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Dye atelier Tomita Some Kogei has been located in Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo, near the Kanda Aqueduct, since 1914. Dyers used to rinse out their fabrics in the river rapids here until the 1960s, when interior facilities were mandated.

Today, the atelier is tucked behind a wall and obscured by shadows from a trellis of lush and fruiting grape vines. If I weren’t familiar with the workshop, it’d be easy to miss it.

But Tomita Some Kogei is all about beauty hidden in plain sight, I muse, stooping to pat the atelier’s plump resident cat. For example, Tomita’s most famous product is kimono fabric known as Edo Komon, resist-dye work achieved with stencils so intricately cut that the resulting patterns are virtually invisible from two meters away.

The style evolved during the Edo Period (1603–1868), when laws governing luxury forbade the newly prosperous merchant class to wear ostentatious kimono styles, which were reserved for the higher classes.

However, people found that they could pass under the radar with exquisitely detailed and subtly shaded Edo Komon fabrics which, when viewed from a short distance, appear undecorated. Only close inspection reveals the fabric’s profound refinement and extravagance.

Fifth-generation atelier owner, Atsushi Tomita (67), whom I’ve known for almost a decade, is quick to point out that the price for such a kimono today, compared with that of handmade haute couture dresses, is not ruinously expensive.

“If you buy directly from us, the average kimono runs about ¥150,000,” he says, with a shrug. The problem, he quickly adds, is that people don’t wear kimono much anymore. “In fact, I’d say about 90 percent of all young women in Japan don’t know how to dress themselves in kimono,” Tomita says
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As we head to his office, I note that, somehow, Tomita doesn’t appear distraught about the flagging kimono business; instead, there’s almost a spring in his step.

“As you know, my great-great-grandfather moved from Kyoto to Asakusa [in Tokyo], where our company opened near Senso-ji in 1882,” he says. “Then we moved upriver, to this location, for cleaner water. Here, we’ve survived the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, World War II bombing, and many other hardships.

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But, as I watched the kimono lose popularity, I finally told myself I’d done what I could for the family business. I thought my ancestors wouldn’t hold it against me if I quietly closed things down,” he confides. “Plus, my son, Takashi, had gone off to see the world—Singapore and Australia—and I thought he’d never come home.”

However, Takashi did come home. “Then, he announced at our New Year’s gathering, in front of the whole family, that he would succeed me,” Tomita says. “We were all in tears. He said that even if I quit, he would persevere, and be the sixth generation to head up our business. At that moment, I realized I have to work harder than ever to help this business survive.”

Necessity surely nurtures invention, but it’s also a powerful elixir of youth, I think, as I watch Tomita present his current line of products. He unrolls elegant dyed silk ties and pocket squares, created from the same material traditionally used for kimono lining.

The works are printed half with a subtle Edo Komon pattern, and half with Iware Komon, or slightly humorous patterns of animals or everyday objects. Tomita’s product benefits from packaging created by 3D design expert Yuko Minamide, part of a collaboration sponsored by Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s Tokyo Crafts & Design 2012. The result is a chic product that doesn’t compromise Tomita’s traditional know-how.

“We’re trying to appeal to senior men with these products,” Tomita says. “After retiring, older guys tend to wear casual clothes—sweatshirts and stuff—but they should sharpen up a little. These items are for the rakish older guy, you know, the senior Casanova.” I nod, knowing the type.

Next, Tomita unfolds a tunnel-woven gossamer silk stole dyed in the Sarasa style, a Japanese stencil-based version of Calico printing on silk. Because the fabric is dyed flat, both layers of the funnel are printed at the same time; the resulting doubled image—slightly offset by movement when one handles or adjusts the stole—has a cinematic visual quality that is breathtaking. I’m ready to go into debt to buy it.

But Tomita is suddenly called to a meeting. He sends me off to the workshop area of the atelier, and I dash inside just as the heavens open in a heavy June downpour. Rain brings out the atelier’s potpourri of old wood, deer fur dye brushes, and rice-based dye pastes. As a storm drums overhead, I enjoy watching one of Tomita’s skilled artisans work on a 13-meter length of kimono cloth under the light of a single naked bulb.

The process of making kimono fabrics is complex and mesmerizing. Organic dyes are churned into steaming rice to make resist paste and sleek wooden spatulas are used to squeegee the pastes through paper katagami stencils onto silk stretched on long boards. The stencils, made of layered washi (traditional Japanese paper) and reinforced with persimmon extract before being painstakingly hand-cut by highly specialized artisans in Ise City, are themselves magnificent works of art.

Background dye colors are then applied, and sawdust is gently sifted onto fabric so the layers don’t stick together during the steaming process that sets the dye. Finally, the cloth is rinsed in a miniature concrete “river” inside the atelier.

Several years ago, Tomita volunteered to have his atelier designated a Shinjuku mini-museum. Although it’s hard to host guests at one’s workplace—and, thus, appointments are requested and group fees apply—Tomita knows that the approximately 1,200 visitors he entertained last year now have uncommon knowledge of the Komon world.

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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.

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Only close inspection reveals the fabric’s profound refinement and extravagance.