Two days ago we visited the Tomioka Silk Mill. This is the only remaining silk mill of the Meiji period that remains today in almost perfect condition. It has been carefully preserved-not restored. It was during the Meiji restoration that the Japanese government pioneered the modernization of silk filature in order to improve the quality and production of silk in Japan. Like I said the other day- silk had a very large role in the modernization of Japan in general and many famous companies can trace their roots to fortunes made in the export of this valued commodity.
The French who were commissioned to build and supervise the Tomioka Mill brought with them engineers and instructors to teach the Japanese how to operate the modern reeling equipment. The building began in 1871 and was completed in 1872. This was quite a feat considering the size and number of buildings on the site not to mention the architecture employed. The site was chosen because of the access to water (nearby river), coal (to power steam engines), and the ability to produce mass quantities of cocoons locally.
Tomioka Silk Mill-one of two buildings for cocoon storage
The site included buildings for cocoon storage, cocoon drying, reeling, dormitories for the workers as well as housing for the French. The reeling mill employed girls in vast numbers-
Working conditions for the women were quite good- they worked for 7 hours and 45 minutes per day and had Sundays off. Their housing was provided and they had access to an on site doctor and health clinic. In the beginning, the story goes that they had a hard time recruiting workers as it was thought that the foreigners drank blood -the French men had been seen drinking wine and the Japanese had not ever seen wine before. Eventually though, the Japanese head manager hired his daughter to work in the mill to encourage more workers to apply and the issue resolved itself.
It is a fascinating site in near perfect condition that has withstood many earthquakes in the over 140 years of it’s existence. They are trying to establish it as a World Heritage Site but have yet to achieve this goal. As one of the participants noted however, this status is not all it’s cracked up to be as many restrictions and rules are applied that have become problematic at other WH sites.
A few more photos-
Cocoon storage at Usui
We next visited the Kiryu Textiles Weavers Cooperative Association. This was a first time for the tour to visit here as it is a new facility. Mainly, it houses offices in support of the local weaving and associated textile trades but they have a fantastic display here of examples of very high quality local textiles both new and old. The displays were some of the best I have seen. Photographs were not allowed but we were allowed to photograph some sample textiles on one wall. Two in particular caught my attention- you saw one already and it still has me wondering-
again, how this was achieved i don’t know or understand.
combined shibori techniques
As is customary, often small gifts are given as a thank you for any small kindness. I had prepared the tour participants in advance and they came well prepared. Even on the airplane one of the gals was seated next to a Japanese woman who had very limited English but almost immediately gave a small gift to Lisa. Lisa then rushed up to where I was sitting and was asking how to say something in Japanese to explain the gift she was giving in return. Later she told me that she was glad I had prepared them so well. She hardly expected to need omiyage on the plane ride over! But that is how it is- you just don’t know and it’s best to be prepared.
Upon leaving the Usui filature mill and giving the manager a gift as a thank you for his time he in return gave me this:
white chocolate silkworm on a green tea chocolate mulberry leaf!!
now how cool is that? Only at a filature mill will you find this….
next post- a visit to the studio of the younger Yamazaki sensei- his father is considered a living master of kusaki zome and the tradition continues in his studio today. He is not only an accomplished kusaki zome dyer but also is well known for his katazome- all dyed with natural local seasonal plant materials.
Yamazaki Sensei and his katazome