An overview of saki-ori, or 20th-century obi waist sashes from rural Japan, are described in Riches From Rags: saki-ori & other recycling traditions in Japanese rural clothing, an exhibition catalogue published by the San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum.

The catalogue features superlative examples of the tradition and the garments are of museum quality.

I thought I’d take a closer look at other examples, somewhat lower in quality but which  nevertheless display the general features of the saki-ori.

The first one is 120″/3m long and 10″25.5cm wide. The weft (a sett of 17 warps per inch) is a thin black sewing cotton and the wefts are 0.5″/1cm-wide lengths of material (reed around 12 per inch), presumably from recycled kimono. Both ends of the obi feature 0.5cm or 3/16″ weaving done in silver metallic thread.

The design is a strict sequence of strips, 3 or 4 or 5cm or approx 1-1.5″ wide, in black, red and yellow. The black is flecked throughout with silver metallic thread, so the original kimono must have been an-all silver-on-black pattern. The red is a vermilion-orange with equal amounts of white, with occasional warps of vermilion and bright yellow-gold and areas of silver metallic, so the original kimono must have been white with areas of yellow embroidery and silver metallic embroidery. The use of metallic thread leads me to think they were recycled from silk kimono, but I reckon the yellow comes from a yellow monochrome kimono (with very small amounts of gold metallic thread) made from wool, or something similar highly-textured.

The only other design element is the addition of long horizontal lines of gold – warps (roughly 4″ long) which have been loosely added while weaving the black.

Each colour seems to have been woven separately, with separate shuttles for each colour, since there is no linking of colours at the edges. Care has been taken to bunch up the black warps at each edge to strengthen the finished product.

The plain weave, done on weaving loom a simple 2-shaft hand loom, using recycled kimono cut or torn into thin strips, can be easily replicated on a 2- or 4-shaft loom or rigid heddle loom.


Yoshida, Shin-Ichiro & Dai Williams. Riches from Rags: saki-ori & other recycling traditions in Japanese rural clothing. San Francisco, San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum, 1994.

Weave: handmade style. Designs by Wendy Cartwright, Helen Frostell, Mary Hawkins and Lynne Peebles. Millers Point, NSW, Australia, Murdoch Books, 2007.






The Japanese Emperor, from time to time, decrees his Kyoto Imperial Palace be opened free to the public for several consecutive days each Spring and Autumn. Normally visits inside the Palace are restricted to foreigners who need to apply from their homeland before coming to Japan. Such open days are really the only time ordinary Japanese people get to see inside the Palace and its grounds. I notice the Spring Open Days (4-8 April 2012) have been announced.

The crowds follow a set route, more or less in reverential silence, filing through one gate and leaving by another and skirting around the Imperial palace buildings in between. The thing that struck me most was how immaculate the building and grounds were: one gets used to a certain high standard of temple maintenance sponsored by Japanese corporations, but the Imperial Household Agency’s work is a cut above. When I visited, there were several short dance performances during the day; I notice in 2009, the Palace was opened for ten days to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the accession of the current Emperor, and that featured performances of Heian Period “football” or “soccer”, known as kemari (and familiar to temari stitchers because the “te” or hand in temari is said to have originated from the “ke” or foot of kemari/football).

Here are photos I took specifically of the outdoor performance of gagaku in Autumn 2007. While being a foreigner I was reasonably tall enough to take the photos, but plainly not close enough. I took the photos not so much for the gagaku music (specifically bugaku dancing) but for the historic costumes. The historic costumes bear all the hallmarks of the Heian Period (794-1185): silk, mandala circle surface designs, free-flowing outer robes, horse-hair hats).

The dancers on the stage, set under a covered portico (the Shinmikurumayose, a a new carriage entrance on the occasion of the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taisho in 1915), all wore red silk fabric with gold designs. Note the master-of-ceremonies, dressed in green silk,  with microphone beside the stage.

Here are the gagaku dancers again, but note the line of imperial musicians in their black horse-hair caps on the ground (in the middle ground, past the audience members with their baseball caps). The black horse-hair caps are reminiscent of Korean headgear.

