin of the place name of “Nishijin”
The second guide is Mr. Umebayashi, leader of Kyoto Heights and Cliffs Club.
Umebayashi explains the origin of the place name Nishijin.
In fact, it is simple and clear, because Nishijin means “West Headquarters”.
This comes from the fact that there was the west headquarters of the “Onin War”, which was fought in Kyoto from 1467 to 1477.
The Onin War divided Kyoto into the Eastern Army and the Western Army, burning the whole city, and initiated the Sengoku (warring states) era, which was a period when many Samurai lords divided Japan and struggled for more than 100 years for domination.
The Onin war started as a fight between 2 generals.
General of the Eastern Army was Katsumoto Hosokawa, and the Western Army was Sozen Yamana.
There is a stone monument at the ruins of Sozen Yamana’s mansion, and this is where the place name “Nishijin” originated.
The 2 generals were actually close neighbors, so the headquarters of the 2 armies were closeby, divided by a small river that no longer exists.
This war went on for 10 years as a struggle for inheritance of power, spreading further to most parts of western Japan, but at the end, there were no clear winner.
Once most of Kyoto was burned down, no one knew exactly who they were fighting for, and Japan entered a period of confusion and division.
Tamori also said that it was a “weird battle”.
Why Nishijin’s textile technology developed from the Onin war
Many people around Nishijin in Kyoto fled the city due to the Onin war.
Some of them fled to Osaka, which was already a developed city at the time, and learned textile technology there.
When the war was over, they returned to Nishijin and began weaving.
This is thought to be the start of Nishijin as a city of txtile.
Tamori and his group walk along Kuramaguchi Street and climb a mountain called Funaokayama.
A large stone on Funaokayama has been heavily weathered, but it is known that a Buddha image had been drawn on it.
Funaokayama, located on the edge of Kyoto, has long served as a grave for the people of Kyoto.
The people of Kyoto who considered Funaokayama as the entrance of the world of afterlife, had not lived near Funaokayama until the Onin war.
However, when the people of Nishijin prospered as a textile town, they expanded the town and expanded the Nishijin area to the foot of Funaokayama.
The fact that there was available land nearby was one factor that made Nishijin prosper.
Nishijin experiences major development in Edo period
After a long time since the Onin War, Nishijin flourished as a textile town in the Edo period, starting in 1603.
On the street called “Senryo gatsuji” (Senryo street), which still remains, profit on a single day reached 1000 ryo (sen is 1000 in Japanese, and ryo is the currency of Edo), about 550,000 dollars today.
Here, Masaya Kimura, the tenth-generation wholesaler of fabric that has continued for 280 years from the middle of the Edo period, introduces their old customer book. In the customer register of the Edo period that remains in Kimura’s house, there are samples of the Imperial crest, Tokugawa (the Shogun family) crest, and other crests of powerful families.
However, at the end of the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate was taken down by the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In the Meiji era, the Emperor moved to Tokyo, and at the same time the officials moved to Tokyo, and Nishijinori’s largest customers were no longer in Kyoto.
This was a crisis for the textile industry of Nishijin, but they managed through by adopting foreign technology.
It was the latest automatic weaving machine of the time, the French “Jacquard loom” that saved this crisis.
Until then, Nishijin Ori, was very time-consuming, making it an expensive product that was unreachable to the general public. The “Jacquard loom” made the work more efficient by semi-automated machine weaving with automatic control by punch card parts.
This technology saved time and effort while maintaining the same quality, and the efficiency had increased fourfold. Then, the general public was able to purchase Nishijin Ori, and the sales of Nishijin Ori was revived from around 1890.
From around this time, the number of craftsmen working in Nishijin increased rapidly, and the towns of craftsmen were created by dividing the land of the mansion of former lords of Kyoto. The complex rows of townhouses that have been created in this way still remain as the streets of Kyoto.
Nishijin has evolved as a textile town, even when times had changed.
Maybe it is a town worth taking a stroll, also with a visit to the mysterious Funaokayama.