Yuzen Dyeing (友禅)

The atmospheric pressure in the air drops as I ride my bicycle down the narrow road hugging the tracks of the Eizan Railway, and not for the first time, it really hits home that I am living in Japan.

There is something in the air here that is different from the United States, something primal, locked in a time capsule of abundant culture. The tracks are rust red, curving like a river through the bundles of narrow, stacked houses of Sakyo-ku, Kyoto’s largest eastern ward. The cicada are out in mass this early evening, the deafening buzz of their summer song lingering in the humidity, almost making the very air itself vibrate. Sparrows, or suzume, flutter along the chain link fence, miniature flocks racing swallows across the tracks. Suddenly, the low-toned tone of the train crossing rings out, briefly drowning out the cicada song. The passing of the train always fills me, somehow, with a sense of nostalgia, yet I never lived in a place with trains in my youth, and I have not been here long enough to create natsukashisa of my own in Japan. This is just the energy of Kyoto, especially in the deep, long summer of August.

Today, I am heading to the Kamo River to observe a demonstration of yūzen dyeing, or at least a portion of it. Yūzen dyeing, introduced to Japan during the Edo era, is an extremely sophisticated and time-intensive process of dyeing silk for kimono and other silk-made products. While the practice has highly evolved since its early inception, Kyoto still has masters who use the old style. The process is painstaking, involving the hands of many people from conception to final product. You can watch a video on the process here (no need to understand Japanese to understand what is going on):

Today, the demonstration at Kamo River will show the process of washing the silk after the dyeing process, traditionally done in the river currents. Men wade out into the bed and clear the area of weeds and other mud or dirt, before unfolding the long reams of silk for washing. The samples used in the demonstration are obviously not as splendid as the one shown in the video; the river is not as clean as it used to be, and silk is still an expensive commodity.

I learned of the event through a fellow Kyotoite’s blog, Deep Kyoto. This demonstration usually only happens in the far west of Kyoto, in Arashiyama, which often means I am too far away to see it, so I was really happy to have a chance to go, at long last. The demonstration was only part of a much larger event called the Kamogawa Nōryō, which in and of itself was a unique and interesting national food fair. Produce and pickled anything from all over Japan were being offered, with loud stall owners in silly hats and samples floating down the thoroughfare like paper flowers down a river. I didn’t end up trying any of the fare, as my main purpose was to get a good spot to watch the yūzen demo, which took place opposite center stage.


The events at this year’s festival were a strange mix of national and international, with most of the live demonstrations being belly-dancing or other forms of Indian dance. While pretty, I found it pretty jarring with the overall tone of the evening. Of course, the weather helped no one, and shortly before the demo, it began to rain.


In my typical stubborn way, I’d left my umbrella at home, and so used a flyer to keep my camera dry, until a nice woman started to share her umbrella with me. We struck up a conversation. As it turned out, we were both there for the same reason, and so we guarded our spot carefully, which turned out to be a good thing, as the crowd quickly surged behind us five minutes before the event started.

With Akiniwa-san’s help, I was able to get a fair amount of nice photos and movies from the event, which I’ve shared below. Enjoy!


The rest of the album can be viewed on my Flickr.

9 thoughts on “Yuzen Dyeing (友禅)

  1. Lovely photos, Alex, and your gift for so beautifully describing the scenes around you paints such a vivid picture. And of course, I always enjoy learning something new from your posts. 🙂


    1. Thanks so much, Miranda. I had fun writing this one (half written into a voice memo while at the event, haha.) I was afraid I was going to forget a lot of the details…. and I did, actually. On the way home, a weasel ran in front of my bicycle and into someone’s garage…. they’ll be in for a rude surprise in the morning, haha!


  2. Amazing videos, Alex, and I can’t believe the steadiness of hand required to do the intricate work. The same moves over and over with measured sureness. I’m gobsmacked.
    Thanks for sharing this art form with us. What a treat!


  3. Any writing that contains multi-sensual images like ” Suddenly, the low-toned tone of the train crossing rings out, briefly drowning out the cicada song” or ” especially in the deep, long summer of August.” is just exquisite in my book. Images are just icing on the cake.
    From the traditions of an ancient ritual to the sensual and personal contemporary descriptions of the approach, I loved the entire piece. Thank you for sharing.

    I sway back and forth between jealousy for your writing ability to an admiration for taking the time to bring me along.


  4. Wow! You’re so lucky to have been able to witness this in person. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your photos and video.
    As it turns out, I’m coming to Japan in December. I’ll be landing in Tokyo though, and staying in that area I think. I have four days to travel about and am still trying to figure out where to go. I’d love to go back to Kyoto… What’s the weather like in the beginning to mid-December?


    1. Lately? Very nice. Fall is happening later and later, so it’ll be crisp but not freezing. 🙂 if you come later, you may be able to go to Kobe’s Luminarie Festival!


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