Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

History is woven into the very fabric of Ome

Getting the warp and the weft of things in Tokyo’s western outreaches

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

I alight at Ome Station in western Tokyo on a scorching summer’s day; the pavement is like a pizza stone underfoot as I head east from the station and walk past umbrella shop Hoteiya.

There, last month, I took refuge from a downpour, and ended up buying a fancy umbrella from owner Ryotaro Arai, 77. As Arai kindly etched my name into the handle, he told me about the fabric used in the umbrella’s canopy. “It’s called yaguji, and Ome was once famous for it,” he explained.

I’m now in search of Gallery Cafe Hakoya, the place Arai suggested I might learn more about the historical fabric. The cafe is right on the main street and inside I find two delights: air conditioning and gregarious shop owner Kaneko Shizue, 70. I order an ice coffee, and as Shizue prepares it, I peruse the gallery’s merchandise. Hakoya’s offerings — notebooks, bags and wall hangings — all feature the same fabric as Hoteiya’s best umbrellas.

Shizue serves me a bit of textile history along with my coffee. “Ome’s been a weaver’s town since the Muromachi Period,” she says, referring to the area’s silk production during the years 1392-1573. “When the Edo Period (1603-1868) came along, though, silk was deemed too flashy for all but the upper crust. So, we made indigo-dyed cotton kimono with about 13 percent silk woven in, called omejima (Ome stripes).”

This sumptuary workaround lasted until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when kimono were thrown off for Western clothing, and Ome’s weavers were forced to rethread everything once more. Next, they created all-cotton futon covers in sunset hues: yaguji.

Soft focus: The blurred yet beautiful details of a bolt of colorful yaguji fabric.
Soft focus: The blurred yet beautiful details of a bolt of colorful yaguji fabric. | KIT NAGAMURA

“I was born and raised in Ome,” Shizue says, “but I never thought much of yaguji fabric when I was young. The colors ran if you sweated or peed in the futon.”

However, when her aunt died, Shizue found among her things fabric samples that her aunt had woven, and stored away carefully. “I studied those swatches,” she says. “In them I felt my aunt’s life story, its hardships and the pride she had in her work. I found real beauty in the fabric, which gets softer and softer with use. I just had to share that with others.”

I purchase some of the Shizue’s yaguji-covered notebooks, because the fabric has nostalgic appeal, then set off to find the weavers’ association Shizue says is nearby.

Fresh blood: 32-year-old Yo Kanno of Kanno Textile, which sells clothing that incorporates antique fabrics sourced from across Asia.
Fresh blood: 32-year-old Yo Kanno of Kanno Textile, which sells clothing that incorporates antique fabrics sourced from across Asia. | KIT NAGAMURA

En route, I peer into the subdued interior of Kanno Textile, a sumptuous den of rare antique fabrics sourced from across Asia, and sewn into modern apparel by 32-year-old designer Yo Kanno. His racks are hung with thickly embroidered chapan coats from Kazakhstan, Indian mirror work fabrics, and tribal suzani. His shop, set to open “soon,” will also offer hikari no suashi, one-of-a-kind carved and lacquered geta with jaunty textile straps.

Veering slightly southeast, I discover a huge warehouse of ōyaishi stone, tucked among shade-giving trees. Inside this oasis, called Mayugura (cocoon warehouse) because it once stored silk textiles, I meet owner Masazumi Niwasaki, 65. Niwasaki, at great cost, repurposed the 90-year-old building into a health food restaurant-cum-gallery. Today, the place is packed and popular.

Mayugura’s lunch menu features locally grown veggies, or what Niwasaki modestly calls “normal food.” I order a set lunch, and it tastes grades fresher than normal. For “dessert,” I head upstairs to check out the gallery exhibition, textile-related of course. Pure hemp fabrics from Osaka-based company Niji no Tenshi are on display and clothing designer Kagami Kawamoto floats around the spacious old warehouse gallery like an ethereal butterfly.

Keeping tradition alive: Sadae Mukai shows off a bolt of rare yaguji cloth.
Keeping tradition alive: Sadae Mukai shows off a bolt of rare yaguji cloth. | KIT NAGAMURA

Niwasaki entices me to follow him to ORIC 123, the aforementioned weavers’ association that is housed in buildings formerly connected to Ome’s weaving industry. Inside the main office, I meet spry and sweet-tempered historian Sadae Mukai, 82, who, over cups of tea, talks me through Ome’s weaving history.

Much of Mukai’s timeline matches Kaneko Shizue’s, but she elaborates on how the introduction of cotton from India in 799 was key to Ome’s shift from silk production to predominantly cotton omejima kimono, and then to yaguji, an all-cotton product.

“In yaguji’s heyday, from the 1950s through the mid-’60s, we had 800 weaving facilities. Those were the ‘gachaman‘ years,” Mukai says. Gachaman, I learn, is a portmanteau of gacha, the onomatopoeia used to describe the noise of the city’s mechanical looms, and man (¥10,000 notes). “At fabric markets, merchants sold so much, so fast, that they just shoved ¥10,000 notes into empty barrels without even counting,” explains Mukai.

