Among Japan’s bountiful traditional cultural experiences, wearing kimono stands out as an opportunity that travelers can’t miss. Hundreds of shops near sightseeing areas (like Asakusa Sensoji Temple) offer daily kimono rentals across Japan, but you might find yourself lost among the seemingly endless options. If you’re looking for a truly immersive and educational experience, or if you want to try the finest-quality kimono Japan has to offer, head a few hours north of Tokyo to Yūki City, Ibaraki Prefecture to find the revered Yūki-tsumugi silk kimono.
Yūki-tsumugi (結城紬) silk stands out as one of the most superior types of Japanese woven fabrics, but contrary to most silk it isn’t shiny, nor is it smooth. Instead, the texture is rough, the appearance is simple, and yet this luxury fabric is made from a comfortable yarn that feels light, warm, and soft to the touch. The more a Yūki-tsumugi kimono is worn and washed, the comfier it feels and the better it fits the body. Its durability makes it possible for vintage kimonos to be passed down from grandparent to parent, and parent to child.
According to tradition, farmers in the Yūki region (now divided as Ibaraki and Tochigi Prefecture) created their clothing through a careful process by using silkworm cocoons that were deemed unsellable in markets. Whereas most silk fabrics at the time were spun from several filaments of separate cocoons, Yūki’s farmers tenderly spun each strand by hand one cocoon at a time. The unprecedented process caught the attention of artisans, and the first textile craft-houses to produce the material for consumers sprung up around 2,000 years ago.
Every step of the complex Yūki-tsumugi silk fabric production technique requires teams of skilled artisans using their hands and traditional tools. Each process takes years to master and making one kimono can take up to 5-6 months and 2,000 silk cocoons to complete, but machine-made kimonos can't match the quality. The unique system to make Yūki-tsumugi kimonos was inscribed as a Nationally Important Cultural Heritage by the Japanese government in 1956 and added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
A Quick Guide to the Production Process
1. Preparing the Silk Floss
First, the cocoons are boiled in a sodium bicarbonate solution for two hours. Once softened, they’re spread out in lukewarm water. By the end of the process, one sheet has five layers and can be stretched five feet across.
2. Spinning into Yarn
The silk sheet is spun around a wooden tube. Master spinners pull out the fibers one by one and bond them with saliva.
3. Kasuri Lumping Pattern Creation
The artisan might employ a method called kasuri kukuri to create a pattern. In this way, parts of the material are bound with cotton threads so that they don’t get stained during dyeing. In another approach, known as splash pattern, the dye is directly applied to the material using a spatula-like tool.
4. Tsumugi Weaving Technique
After threading the loom, the weaver uses a waist strap to adjust the tension of the warp threads as they comb in the weft threads with a reed and shuttle. This can take from a month to a year to complete depending on the final product.
Yūki-tsumugi silk is still produced in modern day Yūki City near the fertile lands of the Kinu River. It’s easy to find several cultural centers, museums, and shops dedicated to this distinguished silk fabric. If you arrive on the weekend between 10:00 and 15:00, you can rent a kimono for the day at the Kiraku Kimono Dressing Room conveniently located outside of Yūki Station. If you can’t make it during these days and hours, head to the Tourist Information Center also near the station to find a rental shop that matches your needs.
Among the many well-established Yūki-tsumugi textile companies is the esteemed Okujun group. Their lustrous and exceptionally light fabrics have garnered international attention, and Okujun designs have premiered in international exhibitions like Paris Fashion Week. Among their facilities is the Tsumugi-no-Yakata museum, shop, and workshop center housed in a complex of Japanese-style buildings that surround a tranquil courtyard. Here, you can learn the history of Yūki-tsumugi, browse (and touch) Okujun’s collections of traditional and modern designs in an exhibition hall, or take a class to try indigo dyeing or weaving for yourself.
Workshops are available by appointment. Choose from dying a cotton towel, bandana, and eco bag, or dye an authentic silk shawl. In a weaving class, you’ll have the rare opportunity to try the waist-tension (jibata) loom! Although you’ll learn traditional techniques, it won’t take months to complete your project. Workshops usually take from 30 minutes to about an hour depending on which hand-made/self-made souvenir you choose to take home to show your friends and family!
As of now, Tsumugi-no-Yakata only takes workshop reservations by phone. If you reside outside of Japan, you can contact us and we’ll take care of your booking for you!