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Back when Tokyo was known as Edo (1603–1868), the capital’s main konya-cho (dyer’s town) was located in Kanda, near an aqueduct. This made it convenient for the process called mizumoto, the unfurling of lengths of cloth to rinse clean in the natural downstream flow. However, as the city expanded, the dyers’ water source grew increasingly sullied. Artisans began to eye the pristine rushing rapids upstream, at Ochia, an area at the confluence of the Kanda and Myoshoji Rivers. Between the Meiji and Taisho periods (1868–1926), some 300 to 400 dyers hung their shingles out in Ochia, creating a new dyer’s center.

Today, few of these operations remain, and the rivers are no longer used for rinsing. But one dye works, Some-no-Sato Futaba-en (Dye town Futaba), is uniquely progressive and prospering.

Today, in Shinjuku Ward, the Myoshoji River still churns through what is now called Shimo-ochia. The waterway rushes past humble homes clinging to the river embankment, slicing through the soporific atmosphere of the neighborhood. In this setting, coming across Some-no-Sato Futaba-en is not unlike finding an iPad peeking out from a stack of ancient paperbacks. The dye atelier’s chic minimalistic concrete facilities, instructional display screens, and floor-to-ceiling windows that allow passersby to observe the dyeing process from outside, all resemble more a modern art museum than a production shop.

The somewhat camera-shy Motofumi Kobayashi, who represents his family’s fourth generation of dyers, and is the representative director of Futaba-en, intentionally designed his atelier this way. Noting the gradual shift in modern sensibilities to inexpensive and virtually disposable clothing, Kobayashi understands that the survival skills of traditional dyers cannot but be sorely tested. He also believes, however, that showing people the techniques used in traditional Edo era dyeing processes would give them a deeper appreciation of the art.

Standing outside Futaba-en’s windows, anyone strolling by can watch artisans Kengo Shibuya or Hanako Inoue applying dyes to 13-meter lengths of kimono fabric stretched and suspended from one end of the studio to the other like cirrus radiatus clouds. Producing both Edo Komon (a highly detailed resist-dyeing technique using handmade stencils developed during the Edo period) and Sarasa (a Japanese form of pattern dying evolved from Indian and Javanese techniques), the artisans pass deer-hair brushes laden with dye in a mesmerizing rhythm over the fabric. Next, they painstakingly examine every centimeter of the work with tweezers, picking out stray brush hairs that might mar the work’s perfection.

Recounting Futaba-en’s 96 years of history, Kobayashi reveals one of the secrets behind his company’s longevity. His great-grandfather, Shigeo Kobayashi, learned all he could about both Edo dying techniques and corporate business management. In 1920, when building his first production plant along the Myoshoji River, Shigeo split responsibilities with a partner, and set up Futaba-en. The company’s crest—of two interconnected arrows—reflects the respect the two men had for each other’s strengths. Today, Kobayashi spearheads the business end of Futaba-en, “but I could get nowhere without the artisans who craft our wares,” he says, “They are essential.”

Kobayashi also attributes Futaba-en’s prosperity, at least in part, to cutting out the middleman in sales. “For a long time, department stores handled our goods, and because we are local—not dyers from remote areas of Japan—it wouldn’t do for customers to discover they could come to us directly, just 10 minute’s drive from Shinjuku, and get goods for reduced prices,” he explains, “so, our existence was sort of kept under wraps. Now, I’ve decided that we need people to know we’re here.”

To entice visitors, Kobayashi has set up an attractive gift shop with unusual fabric goods—hair clips with fabric encased in acrylic, phone straps shaped like mini kimonos, pillow covers, etc. Futaba-en also offers classes in various dyeing techniques. But most significantly, Kobayashi intends to revive Ochia’s pride in its colorful history.

In 2009, he was instrumental in organizing an annual three-day festival in the district, the Some no Komichi (Small streets of dyers). Last year, more than 15,000 people attended, and the entire town got involved; in 2017, Kobayashi anticipates even larger crowds at the February 24–26 event.

Between setting up festivals, managing sales, and holding exhibitions in Europe, Kobayashi also sponsors events where the locals learn to concoct natural dyes from recycled onion skins, or bitter persimmons. “You know, I heard that Ochia used to have a thriving persimmon-growing business,” Kobayashi says with a gleam in his eye, “and looking around, I found that, sure enough, there are many very old persimmon trees everywhere here.” Kobayashi’s plan for the future includes having nearly every private balcony or roof in Ochia growing indigo plants for dyeing projects. Ambitious? Yes, but the man is dye-hard.

Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.
Showing people the techniques . . . give them a deeper appreciation of the art.