Fifteen years ago I visited Nishijin, Kyoto's famed kimono manufacturing quarter with my then host family. I had just finished reading Yasunari Kawabata's "The Old City," a novel steeped in Kyoto's kimono culture; its main character Chieko is the adopted daughter of a kimono merchant. I misunderstood the novel's elegiac tone, and naively expected to see the Nishijin that Kawabata knew 50 years ago.

I got a rude shock. The district looked gutted, there were apartment buildings everywhere and only a few traditional dwellings and workshops in between. We passed a kimono merchant's house that was being demolished. "There's Chieko's home," I said.

We visited one kimono workshop and the owner kindly agreed to show us around. His family had owned the workshop for 140 years, he said, and now times were tough; customers were dwindling and nearby workshops were closing down. We saw a computer programmed jacquard loom, and on it there lay the answer to some questions I had in my mind — an exquisitely beautiful kimono obi worth $8,000.