By Akihisa Aoyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOGIMI, Okinawa — Where does the softness of this textile come from? The fabric — called bashofu — is woven with threads taken from the itobasho plant and has a history of more than 400 years as a kimono material for summer in Okinawa Prefecture. It is produced in the Kijoka hamlet in Ogimi, a village in the northern part of Okinawa Island, facing the East China Sea.
Bashofu is light, thin and resilient. It is dyed with the roots, barks or fruits of Okinawan plants. For example, branches and leaves of Ryukyu ai indigo are used to produce indigo blue. Brown requires several plants, such as the trunks of sharinbai shrubs, fukugi evergreen trees and yamamomo bayberries. The kasuri patterned variety of bashofu is adorned with repeated patterns representing nature, such as cicadas, dragonflies, birds and waves.
“Such a beautiful textile is rare these days. This fabric is always genuine, whenever I look at it ... It can be said that it is under circumstances where it inevitably becomes beautiful,” wrote Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961), who is also known as Soetsu Yanagi, when he described bashofu in Kijoka before World War II. Yanagi was the renowned advocate of the mingei folk art movement in Japan.
Yanagi saw genuine beauty in tools and textiles made by unknown people. He found an archetype of that in Kijoka.
About 80 years have passed since then, yet bashofu has not changed. Living national treasure Toshiko Taira, 97, has achieved the textile’s renaissance with like-minded people, overcoming the times of difficulties.
So how is the fabric produced?
Mieko Taira, the chairman of the Cooperative Association for Banana-Fiber Cloth of Kijoka, took me to a field of itobasho plants.
Itobasho grows taller than 2 meters. When one was cut down, the trunk section revealed 20-odd layers of bark that looked like annual growth rings. The layers were peeled away one by one, then divided into four groups, each with a different purpose for which the threads made from the bark are used. The bark layers were next boiled in a large pot of hot water mixed with wood ash, and then washed in cold water before being torn. Then impurities were removed by repeatedly scraping them with a bamboo tool.
Letting them dry in the shade completed the preparations for making the threads.
I was amazed when I watched the thread-making at the Bashofu Kaikan hall. Craftspeople split the bark into extra-fine fibers and tie them together to make the threads. They make the knots as small as possible so that no knot will come loose. This plays a decisive role in the quality of the fabric.
From one itobasho plant, only 20 grams of the bashofu fiber is produced, of which less than 5 grams can be made into kimono material. To weave enough bashofu for making an adult-size kimono, which requires 1,000 grams of threads, about 200 itobasho plants are needed. Patiently making the threads is the only way to achieve this.
The 30 or so steps in the process of making bashofu are all manual work with help from nature. No machinery is involved. Each task is supported by people from both inside and outside of the village, all working together. Their painstaking work reflects their diligent way of life.
The people here made me aware of the richness of life, coming to terms with nature, and the happiness of living in a community.
Visible behind the village is the 360-meter-high Mt. Nekumachiji in the Yambaru National Park. I walked on the mountain and found various plants, from itajii chinkapin, horutonoki evergreens and other huge trees, flowering trees such as yabutsubaki and himesazanka camellias, as well as the small, elegant flowers of the arimoriso herb. I even saw a newt appearing from the grass.
The subtropical forest is surprisingly rich in its diverse ecosystem. The local people would go into this forest to gather firewood, and they have used part of its land to grow crops since the time of the Ryukyu kingdom. It is a satoyama forestland close to their lives.
Okinawan nature has such a depth — it has nurtured people, created regions and produced culture.
First-hand taste of shikuwasa
One Sunday in November, I went to the satoyama as I got special permission to help harvest shikuwasa, an indigenous citrus fruit grown by the Kijoka hamlet residents. It was a tough job to climb a shikuwasa tree with a pair of scissors in my hand and a bag hanging down to my hip.
“If you put this fruit in your mouth and drink awamori [an alcoholic beverage special to the prefecture], it will taste like chuhai,” a local man said.
There was no awamori around, but I put the fruit in my mouth. It tasted really good. Everyone was happily chatting with each other as they worked. It was one fruitful holiday in Okinawa.
Flying from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Naha Airport in Naha takes about 2 hours and 55 minutes. From Naha Airport, it is a 90-minute drive to Ogimi. If you use a local bus service, it takes 2 hours and 45 minutes with a connection in Nago.
For more information, call Ogimi village’s planning and tourism division at (0980) 44-3007, or the Ogimi Marugoto Tourism Kyokai association at (0980) 44-1960.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech