Designs that come out of the blue

Using hand-picked indigo plants, hemp and fresh air, Masanao Shiroma's creations are unique works of traditional Japanese artistry

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Reflecting on Okinawa’s natural pigmentations, one thinks instinctively of the red of its hibiscus, the pinks and mauves of bougainvillea, the green of ripening shikuwasa limes and fukugi trees. The strongest association, though, is blue.

At greater depths, the sun-lit ocean surfaces turn to an indigo wash, the color of the island’s distinctive aizome textile.

The precipitation method for making indigo dye in Okinawa differs from mainland Japan, and is closer to the process found in the tropical and semitropical regions of Southeast Asia and India, where the art originated. Here in the mild to steamy Okinawan climate, the Ryukyu-ai (Ryukyu indigo plant) grows all year around.

Masanao Shiroma, a Ryukyu indigo-dye craftsman, goes by the professional name of Akane Togashi. An award-winning artist, who exhibited in Hawaii last year, Shiroma-san studied under a master textile maker in 1975, before opening his own workshop in Okinawa’s capital of Naha, five years later. His current home, a workshop, cafe and gallery called Aikaze, was established in 1988, in a striking location on a densely green hillside of the Yanbaru Forest in the north of mainland Okinawa.

As I discovered, getting to Aikaze is an experience in itself. Route 84 leads from the small city of Nago into Motobu, considered by many to be the most beautiful and natural region of mainland Okinawa. A little beyond the village of Izumi, a small wooden sign points to Aikaze, a kilometer or so off the main road. By the time you reach the studio, via an extremely steep, pot-holed lane, you have entered the Yanbaru Forest. The name may suggest a temperate climate, but the vast sub-tropical woodland here is closer to jungle or rain forest, the flora stunning.

On an island where trees such as oleander, plumeria and banyan thrive, and where shrubs like the pandanus and the flame-colored heliconia happily take root, it comes as no surprise to see that the Yanbaru Forest is a veritable botanical garden. The rustic setting belies the artistry of Aikaze’s creations.

When I met Shiroma, I noticed that his fingers were stained green from the handling of the Ryukyu indigo plant. Aizome is made from asa (hemp), a material that, once the threads emerge after extensive boiling, is required to be soaked 10-15 times in dye before the indigo blue fastens. The number of soaked threads determines the tonal density of the indigo. The material is then repeatedly submerged in cool, running water.

While this was going on Shiroma reached for a large bottle of awamori, the signature drink of Okinawa, a strong liquor made exclusively from Thai rice. Rather than pouring us a couple of glasses of the beverage, he proceeded to empty the liquor into the solution. Serving as a fermentation agent, soda or black sugar may also be used. Bubbles on the surface of the liquid indicate a good quality indigo.

Ryukyu-ai is usually collected in the summer and winter months, the leaves and stalks pressed down into water for several days until the color seeps out. The liquid is put into a fresh pot and shosekitan, a type of coal, placed in the pot to help the color descend to the bottom of the vessel and form a thick sediment.

Cut-out shapes are attached to the hemp cloth to mask off areas where dying is not required or where designs will appear. Sections of the fabric may be folded, knotted or have pegs and other objects placed on them for the same reason. The final step is hanging the material in the open air outside the studio. When the fiber is fastened and hung in the air it almost instantly turns blue, a process known as “aerial oxidation.” This last stage of the process lends its name to the studio, Aikaze, meaning “indigo breeze.”

Aizome has an interesting secondary function as an insect repellant. Traditionally in Okinawa, the fabric was hung over paulownia wood chests and drawers to prevent damage by pests. People wore aizome clothing to protect themselves not only against insects, but also habu, lethal vipers indigenous to Okinawa. There seems to be some evidence to support its efficacy. When Shiroma stepped into the forest to show me where the Ryukyu ai plant was growing, I gingerly held back for fear of snakes, but was told the habu disdains the plant and stays away.

One of the pleasures of Aikaze is in discovering such a refined milieu in the middle of a primitive sub-tropical forest. The gallery doubles as a showroom and shop, where indigo products can be viewed and purchased. Items range from easily affordable coasters, book covers and scarves, to large, exhibition-quality wall hangings. Clothing can also be commissioned.

Visitors can pass through this space into a coffee shop with sweeping views of the hillside. Nothing if not thematic, the coffee was served in a cup and saucer of indigo coloring and design. After savoring the utter silence of the location, broken only by the breeze and birdsong, I went looking for Shiroma, finding him in the back garden feeding broken branches and pieces of torn bark to a bonfire. I had arrived in Okinawa the day after one of its periodic typhoons, and the debris was still being cleared away.

I noticed a brick kiln in the corner of the garden, and after inquiring, discovered that Shiroma also makes a fine indigo ceramic. Nothing is wasted at Aikaze. When the indigo residue used to make aizome begins to lose its color after about six months, Shiroma uses the dye to decorate the ceramics he makes here in a style known as Izumi-yaki.

Several pieces of aizome were hung on a drying line in the garden, an open-air exhibition of recently created indigo textiles that gave me a chance to marvel again at the process of turning coarse fiber into works of art.

Aikaze opens 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (0980) 47-5583. Items can also be purchased online at www.p-kit.com/hp/aikaze. E-mail inquiries can be made at aikaze2@gmail.com.