Sunday, July 8, 2007

Japan --- Part III

I didn't seem to have a photo of the Silk Museum so this one of the statue at the entrance is borrowed from the official website of the Museum.

Silk was a major export from Yokohama for many years after the opening of the port, in fact right up until the Second World War and the Yokohama Silk Museum was opened in 1959 to celebrate the centenary of the port. It became one of the few museums in the world devoted to silk and I spent quite a long time exploring this wonderful subject.

The museum was well laid out, with interesting displays showcasing various aspects of silk, including its origin from the cocoon of the humble silkworm. Of course the silkworm isn't really a worm but part of the life cycle of the Bombyx mori. The first stage is the egg stage which develops into the larval stage which is what we call the silkworm. The larva feeds voraciously on the leaves of the mulberry tree and then forms a cocoon for protection while it develops into the pupa. This cocoon is the source of the silk which is reeled off the cocoon and spun into thread which is dyed and woven into cloth. Finally the pupa metamorphoses into the moth which is the breeding stage, for the adults mate and the female lays the eggs which start the 8 -10 week cycle. The moths are flightless and have no mouths, therefore are unable to take nutrition. Their sole purpose is reproduction. The eggs remain in periods of hibernation during cold weather and so displays of live silkworms at the museum occur only in the summer months.

I want to make an aside here to tell you about a small charming book I read some years ago in Italian. It's called Seta or Silk in English, by Alessandro Baricco. It tells the story of a young French merchant who travels four times to Japan in the 1860s to buy the eggs for the silk industry in his area of France. There he encounters the young female companion of a Japanese warlord with whom he has dealings. Although they never speak or make physical contact he becomes enchanted with her. This very compelling novella narrates this charming tale for which I have given you only a teaser and is also available for your enjoyment in both English and French that I know of and no doubt other languages.

The process involved in the removal of the silk from the cocoon as well as the weaving and dyeing of the yarn is shown in this museum. The history of silk, both throughout the world and specifically in Japan is displayed, along with how we use silk in our everyday lives. Many different techniques are used to weave silk and different types of silk clothing are displayed. Fortunately everything is well documented in English as well as Japanese.

Of course one of the highlights for me was the wonderful collection of kimonos and obi, or the very wide sash used to close the kimono, which were displayed in this museum. I don't have any photos so maybe you weren't allowed to photograph inside the museum. I don't recall this. Below is a photo of one of the exquisite kimonos taken from the website of the museum. I shall tell you later what a Japanese lady told me about the wearing of the kimono in her life.

Now the kimono is actually an overgarment, worn by both men and women, but now mostly by women only. The fabric for a kimono comes in a bolt called a tan and the whole bolt is used to make the kimono which itself consists of four panels of fabric joined usually by hand sewing, two for the body and one each for the sleeves. The designs woven into the fabric are very intricate and make a beautiful pattern across the garment, often with different designs for different seasons of the year. For women there is only one size and it is made to fit by tucking and folding and closing with the obi. Later in the stores I saw beautiful kimonos and obi for sale, but you would not have believed the prices. I saw kimonos for $10,000 dollars and up, with the obi often running to $2000 or more and you must remember this was more than 15 years ago. But these items were works of art and as you can imagine the ones in the museum were of the finest quality and design.

This museum was one of the most interesting I have ever visited and since I was there outside of the main tourist season I happily wandered about undisturbed by few other patrons.

After the port was established many Chinese merchants came to Yokohama and they settled into an area that became known as Nanking Town. It really began to expand after the Second World War and was renamed Chinatown. A very interesting gate, the Zenrin-mon Gate was built at the entrance to the area and other gates were built within so that there are now ten located throughout Chinatown. This very thriving busy area houses more than 500 shops and restaurants, however I did not spend a lot of time here since we have a very large Chinatown in Vancouver and I had come to see Japan after all. You can also see that it was raining in the only rather poor photo I took on that occasion.

Next time join me on a trip to Kamakura, accompanied by K, the Japanese professor, to see the Daibutsu or Great Buddha.


Eurodog said...

JMB, fascinating.
As you know I have read Silk by Bariccio. It's an enchanting little book. Charming in fact.
I like the idea of the kimono being one size.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

One of your best, jmb. What a fascinating museum that must be. I'd love to see those kimonos. Thanks for the reminder about the book - I must look out for it.

Ellee said...

I love the kimonoe, I don't associate them with men, but now I can picture it from memory. Each kimono must have a special story to tell.

ipanema said...

I really love their silk kimono. One of my Japanese ex-student wore one during a presentation years ago, and it was soo beautiful.

Janice Thomson said...

I do love the Japanese designs and their paintings. Would have enjoyed the museum as you did. Silk is a fascinating and wonderful material but $10,000 for a kimono? Wow! Kimonos are definitely beautiful garments though. Looking forward to the Great Buddha post too.

jmb said...

Hi Eurodog,
I'm glad that you enjoyed Silk too.
The men's kimono's are made in sizes but the women's no. I'm sure if you know the secret there's no problem, or perhaps you need a helper.

jmb said...

Hi Welshcakes,
I thought this museum was incredible and the kimonos were gorgeous.
I can't believe you haven't read Seta.

jmb said...

Hi Ellee,
the kimonos were gorgeous, and the ones with the scenery across the back were unbelievable.
I saw only a few old people in simple cotton blue kimonos in the streets but some were old men.

jmb said...

Hi ipanema,
I have a Japanese friend who does the tea ceremony for my group on occasion and she wears a very special kimono for that.

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
The designs on the kimonos take an enormous amount of work. I'm sure that as well as the cost of producing the woven silk fabric explains the high cost of the kimono. They were indeed some of the most beautiful things I have seen.

Josie said...

JMB, that was fascinating. The kimono in the photograph is exquisite. My brother once brought a kimono back from Japan for my mother. She was very petite and looked wonderful in it. It was various shades of pale green, with floral designs on it.


Lee said...

Of course, Como is the big silk centre in Italy. I'd love to go to Como. Interesting post, jmb...thanks for sharing it with us.

jmb said...

Hi Josie,
I'm sure your brother didn't pay $10,000 for it but it was a wonderful gift for your mother.
Many kimonos have flower designs on them, they reflect the seasons too, so that in spring you would wear spring flowers, in autumn, ones with autumn colours and leaves, etc.
It sounds like your mother's was spring or summer.

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
Yes Como is indeed a big silk centre. I have been there and bought some silk fabric and some beautiful scarves. My daughter's inlaws have a place on Lake Como, very close to the town of Como and I have stayed there with them.