Upcoming Exhibition



This is official!

With the support of l’Association de Jumelage Rennes-Sendai (http://www.rennes-sendai.fr/) and Fondation Franco-Japonaise Sasakawa (http://ffjs.org), The Dorayaki Project turns into MINGEYE – dans l’œil de l’artisan, an exhibition + conference to share a little bit of my research adventure in Japan.

Between March and May 2018, I took part in the artist-in-residence program at MORIUMIUS with The Dorayaki Project. It is an action-based research that questions the role of craftspeople in Japanese society.

Next month, in Rennes (France), I will present an exhibition of pictures and also do a talk to share my findings, as far as Japanese craftsmanship is concerned.
This is another opportunity for me to thank MORIUMIUS team for their kindness and support when I was there, as well as all stakeholders who helped me in this project.

Cheers to all! And see you soon!

Exhibition from October 22nd to November 02nd, 2019, at Maison Internationale de Rennes

[Interview Highlights] Matsue Chiba & Soichiro Chiba, Shouaihiyashizome (indigo dye) craftspeople


At first, Matsue and Soichiro (Matsue’s son) were reluctant to let me meet them, visit their workshop and carry out an interview. Now that I know more about them and about their work, I do understand: this is the most stressful time of the year for Shouaihiyashizome (indigo dye). If this step does not work as planned, the color will not come out properly and will not stick onto the fabric. Therefore, all work and effort made during the whole year would be vain. Let’s jump in the blue, blue dye.


Unlike many other craftspeople I previously met, Matsue and Soichiro do not depend on Shouaihiyashizome to make a living. Resources they benefit from come from farming and other jobs. To put it in other words: they do not do Shouaihiyashizome for money, they do it for passion. Or, more accurately, to maintain the tradition and keep the craft tradition alive. “Because this technique is something that is disappearing, what I want more than anything else is making sure that it continues on”, Matsue states.


Handing knowledge over?

When I ask about who will take over the indigo dye work, Soichiro tells me “I have a niece who will continue”. They would prefer to keep the knowledge and practice within the family, rather than teaching to an apprentice who would not be part of the family. There is no actual indigo dye community: “There is another place, in which we taught how to do it, so they probably do the same way as here, but I haven’t have talked to them in a long time, so I don’t know exactly how they are doing it now, if they are doing it the same way or not, but originally we taught them”, Soichiro says.


A simple recipe for a difficult word

“We use the indigo plant and ash from charcoal, and water, that is the three things we need really”. Amazing. “You could do it pretty much anywhere!”. However, the most difficult part is not getting a piece of land or building facilities. It is about mastering the gestures and techniques of the craft. “People think it can be done very easily, and then we explain how to use the ash and how to do the fermentation and all kind of things, then usually people think “oh no, that sounds too difficult”, so, they don’t want to do it”, Soichiro notes .


The most stressful time of the year

As I wrote in introduction, indigo dye challenge is to reach the right texture, otherwise it will not stick to the fabric. As a result, “everything has to be really clean. And if it’s not, then something might stop the fermentation happening properly and so color doesn’t come out”. Handcream, dust or dirt are to be avoided at all costs.

“Two year ago, we had troubles with the color. So – because there was a lot of rain, that year, there was floods, and so the mud came into the fields, so the plant got dirty from that. The whole year’s work is like, gone, because of that. There was nothing that we could do that year”


Global warming

On the top of this critical issue comes global warming, related to indigo growing and harvesting. “The thing that I worry about the most is climate change. Because what we’ve been taught all over the years is when to plant, harvest and everything, but now the climate is changing, I am worried that we’ll have to change that, so I need to study a bit more and see if we should change the schedule to fit the way the climate is changing. We might have to change what we have been doing for hundreds of years”, Soichiro highlights.


Difference between factory-made and handmade indigo dye

For someone who does not know so much about indigo dye, they could not tell the difference between (hand-made) Shouaihiyashizome and factory-made indigo dye. Moreover, “you can make any color if you use artificial dye, the artificial dye is like poisonous”, Soichiro specifies. The difference I found the most interesting though, was that Shouaihiyashizome as made by Chiba family is non-toxic! The liquid part of indigo waste can be thrown in the river. And it is perfectly legal.


The pleasant sides of being a craftsman

“When we make something nice, when it comes out really nice and pretty, it makes us feel happy”, Soichiro says. The most interesting things being that they do it the same way every year and the outcome is always a bit different. They cannot really control that. There is a part left to chance!


Hard to master or modesty?

At age 68, Soichiro is not sure if he could do Shouaihiyashizome alone. Since a couple of years, he really started doing indigo dye full-time. He retired from his job, so he has been doing it as his main occupation for the last two years. However, if was is told to do it by himself, he doesn’t think he could. “Even if I have been watching them doing since he was a little boy”. We cannot really be sure how long it would take to master the craft. My guess is: a lifetime.


Ayano Chiba

Ayano Chiba was the grandmother of Matsude’s husband. She was recognized as a National Treasure in 1955. Matsue also received a distinction. “I felt happy that I was able to protect the tradition and then I felt the importance of maintaining. So, it was a reward for all the hard work and all. Everything that I had to do.”


Color fade

“When you dye, it looks really good… then the color looks weaker and weaker, so we have to let it rest for a while, let it rest a day or two, and then the color comes back again, and we make it dye again”. The indigo is a living thing! When I came up with the idea of a painting on canvas and recording a timelapse video to capture colors changing, it seems that I went against the will of the indigo god. “If you do strange funny things [with the indigo dye], the indigo god would get angry”, Soichiro says.


