June 01, 2020

Itoshiro Yohinten - Issue 20

石徹白洋品店: サステイナブルな環境と<br>地域をめざして - Issue 20
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Challenges for Cultural and Environmental Sustainability


Japan is dotted with small villages that still maintain old ways of living. Itoshiro is one those small villages in a mountainous area of Gifu, approximately in the center of the main island of Japan.


Friends of mine, a couple, moved to this tiny village twelve years ago. It's an area with one of the fastest decreasing populations in Japan.  Since then, they have been exploring a new way of life with three small children. Sustainability and crafts are key.

The village is well hidden behind a towering mountain range, and it is surprising that anyone decides to live here, so distant from any city. It is more surprising that the village dates back to the prehistoric Jomon era, almost 2,000 years ago. It was once a center of a branch of the Shinto religion, deeply connected to the nearby mountain, called Hakusan. It means  white mountain, and it's, one of the tallest mountains in Japan. People came from everywhere to climb this mountain and ask for the gods’ protection. Regional kings sent gifts to the local shrine when they couldn't make it themselves. But that was a long time ago. Now the village’s population is 250, and growing older year by year. When I visited my friends 7 years ago, many houses were abandoned and the number was increasing.

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Akihide Hirano, the husband, is my friend from graduate school, where we used to study city planning and community development. We reconnected when we were hired by the same management consulting firm almost at the same time. He always seemed to have a plan to go back to his home-state of Gifu, to help revive the city he grew up in. 

But it was Kaori, his wife, who first decided to move to Itoshiro herself. Kaori is also from Gifu, but neither of them had ever visited this isolated village in their lives. After graduating from college, while working in Tokyo, Kaori, who was 24 at the time, started participating in community development seminars and events in Gifu. The group visited several places and Itoshiro was one of them, where they learned that the area is blessed with an abundant supply of water throughout the year, raising the possibility of installing small-scale water power generators. Kaori had fallen in love with Itoshiro, and for her this possibility was worth pursuing. She persuaded the locals to support her plan, secured funding from local government,and she got the ball rolling..

A natural reaction to this would be “why did the local people agree to an idea from a total stranger, who was also only 24 years old?” It’s a small, quiet, isolated village and nothing new had happened in the past few decades. No one came from outside and told them what to do.

However, Itoshiro is unique because the villagers are used to strangers and visitors coming from all over Japan for the mountain, and staying with them before starting their way up Hakusan. With the population rapidly aging and decreasing, people had a sense of urgency.

Akihide decided to help with what Kaori started, and they married before moving to Itoshiro.

Kaori had first commuted to the village for the project, but soon relocated there. She decided to go to fashion school to learn pattern making and sewing as preparation. She had to find a way to make her living, and since no one was hiring, starting her own business was the only option. Conscious about sustainability, she felt fashion was behind the times compared to other basic human needs like food and housing. She already had an idea for a small boutique to sell unique, sustainable handmade items.

Sewing was not her forté, and she struggled for two years, but she managed to finish her diploma. While she was mastering a new skill, Akihide started a company to help communities install small-scale water power generators. The couple were ready to commit to the new community.

Their lives in the village started in the fall of 2011. This was the year Japan experienced a deadly earthquake, and a lot of young couples moved out of the metropolitan areas. Many local governments in remote regions thought it was a great opportunity to revive their communities, and accepted these young people, so their timing was right. Akihide kicked off a series of projects to install larger power generators in Itoshiro, which eventually led to supplying over 230% of the power needs of the community (the excess is sold to the power company to pay for the construction cost, and to fund local agricultural projects. This has its own story and became a documentary film.)

As envisioned, Kaori started designing clothes and opened a small boutique called Itoshiro Yohinten (yohinten is an old-fashioned word meaning a small boutique) in the spring of 2012. After years of struggling with a skin allergy, she decided to only use organic, natural materials for her clothes. Doing everything on her own was challenging, but she was determined. 

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Since then, the company has grown and twelve people are working, a few full-time and others part time. Key products are types of pants called Tatsuke and Hakama, made from naturally-dyed fabric. They also make shirts, dresses and skirts, all based on a variation of traditional farming wear. Some fabrics are up-cycled from factory waste, and others are hand-woven by local textile artists. They farm and collect dye materials, including indigo, during summer, and dye and sew clothes throughout the year.

What became a turning-point was the discovery of traditional farming clothes found in this region. A pair of kimono farming pants were found in a neighbor's warehouse. The neighbor had been living in Itoshiro for generations. 

Considering how difficult it is to move around freely in a kimono, it was natural for Japanese people to wear western pants-like garments when farming. This idea was new to Kaori (and also to us), because she had assumed that in the old days everyone was wearing a kimono all the time. When she began her research, she discovered that there were variations of these pants all over Japan for hundreds of years, and people used to make blouse-like tops for everyday wear as well. 

