Perhaps one of the most exciting moments of my travel to Japan was when we had the opportunity to visit Mr. Noguchi's study in Hachioji.
Despite being a sixth-generation dyer specializing in indigo katazome master, his studio lacks fancy or pretensions. It's located on a dirt road, and there is only a sign with large Japanese letters on its entrance door that marks the presence of his workshop.
The place is simple and austere, with a dirt floor. In the first room, there are about 14 vats (150 years old) buried one meter deep in the earth that contain the indigo, each with a different amount of indigo pigment. That allows a variation on indigo hues.
His dusty workshop is full of tools, bamboo sticks, brushes, buckets, sinks for washing textiles, an old washing machine, a machine for extracting soybeans milk, fabrics and an extensive collection of katagami or stencils. Katagami is "washi" (rice paper) coated with the juice of the persimmon fruit, which makes the paper almost indestructible.
There is a large patio that separates the second part of the workshop, a place that contains long boards on which 10 meters of fabric were stretched. That's where Mr. Noguchi, after preparing the woods, spread the fabrics with katazome (a paste made from rice flour) using the katagami or stencils.
Seeing Mr. Noguchi, a true master of the art of katazome in action, was something indescribable. With the skill that is achieved during decades of work he arranged the katagami over the fabric and began to cover it with katazome, then lifted the stencil and repeated the process over and over again, until covering the entire fabric with the katazome design.
When he finished, he lifted the long board on his shoulder and carried it out to the sun to dry.
Finally, we could create our own katazome design using Mr. Noguchi's tools.
Once the rice paste dried, the fabrics were separated from the boards that held them very tight and cut into sections. To keep the fabric stretched and, thus, avoid breaking or damaging the katazome paste, we put the shinshin (bamboo sticks with tiny metal tips) and began the process of immersing them in the indigo vat.
Some of the fabrics were dipped in very dark indigo, carefully to prevent the rice paste from loosening, others in lighter indigos. The fabrics were submerged 2 minutes and then hung on very long bamboo sticks for 4 to 5 minutes so the indigo could oxidate and produced the perfect blue.
Dyeing and oxidizing is a process that takes a long time because fabrics are usually submerged up to 10 times or more, and in between indigo need time for oxidation.
It is worth clarifying that when dyeing fabric with katazome paste, to prevent the rice paste from being diluted with the indigo, the baths are shorter, only 3 or 4 times.
When we were satisfied with the indigo color of our fabrics, it was time to wash them and gently release the katazome paste to reveal the white design underneath.
Our teacher, Bryan Whitehead, showed us how to remove the katazome paste from some fabrics with a hard brush, in that way the designs under the katazome were not completely white but slightly bled by indigo pigments.
Mr. Noguchi prepared soybeans milk, mixed them with soot, and with that, Bryan using a special brush painted 10 meters of unstained cloth over the katazome paste. That fabric ended up with a silvery color.
It is not my intention to bore you with too many technical details, just to share with you how was a day in a Japanese master's workshop. Mr. Noguchi is an older man, short of stature who walks a little hunched over and babbles phrases in Japanese somewhat moody and taciturn.
When the time to leave arrived, Mr. Noguchi greeted us with a pretty smile, probably happy to see that the foreign invaders finally left their sacred indigo temple.
We had spent an unforgettable day in his study, seeing in action one of the greatest Japanese masters. He showed us, with the typical humility of the masters, secrets that are not in any text.
We left there full of inspiration, and since it was time for dinner, we went to a tiny restaurant in the center of Hachioji. Two chefs prepared in front of our eyes a kind of open pancake in which ingredients were coming up to turn it into a delicious mountain of food.
I have to give all my gratitude to our teacher Bryan, who gave us a whole day learning experience with one of the greatest masters of Indigo Shibori and Katazome, Mr. Noguchi. A living treasure in Japan.
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