How can The Dorayaki Project help Shouaihiyashizome?

“I would like you to say in the blog, to anybody, that this is probably the only place in the whole world they do this and so, they really want to protect it and keep it going”. Soichiro’s words.


Many thanks to Matsue Chiba and Soichiro Chiba! 


You can visit their shop in Kurihara, Miyagi

112 Kajiya, Kurikomamonji, Kurihara-shi, Miyagi
989-5361 JAPAN




Sakurai Kokeshi, traditional Kokeshi Craftsmakers


Contribution to craftsmanship

Kokeshi is a traditional product of Miyagi. This craft is designated as a national traditional craft of Japan. Kokeshi is a fully hand-made wooden doll with a painted human-like face. The Sakurai Kokeshi company is located in Naruko-Onsen, a retreat and wellness place for hot springs. Kokeshi began as a souvenir and developed in that way.

In the Sakurai family, Kokeshi are decorated with very carefully and skillfully painted flowers, which gives the product an elegant and refined look. It comes from the fact that the Sakurai family originally found lots of inspiration from their artistic sides. That made the Sakurai family’s craftspeople more likely to explore various designs.

What is the hardest part in training to become a Kokeshi maker?

For Sakurai Akihiro, the father, wood carving is the most technical step. In addition there is the difficulty of turning your imagination into a living Kokeshi; “it is difficult to realize what you are imagining”.

Motivations for becoming a Kokeshi craftsperson

Sakurai Kokeshi has been a family business for five generations. Sakurai Akihiro, the father, grew up “watching [his] father work with Kokeshi”. When a passion arises, there is no need to justify it: “I just simply like making things”. His son, Sakurai Naomichi, initially went his own professional way before coming back to the family business. Together, they are thinking about innovative ways to develop their craft.

Making the Kokeshi business more sustainable

The first way is expanding market territory. That is why the Sakurai Kokeshi company now offers international shipping. However, utilizing domestic talent remains a trusted source when it comes to being united. Sakurai Kokeshi was part of some collaborative projects organised by the Japanese Ministry of Trade Economy, in which domestic designers were involved. Some cross-disciplinary collaborations with artists lead to electronic music performances that included samples of wood carving (!).

Valuing local communities

There is definitely a community of Kokeshi makers. They unite for the local Kokeshi festival in Naruko. Sometimes, they go together to Tokyo, to showcase their products or take part in events. They also act together on a business-level, for example co-purchasing raw material.

This sense of community is not known only to Kokeshi makers. Naomichi also collaborates with other talent, thanks to the Koshiki Project. In this project, he shares what he feels is important, rich and unique about Naruko and its citizens: “I wanted to contribute to the Naruko community with Kokeshi”, Naomichi explains.

Cultural highlights about Japan

Historically, being an apprentice in Japan and learning a craft meant the master “just look[ed] at you work on Kokeshi, and they figure out themselves”, Naomichi states. So, no matter how an apprentice learns how to see through their master’s back, there is a time when “l’élève dépasse le maître” [the apprentice becomes more skilled than his or her master]. This French saying seems very appropriate here. However, “stealing the skill of your master is not necessarily a bad thing; that is what you have to do”, Naomichi explains. However, this might lead to complex issues regarding industrial property. In earlier times, for instance, there was no way for the Sakurai family to protect their unique flower designs.

Useful tips for someone who wants to become a Kokeshi craftsperson

You can start by attending Kokeshi painting workshops to experience and express your creativity! If you are really into Kokeshi making, the simplest task remains wood preparation – peeling off the wood. Moreover, in the future, Sakurai Kokeshi plans to open up to the most motivated and curious people, nationals and internationals. Sakurai Kokeshi company is currently working on how to integrate this new kind of workforce. Learning by doing remains the motto! If you really want to become a Kokeshi apprentice, and, later on, a master, start making your own tools! Just like a fountain pen is tinged with his owner’s gestures and influences writing style, each Kokeshi craftsperson makes his or her own personalised tools. Let’s call it a personal “toolprint”! “So each person’s characteristics is reflected on the tool”, Akihiro explains. That is what brings this vibrancy in the Kokeshi – as well as the spontaneous and generous laugh of Akihiro that resonates in the shop!


Special thanks to Sakurai Akihiro, Sakurai Naomichi, Saito Takaharu, Tanaka Ulala, Roger Smith for making this visit happen! 

For more Kokeshi stories, please visit Sakurai Kokeshi’s website: http://en.sakuraikokeshiten.com/ 


Ishinomaki (off the beaten track)

Last Wednesday in Naruko, I met with Sakurai Kokeshi’s team. Roger, who was part of the team, recommended that I meet one of his friends, Dennis “you should really meet him somehow”). So here I am! On Thursday, on my way back to Ogatsu, I met Dennis in Ishinomaki. We could share opinions about local communities, social innovation and craftsmanship. He is really involved in letting students (local and international ones) get together, share ideas and turn words into action about revitalizing communities in specific local areas.

He showed me around, letting me know about the behind-the-scenes recovery story in Ishinomaki “city center” (in the Ishinomaki Station area). It seems like people here got the energy, creativity and resilience to build a whole new network of warm places where you can come along and get to know new people. Good news is that foreigners are also invited to take action in favour of Japan’s will for creation and innovation.

Make sure to visit Dennis’s company’s website and get to learn more about local projects carried out by international teams at Sosei Partners

This picture was taken at IRORI Cafe. This location is part of Ishinomaki 2.0 network.