While many prefectures boast of local food specialties, one of Tokushima’s (徳島) claims to fame is actually a color – indigo. Awa indigo dye (阿波藍染) is produced in the region and its dyeing methods are even considered an intangible cultural asset. Let’s find out more about it!
In order to create the dye, indigo leaves are chopped up, fermented, and then lye is added. The cloth is then dipped into the solution for a short amount of time. In order for the color to emerge, air exposure is necessary, and this oxidization is essential for getting the color. For a darker blue, the cloth is dipped and pulled out multiple times instead of simply submerging the cloth for longer periods of times.
Indigo in Tokushima dates back to the Heian era (平安時代; 794 to 1185), and eventually, Tokushima became the largest producer of indigo in Japan. Indigo dye became popular among the common people in the 17th century where it was used in kimono and household items. The indigo’s ability to act as an insect repellent and to prevent odors helped drive its popularity.
During the Warring States period, indigo was in especially high demand by samurai who wanted to wear indigo-dyed clothes under their armor due to its various benefits. In the 19th century, this color was dubbed “Japan blue,” a nickname that has continued to this day. Even now, indigo is a color that is very popular in Japan.
In Tokushima, there are countless shops selling indigo-dyed products. You can find handkerchiefs, towels, scarves, shirts, ties – just about everything you could want. But if you want a more unique souvenir, you can try your hand at indigo dyeing yourself at Ai no Yakata. There are many options to choose from, the cheapest being the hand towel or handkerchief at 500 yen. When you pay the 300 yen entrance fee, you select what (if anything) you want to dye before heading through the modern museum into the workshop.
The dyeing process was easier than I expected. First, you select your pattern, then you wrap the cloth around a wooden rod and tie a rubber band around it. The band helps create the pattern by protecting parts of the cloth from the dye. Next, you proceed into the dyeing room where you simply dip the rod into a vat of dye for a minute. Be extra careful not to drop it because the vat is deceptively deep!
After that, you pull it out and spread the cloth to make sure everything is equally dyed while being careful not to disturb the band. You repeat this process to darken the color until you are satisfied. For a deep indigo, the process is repeated around six or seven times. Then, you rinse off the excess dye, pop it in a dryer, and iron. The process is easy and not too time-consuming. Plus, you get an original souvenir to take home!
The museum itself is also worth exploring. Just past the workshop is an old merchant’s home that now serves as a museum. The pieces displayed – tapestries, kimono, dresses – are beautiful and the clothes, in particular, are spectacular. The building itself is nice, too, with a pretty view from the top.
The old warehouses across from the house have also been converted into exhibit rooms so don’t be confused by their rather unwelcoming appearance. Here you can see various tools used in indigo dyeing as well as dioramas on the indigo growing, fermenting, and dyeing processes. There is no English translation but it’s still worth a look, and the dioramas make it easy enough to follow.
Ai no Yakata is open from 9 AM to 5 PM and is a little difficult to access. A car or taxi is the best option but there are two bus stops near the museum, Higashinakatomi (東中富) and Kouyouseikou-Mae (光洋精工前). Be warned, however, that buses are not too frequent so plan your visit accordingly. The museum can give you a map with a timetable to ensure you don’t miss your return bus. Despite the trouble, the museum is worth a visit to learn more about Tokushima’s unique cultural heritage.
Ai no Yakata Website *Japanese only