Bashōfu culture weaves its spell in Kijoka

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

White-caps beat steadily against the northwestern shore of Okinawa’s main island. Winds have stirred up the seas, yet the water looks as cerulean and inviting as ever. I should be paying more attention to this enviable vista but I’m preoccupied, indifferent. The circuitous coastal road requires more of my attention, lest I run our car into those scenic waters. And truthfully, after three years as an island resident, the seascape — no matter how stunning — has lost much of its ability to impress.

Knowing I’ll be leaving Okinawa soon doesn’t even make me relish this final drive through an admittedly beautiful section of the island. Rather, I’m more prematurely nostalgic for the company of my best friend and passenger, Andria — in mere months we’ll be heading to opposite sides of the Pacific, her to the dusty climes of the California desert and me to Kyushu for the continued adventure of life in Japan.

At the moment, however, we’re together and unburdened — free of spouses, kids, pets and responsibilities for a day. The monotonous rain of the past week has broken overnight and we seize the opportunity to head north, bent on one final exploration of the island we’ve come to call home.

As the highway turns in and the coast dips away, we veer right onto a tiny lane and enter the village of Kijoka. A sign in English by the main road marks the village as the home of the Kijoka Bashōfu Weaving Center, a cooperative dedicated to the weaving of Okinawa’s famous banana-fiber kimonos; once in the village, however, signage is sparse and we slow into low gear, looking for any telltale hints.

Kijoka looks and feels like a timewarped town. Sunbeams beat down on ceramic-tile roofs and front gates are guarded by weathered traditional Okinawa shisa “lion dogs” — the one with an open mouth warding off evil spirits, the one with its mouth closed keeping them in. Meanwhile, bamboo screens hide open-air quarters so typical of prewar island homes. The look is mostly authentic — while fighting raged for months in the southern half of the island in 1945, Kijoka and its northern neighbors escaped with barely a scratch on the landscape.

After two passes through the village, my vestigal kanji knowledge leads us to the center’s tiny parking lot. Just a few steps up the hill, the heart of Okinawa’s bashōfu weaving culture holds court in a cinderblock edifice surround by the requisite banana plants. As we approach, a trio of elderly women call out greetings from a leafy plot. Machetes in hand, they hack surgically at the dwarf-sized trees, stripping the bark and bundling the bleach-colored fibers into bows. One of the women soon gathers up the morning’s efforts and we follow her up to the visitor center.

Inside, a smiling octogenarian welcomes us with warm cups of green tea. While we peruse the tiny hall’s exhibits, she cues up the English version of their explanatory video. While dated in style, it’s one of the best informational films I’ve seen in Japan.

The practice of bashōfu weaving dates from the 13th century, when the wafer-thin kimonos were preferred over other fabrics on this humid subtropical isle. As Western and other Asian influences gradually permeated the Ryukyu Islands, bashōfu products were relegated to the status of “traditional craft.” With a kimono taking at least three to six months of intensive labor to complete, bashōfu clothing was reserved for special occasions, and by wartime, the technique was almost phased out.

Enter Toshiko Taira, a Kijoka native and practiced weaver. Now designated a Living National Treasure, during the war years Taira was just another displaced Okinawan teen working in the factories of Honshu — in her case in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture.

Selected with three others while she was there by preservation-minded factory director Soichiro Ohara for her experience with traditional Okinawan arts, Taira spent a year of intense study under Ohara’s friend, a master weaver named Kichinosuke Tonomura, in a quest to preserve Okinawa’s fading folk practices.

With the guidance of Tonomura, Taira returned to Kijoka in 1946 and convinced village elders to construct the first commercial bashōfu factory. Over the decades it took to cultivate a renewed interest in the old-style kimonos, Taira and her dedicated staff supplemented their meager incomes by selling bashōfu tablecloths and curtains to U.S. service members.

A few samples of the center’s products from those and more recent days are displayed in glass cases around the hall, and when the video ends, we spend some time marveling over the intricacy of the popular kasuri (ikat) dyeing style. A group of employees cheerfully clatter through the exhibition space, lunch pails in hand, the smell of curry wafting after them. I steal glances at their faces, seeking Taira in the crowd. Though she will be 91 this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to find her still working, keeping a close eye on the industry she singlehandedly saved.

Upstairs, the open-air workrooms are silent, save for a spry senior citizen tending boiling cauldrons. We step back as she hauls newly-dyed fibers out to the porch and strings them along the wall. The strands are midnight blue, one of the two main colors — along with brown — used for bashōfu products. As only native Okinawan plants are used in the dyeing process, the end result is limited to hues of those two colors. There’s a slightly potent smell to the threads and it takes us a moment to remember the video’s narration — which said how the fibers are colored upward of 40 times in the same vat, and how awamori (the local firewater) is used to reinvigorate the dye.

With the workers all on lunch and no weaving to witness, we soon leave in search of our own midday meal. Kijoka village is devoid of eateries, and the man in its little post office suggests a soba stand down the highway. We decline, and follow colorful signs for a cafe that lead us up and into the hilly interior.

Seascapes give way to lush vegetation and twisty mountain lanes I’ve never driven before; our large-scale English map is soon rendered useless. We eventually find the cafe, hidden in the cut of a deep valley, but the menu is limited and I’m in the mood for more than just mini pizzas and tea.

An executive decision is called for, and made, and we’re rolling again — this time south through Nago and onto the island’s sole expressway, racing to beat both the traffic and the clock in search of a more substantial repast.

We find it on the outskirts of the town of Kin, at the tiled-roof Cafe Garamanjaku. I’ve been before and couldn’t get it out of my mind — a burnished wooden counter piled with fresh fruits and vegetables, a single tatami room overlooking a garden, heaping set meals that arrive with the exquisite presentation of a kaiseki (traditional multicourse Japanese dinner) production.

My tray consists of tiny morsels in flavors I wish I had words for — what I can identify are hints of miso, konbu (kelp), sesame and shikwasa (Okinawan lime). Paired with a generous multicolored onigiri (rice ball)and a hearty soup, it’s just the lunch my stomach had been yearning for.

As with my first visit, the owner hovers nearby as we taste each new course, nervous as to how we will perceive each bite.

“Do you like Okinawan food?” she asks worriedly in Japanese.

Our heads bob a reply as our mouths are too busy to formulate words. She leaves us in peace but seems unconvinced.

“You like Okinawan food?” she queries again, when we take up our bill at the end of the meal. When we say we do and effusively praise her lunch platters, she breaks into a smile of relief and, emboldened, delivers a parting phrase in English.

“Okay, okay. It’s good. You come back soon!”

I find myself hoping her words are prophetic. Perhaps I’m not finished with Okinawa yet.

The Bashōfu Weaving Center is in Kijoka, just off Route 58 (about two hours north of Naha). Signs (some in English) direct visitors from the highway. The center opens Mon. to Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission free; photography is prohibited.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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