Arimatsu Shibori – Handmade Heritage in Smalltown Japan

Suzusan Shibori

During my time living in Japan, one of my favourite discoveries was shibori. I shouldn’t really say “discovery”, it was more of an introduction!

Just south of Nagoya, my Japanese hometown for 4 years, lies Arimatsu, a small town with a big reputation. Knowing my interest in art and craft, one of my students and her husband decided that a field trip to Arimatsu was in order. So off we went, one sunny Autumn afternoon, to discover the world of traditional shibori textiles.

Arimatsu is one of those rare Japanese towns where time has stood still. The historic town is famous for its kimono and textile wholesalers and shibori craftspeople. But how did this little town become so well-known?

While the shibori technique was likely brought to Japan from China in the 8th century, the town of Arimatsu has been in the business of shibori since it’s founding by 8 families in 1608. You see, there is a famous road in Japan, called the Tokaido or East Sea Road, between Tokyo and Osaka. Back when Arimatsu was founded, the feudal lords of Japan were required to travel to Tokyo (then known as Edo) each year via the Tokaido to swear their allegiance to the Shogun. Along the route were 53 government-sanctioned stops or “stations” where travellers could rest. Arimatsu was established as the forty-second station.

Hiroshige Blockprints of Arimatsu

Arimatsu, over time, became famous for high quality shibori textiles. But what exactly is shibori? Usually referred to as simplyJapanese tie-dye”, it is a form of resist-dyeing where fabric is folded, tied, twisted or wrapped to create patterns. Traditional indigo blue and white is probably the most well-known version of shibori, though it is available in a multitude of colours.

Shibori Images – Sri Threads

Want to see just how it’s done? Here’s a lovely video filmed in Arimatsu. The artisans in the film are Kitano Toyo-san, aged 92, Nakashima Suzue-san, aged 87, and Honma Tomeko-san, aged 85. Watch as they sit seiza and their nimble fingers tie the shibori patterns. The tied fabric is then dyed using indigo and finally you see the fabrics untied and the patterns revealed.


Arimatsu Shibori – Artisans at work

In traditional shibori practice, at least 3 artisans – masters in their own right – were involved. One to create the pattern and stencil the fabric, one to tie, and one to dye. It is slow, practiced work and a true cultural heritage. It is simply beautiful.

Every June, Arimatsu holds a Shibori festival – a celebration of the art and the town itself. People flock from all over (as is the case with most Japanese festivals) to take part. Here are a few images from this years festival:

Festival Images – Notjustnat

For more images of the festival, visit Notjustnat and BIG in JAPAN‘s recaps.

Of course, shibori exists outside of Arimatsu and outside of Japan. The techniques have evolved and have become not only techniques used in dyeing, but also in various fibre arts. But for me, the beauty of shibori will always exist as a reminder of a village where time stood still, where master craftsmen and women create with wise hands.

Should you want to try your own hands at shibori (I know I do!), visit Honestly WTF for a wonderful tutorial on three kinds of shibori dyeing techniques:

DIY Shibori – Honestly WTF

And, should you ever find yourself in Japan, why not take a trip to Arimatsu and discover shibori for yourself? See Japan as it once was, visit the Shibori museum where you can even try take a workshop in the craft, and marvel at tie-dyeing worlds away from groovy 60’s t-shirts!

  • http://ohmyhandmade.com/members/allisajacobs/ Allisa Jacobs

    Love these photos and the story behind it! I’m in awe of the print that resembles a chain quilt, amazing. Thank you for sharing your experience Marisa!

  • http://notjustnat.blogspot.com/ Nat

    Oh thanks Marisa for posting my photos of Arimatsu here. It’s an honored to get mentioned on your wonderful blog. I had a wonderful time at the Shibori festival so I’m happy to share the story and images with everyone – Hugs Nat

  • http://CreativeMamma.com Joy

    Love it! Talk about handmade! The story/history is beautiful and if I ever go back to Japan, I’ll definitely visit Arimatsu.

  • http://www.bellapuzzles.com Lara {bella puzzles}

    Oh my! This put a HUGE smile on my face. I have been to Arimatsu and I know what you’re talking about. Shibori is amazing. I went as part of a 10 day Quilter’s Express to Japan tour. We saw shibori, silk-weaving, indigo dyeing, sashiko, and much more. Many of the artists we met were top in their field. Best money I ever spent on travel, and I’m not even a textile artist. The day in Arimatsu was one of my favorites.

  • http://ohmyhandmade.com/members/marisaedghill/ Marisa Edghill

    It really is a special little town – though I think more accessible if you visit with a local or during the festival.

    I am always awed by artisans like the women in the video, who devoted their lives to the mastery of a single pursuit. And saddened by the thought that so few of the younger generation are willing to do the same.

    As I was looking through Nat’s images of her time in Arimatsu / Japan, I was struck by the story of one artisan – he runs an indigo business that’s been in his family for over 500 years. There is no one to take over when he becomes too old to run it anymore. It’s heartbreaking but it is a quite common story. (Found in this post: http://notjustnat.blogspot.com/2011/07/japanese-hospitality.html)

  • Mickey Nakamura

    Thank you for visitting my village.I’m third genaration of tie-dye family member.Hope you come back soon.

    • Patricia Heidy

      hi Mickey Nakamura,
      I just found this site, looks like didn’t work well or not updated… but I have some questions. 🙂
      1. when is the Aritmasu Festival?
      2. how to go there from Tokyo?
      3. is there any Shibori short course?how much?and whats provide?

      cheers,
      Heidy – Indonesia

  • Morag Wilson

    I did a workshop here when I visited Japan last year. Despite not speaking Japanese English and my tutor not speaking English we laughed for 3 hours and produced a curtain that I left to be dyed. One of the best travel experiences ever.

  • Kellie Schouten

    do you have any suggestions for places to attend a shibori workshop in Japan?