Here the court orchestra is again lined up, with their flutes, drums and Sho wooden mouth-organ:

In this photo, taken at the end of the performance, the musicians are at left (green/orange silk with mandalas) and the dancers are at right (a design of vertical swirling ‘spiritual vapours’ around 4 mandalas)


The Emperor moved to Tokyo in 1868. It’s said that some Kyotoites are still waiting for him to take up residence again, one day, in Kyoto.


For a photo of the 2009 kemari game, see

For background on gagaku, see


This is photo of yesterday’s temari stitching: pattern 0601 by Ginny Thompson from Mine is 32cm circumference, on a Old Gold Yellow mari with green pearl cotton 5 for the jiwari division lines. In response to a friend’s criticism that my stitching thread colours are too bright, I opted for beige DMC 842, rose DMC 316, dark brown DMC 611 and pink DMC 316. The pattern warns about taking special care with colour choices and with stitching in between previously stitched rows. I’ve stopped here and will redo completely in a day or two, altering the colour scheme and making improvements to the stitching. Pattern 0601 as stitched has a lot of background mari showing through. 

Kakudai braid

There is a shop in north-west Kyoto, past Arashiyama and the renowned bamboo forest there, which stocks kumihimo braids made up as hairclips and functional ornaments. There are thousands on the shelves, in the most wondrous colours. One of course would buy four examples, one for each season.  This one obviously involves silk in four colours (red, maroon, dark green and a gold-ochre – for Summer?), braided on a kakudai braiding stand. After an inch of braiding four braids, one in each colour (an 8-way braid for each?), red silk (identical to the red of the braid) is then wrapped around the four braids to tighten them together. Then the colours are wrapped around each other in a four-way braid to form two central bumps, again wrapped in the middle and at the end of the bump with red silk, then each colour is braided separately to finish. You have the aesthetic of compression-and-release, the contrast between a tight braid and its looser cousin. The segments are cut into 3″/8cm lengths then super-glued into metal clip blanks. The metal blanks of the clips are of the highest quality; a quality I’ve never seen outside Japan.

I bought this in 2007 and though it doesn’t receive any daily use, the silk threads aren’t falling apart or fading. I mention that because silk will inevitably deteriorate (especially in a humid, maritime climate like Japan’s). I notice some discussion recently about deterioriation over time of styrofoam balls used for temari bases. Of course there are no foolproof ways of temari (or kumihimo) lasting forever and ever. Japanese textiles from the lowliest temari to the most sophisticated kimono are highly unlikely to last a generation or two; only in the most exceptional circumstances do we have extant examples of textiles from ancient times – only extremely sophisticated laboratory-like conditions permit this: imperial guard (as in the case of the textile treasury in Nara) or being locked up in tombs or bronze Buddha statues (historic temple braids). We go to museums and think we are seeing medieval kimono: we are actually looking at modern copies. Museums have even been known to copy National Treasures for public display, while the original is locked away in a vault. And why not, especially when kudos go to anyone who can copy so convincingly something great and fantastic? Like the Shinto complex at Isa, the Japanese are bent on copying examples from the past, over and over. We in the West value innovation and novelty – one-offs – , the Japanese instead value copying and re-creating. The Japanese are more intent on passing on traditions from one person or generation to the next, rather than inventing new patterns for their own sake. Of course they participate in the Western paradigm of craft book publishing and they have come very late to the world of professional museology. They are willing participants in their much-beloved competitive hierarchy of competency achievement (craft certification, levels and testing, etc.), but ultimately their deep-down love is to perpetuate their traditions. In a world of impermanence, decay and loss, all we have in the end is each other as human beings – not things.

Sydney’s Japanese community came together for a cultural festival this weekend which roughly corresponds to the mid-summer Obon Festival in Japan. Obon is a festival for the ancestral dead and features community dancing.  The music for one of the favoured odori dances among the community is on Track 5 of this CD, issued by Columbia, COCJ33243.

The Sydney festival has moved indoors in recent years, inside the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. By contrast, the dancing troupes from Japan who visited Sydney two years ago demonstrated  energetic and stylish dances in scintillating costume, outdoors at Darling Harbour.

