Monthly Archives: November 2007

Six degrees of separation – and sometimes even less

Although commercial machine embroidery is well established in Japan, the home version has never really taken off here the way it has in the US and finding supplies localy has sometimes proven to be a challenge. Thread is the stuff of life for an embroiderer and during the past year I’ve tried talking to my local fabric store (but they had no interest in machine embroidery) and ordering from the US (but the shipping nearly doubled the price). Surely Kyoto with its specialized trade stores for every other textile craft imaginable must also have a store for machine embroiderers. The problem was just in finding it.

Judith and the Fuji family So when my friend Judith Clancy commented that she was working with Mr. Fuji to develop contacts with kimono embroidering factories for the 2008 Kyoto Textile and Design Tour, I asked her to find out where the factories bought their thread. “Oh they buy from Mr. Fuji” she responded casually. To my slack-jawed surprise, I realized that the Mr. Fuji she had been referring to is the founder of Fujix Thread, the largest thread company in Japan. Without even the proverbial six degrees of separation, I found that one of my own closest friends in Kyoto turned out to have a long-standing friendship with the Fuji family. Not only that, the company’s international headquarters are only a few blocks from my house.

My trip to Fujix Thread was the highlight of life last week. Most companies have about 300 shades of polyester thread, but Fujix, which caters to the exacting demands of the kimono industry, offers an incredible 600. The subtle progression of shades within each hue is both inspiring and overwhelming. The little picture of the color chart shown below hardly does justice to the selection.
Fuji thread color chart
I can hardly wait to pick up my first thread order next week. And I’m also looking forward to seeing the itinerary Judith puts together for the Textile and Design Tour next year. It ought to be a fabulous adventure!

Ireland in Japan

Moya Bligh So often we in America conceive of the world as a series of bilateral relationships, but life abroad is simply broader. Exploring and appreciating a wider and more complex variety of international relations is one of the small joys of that broader world, and I suppose my Irish-American blood gets a particular trill from encountering the Irish-Japanese community.

Moya Bligh, a good friend from the women artists’ group in my last post, is a printmaker and woodblock artist from Kilkenny, Ireland. She came to Japan some 35 years ago on a Japanese government scholarship to study art and has lived here ever since. A celebration of Ireland in JapanNow an art professor at Seika University, Moya recently curated a print exhibition, idir/aida – a celebration of Ireland in Japan at Artislong (life is short), a gallery here on the west side of Kyoto. The show marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries and featured five printmakers, three Irish and two Japanese, who had each studied and worked in the other’s country. The works reflected each artist’s interpretation of the cross-cultural influences in their shared experiences.

As delightful as the show has been, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Artists and writers from Ireland and Japan have been finding inspiration in each other’s culture for quite some time. In the late 1800s, Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish writer who became fascinated with Japan, translated and popularized Japanese ghost stories in the west and his books have continued in print for over a century. Contemporary Irish writers have continued the tradition with no lesser degree of fascination.

And the reverse is also true, I have several Japanese friends who regale me with stories of their lives in Dublin as we sit in one of the several Irish pubs that dot the cityscape of old Kyoto.

Added on January 29, 2009:
Much to my grief, my good friend Moya Bligh died yesterday, January 28, 2009, after a brief illness due to injuries sustained in a bicycling accident two weeks earlier. I am told that her passing was peaceful. The loss of Moya’s sweet spirit is grieved by very many, yet she will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of all who were blessed to know her.

Finding community

Facing a new life in a new culture with a new language can be daunting at times, even for the most adventurous. I often hear friends in America complain about immigrants not learning English and I’m certainly aware of Japanese who suspiciously grumble, “Nihon ni nihongo de hanashimasu!” (In Japan, speak in Japanese!) But the truth is, there is such a comfort in speaking your mother tongue in a strange land.

Being a city of considerable size, Kyoto has several foreign language communities — Chinese, Spanish and English to name a few. And I happily play within the latter. Of course, there are a variety of circles and subsets in any community and three of my favorites are “Women’s Network”, a monthly potluck of English-speaking women; “Asian Studies Group”, English-speaking scholars of Asian history, arts and humanities; and “Women Artists’ Association”, a grouping of foreign women artists from a wide range of countries and continents.

The artists’ group (pictured to the right at a recent outing to a Turkish restaurant here in Kyoto) includes potters and painters, calligraphers and printmakers, papermakers and several textile people. Kyoto is, afterall, the textile capital of old Japan and attracts fabric enthusiasts, collectors and artists from around the world. And the beauty of Japanese paper is legendary throughout the world.

Kiyomi Yatsuhashi from Boston, Massachusetts (front left in the photo) specializes in the most beautiful indigo blue fabric dyeing and Deborah Stout, a papermaker from Australia (way small on the right in the back of the photo) makes the most beautiful lamps and wall hangings from her own hand-made paper. As a group, we share information on places to buy art supplies, techniques and inspirations, and create exhibition opportunities for our work.

A recent exhibition by Regina Altherr (second from the left in the group photo above), a potter from Switzerland, shows the fabulous influence Japan can have on an artist’s work. And so it is with each of us, bringing the skills and talents we developed in our home countries into play with the culture and mythos that surrounds our lives in Japan.