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Today, if anyone pays tribute to the origins of Azabu’s name, it would be Amy Sylvestor Katoh. A prolific author of books on the spiritual heart of handicrafts and architecture in Japan, and a fervent supporter of rural and sustainable traditional arts, Katoh (75) is perhaps best known for her Azabu-Juban shop, Blue & White, which features indigo-dyed textiles. For 41 years, Blue & White has woven together Japanese and non-Japanese into a fabric of appreciation for handmade products.

Blue & White’s offerings—soft cotton yukata fabrics, mesmerizing stitched sashiko mandalas, and hand-built pottery items—are all selected by Katoh, who has a keen eye for both quality and charm. The narrow little shop is abuzz with customers, some of whom have come just to soak in Katoh’s intelligence and humor, and to hear her impassioned explanations of the artisans behind each object.

I ask Katoh what brought her to Japan. “I was a provincial young woman from Cohasset, Massachusetts, and I knew nothing of Japan,” she says, “except that we had fought a war. Then, one summer, I volunteered at a camp for the blind, and I met this young guy. I wasn’t aware of his nationality or anything; I was 16 and he was 19, and he was just a really funny fellow. Yuichi and I spent the whole summer with the blind, swimming, bowling, and water skiing together—all those things you’d think blind people cannot do.”

That formative summer spooled into three life changes for Amy. First, in 1962, she visited Japan and found herself enthralled with the people and the place, just barely recovered from the war. Second, she married the man who made her laugh, Yuichi, and moved to Japan. Third, she determined ways to continue helping the disadvantaged in society.

Katoh opened Blue & White in 1975, with two friends. “At that time, no one was paying any attention to Japanese craftsmanship. The Japanese themselves only bought stuff that was new or had a foreign label,” she says. “My friends and I knew that we had to support craftsmen and help them make items that were useful for the time, or they would disappear. Crafts are the strongest things that Japan has to offer, and the aesthetic tradition is Japan’s gift to the world. I want to let these traditions dance a little and go in new directions, and be relevant and exciting for us.”

Over the years, Katoh has launched the careers of several serious artisans, supported charity events for disaster victims, and even involved the mentally-challenged in the joy of creating crafts.

Katoh chose to set up shop in Azabu-Juban for several reasons. “It was, and still is, an amazing mixture here, of Koreans, foreign diplomats, yakuza—it’s the most melting-pot place in Japan,” she says. Additionally, her four children attended nearby Nishimachi International School, renowned for its bilingual education. “We all used to work here as kids,” her daughter, Mia (50), says with the eye-roll and gentle tolerance of all kids who get sucked into their parents’ businesses. “But you know, people from around the world, from those early days, still drop by. That’s important. I hope they will come find us when we have moved.”

Wait, moved?! “We’re just going next door,” Amy reassures me. From April, Blue & White’s iconic cement steps inlaid with pottery shards will be replaced by an escalator. Amy already feels nostalgic for her cozy shop of 41 years. “But,” she says, “our new place will be a young and energetic expression. Things are increasingly upmarket in Azabu, but, really, the concept of neighborhood is writ large here.”

Note: Blue & White’s soft opening is on April 10.

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.
If anyone pays tribute to the origins of Azabu’s name, it would be Amy Sylvestor Katoh.