The dance favoured by the locals here is bitter-sweet and gentler by comparison. The older members of the Sydney Japan Club turn out in traditional kimono; they’ve been practising the dance for the occasion.  Japanese spectators, living or working here, get up slowly in kimono, some have dusted off their haori or kimono especially – though it obviously feels strange to be wearing kimono in this foreign land. Other women, with babies and infants, have turned up in kimono without obi or obijime. The most reluctant of all to get up and dance are the Aussie spouses and partners, dressed in everday clothes without a hint of anything Japanese. The austere and hesitant placement of hands by everyone forming a giant circle, with the recorded plucky shamisen in the background, brings the entire community together so they’re hardly aware of spectators or dancing in public.


Awa Dance Promotional Association. Origin: east Shikoku.
Dances/costumes: Awa Odori has been preserved and performed for more than 400 years. Dance band made up of drums, flute, shamisens and singer. Small group of male and female dancers. The women wear silk kimono (crepe silk in pale grey/pink with karabana and other motifs), black obi with pink obijime and dance in red and black geta with their feet leaning forward the whole time (!), with straw cloche hats; at the waist they carry a small bag on cord as well as a jade disk with knotted dangle – a netsuke and inro; men are dressed in festival hanten, heko obi and white tabi (the heavy-duty dancing type that zip apart at the heel). I gather that while Awa Odori might have started in Tokushima Pref., it must have been replicated in other places, like Shikoku.

The dancers in the dance troups were almost all very young, reminding me of the Japanese university students who enrol in traditional science/sport universities and study traditional dance as part of their degrees. Some of those from the Awa Dance Promotional Association however were older and remarkably stylish. I came away with the distinct impression that the “updating” of the music (only that of the ADPA was traditional with its oldtime dance band) is being used to attract the next generation to these dances, that there’s probably a lot of competition between dance groups in particular regions especially when it comes to vying for the honour of dancing overseas in places like Singapore, Hawaii, etc.

The first photo shows the dances preparing to line up; the second shows them lined up ready to start.


And they’re off!



The speed of the dance and the fact that the women are dancing on the front tips of their geta makes this visually spectacular.


Notice the square fans tucked into the back of the obi, as well as the obi accessories (inro and netsuke)- worn also by the men, as seen in the next set of photos.


This group is about to start their routine – a chance to capture costume design before the frenzy of the dance steps.

Kochi Yosakoi Naruko Odorikotai. Origin: Kochi City, Shikoku Island (south).

Dances/costumes: This Group has always participated at the birthplace of the Yosakoi Festival in Kochi. A dance of many dozens of performers, male and female, performed both in a fixed space and walking on parade. Note the vests with braided ties over long-sleeve tops with kimono-type necklines; note the coloured chirimen-silk flounces below the vest. Note that some carry the noisy clackers typical of folk dancing while others carry very modern-looking paper lanterns – here translated into the modern medium of black-and-white plastic with battery-powered lighting. The caps are quite unusual-looking for Japanese costume; I don’t know of any precedents. I wonder if this costume (among others at this event) is an entirely contemporary design in order to attract young people to the old art of folk dancing.


Dance marshalls bore large yuzen-made square flag banners (lots of American flag-type twirling). Modern recorded music, a cross
between disco, string orchestra and aerobic dance music.


This is the first of several sets of photos taken at the Festivals of Japan in Sydney event on 14 October 2006. 2006 was the 30th anniversary of the Australian-Japanese Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

My main aim was to try and record the detail of the folk dancers’ costumes – it’s not often that dance troupes visit from Japan. The performances by 16 different groups occured over 10 hours before thousands of people in sweltering heat – at 37C degrees, it was unseasonally summery weather.

This first photos are not of dance troupes, but of one of two visiting taiko drumming troupes:  the Nippon Taiko Foundation <Fugaku Taiko>, based at the foothills of Mount Fuji. The group provides therapy for the intellectually impaired and their performances are influenced by folk stories, myths and the natural world of Fuji-san.

The first photo is of their banner; note the back of the red/yellow/black happi coat worn by one of the drummers and the size of the largest of the drums on the outdoor stage.


Drummers putting drums into position on the stage. Note the obviously very modern swirl designs of the happi coats over black, imitating the spray of ink. White calligraphy linked to the white of the headbands.


The solo drummer at far left is being projected onto the giant screen far right.