Mukai proceeds to show me the association’s stash of yaguji fabric. There are far fewer bolts than I imagined. “When polyester fabrics and Western-style bedding became popular,” Mukai says, “people couldn’t sell yaguji. They tossed the dead stock out with the trash.” The loss resonates, particularly when Mukai spreads out some of the more intricate weavings. The images, of flowers, vases, landscapes and plaids, all have a slightly blurred effect, like a photo taken with a slow shutter speed.

“Early versions of yaguji, during the Taisho (1912-26) years, were plaids dyed in plant-based colors, or kusaki-zome. Later, during the Showa (1926-89) years, the technique included stencil-dyeing the warp threads, then using a predyed weft thread, to create a soft ikat-like picture,” Mukai explains. The results are simultaneously unpretentious and remarkably sophisticated.

Mukai whisks me off to another building in the complex, called Sakura Factory, and points out its saw-toothed roof, known as nokogiri-yane. “The skylights were angled to keep sunlight from fading the fabrics,” Mukai explains. We tour Sakura Factory’s two parts: a gallery and an event space, with original yaguji weaving looms on display; and airy art studios occupied by textile-related artists.

To complete the Ome textile story, Mukai recommends I visit two additional places: indigo-dyer Kosoen, and towel-manufacturer Hotman. With a bow of gratitude, I depart.

Outside, the day thrums with the temperature of mature summer as I head toward the Chofu Bridge over the Tama River. I pause briefly to enjoy the slightly cooler air from the rapids below.

A yard full of indigo clothing drying on racks in the summer breeze suggests that I’ve found Kosoen, but a sign on the door reads “closed.” By sheer luck, the younger sister of Kosoen’s owner happens by as I am about to leave. Hearing of my interest, she telephones her brother.

Hiroshi Murata, 67, arrives and amiably opens the shop, even though it’s his day off. Inside, the air smells of blue indigo.

Linear design: A close-up of indigo-dyed fabric from Kosoen.
Linear design: A close-up of indigo-dyed fabric from Kosoen. | KIT NAGAMURA

Over glasses of ice-cold soda, I learn from Murata, a third-generation indigo dyer, that his dyeing process is chemical-free. Furthermore, a scarf made by Kosoen, with Murata’s sharply graphic and linear design, has featured on the “Wonder 500” list, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Infrastructure (METI) subsidized selection of 500 national goods that “express the values nurtured in the Japanese since ancient times.”

As we chat, Murata’s younger brother arrives to give each vat of dye a stir. “Isn’t it his day off, too?” I ask. “We aerate indigo 365 days a year,” Murata replies, adding that the dye, which he considers a living organism, has to be kept warm during the winter.

Murata’s knowledge of indigo is encyclopedic, and yet he still studies it. He pulls out a roll of omejima he helped to replicate, its threads hand-spun and woven to precisely match an Edo Period kimono. “It’s strong stuff,” he says, with admiration, “and would keep its shape well, even if you had to kneel for hours.”

Murata offers classes in dyeing, and I make a note of that, but he has already been too generous with his free day, so we part ways.

Next door, just as Mukai mentioned, I find Hotman, which looks from the outside like an average towel outlet shop. Inside, however, I find a factory full of antique power looms weaving, of all things, authentic chenille.

Yifan Ka, a Taiwanese native employed as a Hotman Representative, kindly secures me access to the factory. The din of the looms — a pounding “gacha” sound — is palpable, as artisans ply tools and secret techniques rescued from a German chenille company that ceased operations in 1985. “Chenille is very complicated,” Ka says, brimming with admiration for the artisans. “Even with 10 year’s training, the average output is only four meters a day.”

Hands on: A Hotman
Hands on: A Hotman’s weaver makes certain the fluffy chenille yarn will exit the shuttle smoothly. | KIT NAGAMURA

“Three meters, if the pattern is intricate,” pipes up one of the weavers, painstakingly combing the dyed and twisted chenille thread into position before the machine bangs it home.

That Hotman has lovingly preserved a weaving tradition is not so surprising when I learn the company itself has nimbly survived numerous incarnations, from silk textile manufacturer in 1868, to couture dress fabric maker, to producer of superior towels today.

At the Hotman retail shop, two minutes away, I admire the company’s current hit product, the Ichibyo Towel. Named for its wicked-fast, “one second” absorbency rate, the Ichibyo Towel is another Wonder 500 product. I purchase a few, musing that there may be no end to the wonders hidden in Ome. For now, though, the day’s heat has me beat, and I throw in the towel.

Ome is served by Ome Station, which is a 75-minute journey on the Chuo Line from Tokyo Station (¥920/one way). From Tokyo Station, board a direct train bound for Oku-Tama, or change onto an Oku-Tama-bound train at Tachikawa Station, where the Chuo Line diverges.