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Tatsuke is a variation of samurai and ninja pants that was simplified for common people's daily use. Traditional kimono textiles in Japan had always been made 36 - 39 cm wide (14 - 14.5"). There was probably no loom existing to make wider fabric, so to make a pair of flexible, easy-to-move-in pants with such narrow fabric, tatsuke have a square piece of fabric at the back crotch. In fact, all the pieces are rectangular, and they don't waste a single inch of fabric. People refined the designs over generations to minimize waste. Fabric was that precious. It used to be repurposed, over-dyed, and was used until it was just a shred. Other farming wear that she discovered followed the same principles. Kaori was fascinated by the practicality and wearability of these traditional farming wear, and their zero waste. She decided to make it her lifework to pass down this knowledge, and to do this through her business. Since then, Itoshiro Yohinten wastes little fabric. The scraps are all in rectangular shapes, so they use the leftover for patchwork and making small bags.

She started exploring a way to modernize the traditional patterns, studying a few pieces that were discovered in neighbors’ storage. Older generations in Japan never really treasured old pieces of garments, so it was hard to find samples, and figure out sizing based on the available pieces. Kaori made many samples to find the right fit.

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At the same time, she decided to naturally-dye the textiles she uses with locally-available plant materials. That’s something she can get in abundance - and for free. By that time, partly due to the success of the water power generator, which made Itoshiro famous, some young couples started to relocate to toshiro, so she was able to hire part-time dye assistants.

Indigo dyeing started by chance. While Kaori and Akihide were planning to build a new dye studio and shop space right next to their house, Kaori was introduced to a master indigo dyer. He had been in the business for over 50 years in the near-by city. He retired, and wanted to pass on his dye pots to someone, and that's when Kaori met him. 

She had an old, indigo-dyed kimono jacket which had been passed down from her neighbor. She was amazed how the spots that were left undyed were eaten by bugs. So Kaori was, of course, very interested in indigo dyeing and wanted to learn more, but wasn't ready for receiving 50-year-old, treasured dye pots, b it was not like she could say no. She went with a contractor to pick up the dye pots, and the pots broke while being dug up. The dyer was very upset. That was the moment she had to make a commitment, promising the master dyer that she would bury the fragments under new pots that she would get. 

Indigo dyeing has become a key part of Itoshiro Yohinten’s business. Because the real indigo dye material is not easy to come by in Japan (and she is a pursuer of authenticity), she started farming indigo plants with a baby on her back. It was very difficult at the beginning but also extremely rewarding. 

When Kaori was struggling to figure out the patterning to create different sizes, another break-through came about. Hitomi Sugishita, a fashion designer, who used to work for a well-known apparel brand in Tokyo, visited Itoshiro. She had fallen ill from overwork and was visiting her family in the near-by city. It was not just stress, but the huge waste that the fashion industry make, that pushed Hitomi over the edge. For her, creating a zero-waste fashion from all natural materials, based on the practical, traditional clothing was what she had been looking for all her life. She joined in 2016 and modernized all the existing farm-wear based patterns into more sophisticated casual clothes.

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In the last few years, to pass down the knowledge to wider audiences, they started teaching classes. Many people visit Itoshiro Yohinten for the tatsuke-making workshop that is held several times a year. It’s a three-day workshop where you can learn how to sew the incredibly efficient pants from scratch, while visiting elder people in the neighborhood to learn the local history and lives.

Another of their missions is to preserve old wisdom and traditions before they disappear, by speaking with elders in the community. She collects local stories and stories of their lives, and makes books to help pass this knowledge to future generations. They are helping young couples to move to this region and they plan events to attract people, so that more people will learn about the place.

Itoshiro Yohinten has truly become the focal point driving sustainability in this small community. It is far away from where you are (and Tokyo, too), but if you get to have a relaxing travel schedule in Japan, I encourage you to visit Itoshiro for a countryside experience. Not only is the place full of inspiration for sustainability, but you can also learn a piece of the textile history of our country.

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Itoshiro Yohinten and their family house. Behind the tall tree near the center, you can see Hakusan Mountain Range.

From right: Akihide and Kaori Hirano, then Meri and Tokuko. Photographed in March 2020 by Kana Tanaka.

From top: The interior view of Itoshiro Yohinten shop; Echizen Shirt has been arranged into a dress. All the clothings was naturally dyed.

Right: A few different types of fabrics dyed with cherry tree bark, fresh out of the dye pots.

Left: Tatsuke pants made from thread-dyed (in indigo) and hand-woven fabric. The beauty of hand-woven texture is one of a kind.

This page, topA book of how to make tatsuke pants by yourself. It's one of their popular products in store and Online. They also recently started selling kits.

Bottom Tabi socks made with straw, which were worn inside straw-made sandals. This also shows how fabric was hard to come by in the old days.