Isil Bayraktar is one of only two paid-up members of WiK who are not native speakers of English. She comes from Turkey and while studying in Kyoto is working freelance for Turkish publications. She has been much taken with Kyoto’s literary heritage, drawing inspiration in her own unique way to write contemporary accounts of the city that are rooted in its traditions. Here she takes as her source a passage from Koto (Old Capital) by the Nobel prize winner Kawabata Yasunari which was first published in 1962 (Eng tr 1987). It concerns Nishijin, Kyoto’s traditional weaving area, which already in Kawabata’s time was in sorry decline. (For a good account of this on film, see Nishijin Shimai (Sisters of Nishijin), made in 1952 and written by Kaneto Shindo, known for his work with Mizoguchi and very much a Kyoto specialist.)


A Weaver at the Nishijin Textile Center

Işıl Bayraktar

“The streets were also clean in the area around Nishijin, where the small, dispirited kimono shops huddled together. Dust never collected even on the fine latticework of the doors.”

—Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital, p. 40


I couldn’t have known I would meet him at the Nishijin Textile Center. I had been searching around Nishijin, but the small impoverished shops of Kawabata’s novel had already closed down, so finally I decided to stop by the Textile Center to see whether I could find kimonos similar to the ones mentioned in the book. My Japanese mother took me, but still I didn’t have much hope of meeting him there.

There were two men at work, one of whom was drawing on a textile fabric. A middle-aged man, he concentrated on his design. He smiled at us, and we smiled back. Then, we approached the other, the weaver.

His old and faithful hands were marked with veins, spots spreading all over his arms and face, hair starting to fall out, glasses with thick lenses far from his eyes, a hearing aid that brought voices into his ears, the valley of his chin deepening with his labors and his brown yukata that smelled of vitality. He plumbed the depths of the fabric in front of him, moving closer to then farther from it; he was drawing, with a dance of needle and thread, an ornament.

I watched him in admiration. I tried to guess his age, but in vain. I couldn’t have imagined that he was 85 years old judging by his energy which flowed through him as he concentrated on the ornament. Then we figured it out: he must have dedicated 65 years of his life to kimono. All those years with obi textiles, needle and thread, draw-loom, patterns, ornaments, cherry blossoms, wood lilies and hyacinths! Now the thick lenses spoke of someone who had been looking intently at textile fabrics for 65 years.

“My name is Yukihara. I was born in Muromachi in Kyoto. Muromachi is famous for kimono textiles, and Nishijin for obi textiles. I spent my childhood in the Muromachi area. There were kimono shops there at the time. My father was the owner of one of those shops. He used to get up very early in the morning to go to his factory. The back of his shop was an atelier with looms. He wove obis and kimonos there, and put them in the front of the shop to be sold. He was one of the prominent weavers of that time.

“Customers from Muromachi and other areas always visited my father’s shop first. The patterns and the colors changed every season and were quite different from those of other weavers. Nobody knew how he produced such kimonos with varied patterns and found the best combinations. I was the only person who knew his secret.

“On his days off, my father used to go alone to visit obscure temples and shrines. He came home inspired by what he had seen in those places. After eating, quickly, a meal prepared by my mother, he would head for his atelier. I realized when I was ten that my father weaved his best kimonos after these outings to temples and shrines.

“One Sunday afternoon, he took me to the Zuishin-in Temple near Ono Station. It was February, and we walked in half-cold, half-sunny light under the reddish shadow of plum blossoms. My father walked among them, as if he were engraving traces in his mind, listening to the whispering trees, taking in the warm smell in the air, and watching the swinging plums in the grip of the wind.

“If you ask me, he was not simply looking at everything, but absorbing them into his imagination. When he passed the stone monument at the entrance to the temple where a waka poem by the famous beauty Ono-no-Komachi is inscribed, he started to recite the lines. There, again, I could see that he was not just reading the poem but also moving into another dimension full of images of Zuishin-in and creating patterns in his mind’s eye. I held my breath and watched in admiration.”

The way Yukihara-san, the weaver, told the story, it seemed his father resembled the weaver in Kawabata’s Kyoto, set in earlier times. He also would go to famous places in order to make drafts for his kimonos. Did it mean all the weavers of Kyoto do that? But if that were the case, would his father’s outings have impressed Yukihara-san so much?

Yukihara continued. “I was much influenced by the poem on his lips. As the poem and everything in Zuishin-in moved him so deeply, it was impossible for me not to be affected. I was only ten years old, very young, but when I saw his passion and dedication, something in me matured. I began to understand my father’s reason for getting up early and running to his atelier. When we ran out of materials, he used to call me and say, ‘Yukihara-kun, please bring me this or that.’

“Sometimes I hesitated to go and bring what he asked for, but after that outing I stopped hesitating and became a son who would do whatever his father asked him. From that day I saw his work as art.”

There was a pause, and I asked, “What exactly did you see, Yukihara-san?”
He continued.

“I saw the traces of Zuishin-in in that kimono. After we came back from the temple, he ate a little and ran into his atelier as he always did. He told me not to disturb him. Usually when he worked, I used to go into his room from time to time with lame excuses and watch him, but that day he said, ‘Please do not enter the room until I finish my work, Yukihara-kun.’ I hovered near the door, but just as I promised I did not enter. In fact, I fell asleep in front of the door. My father had worked till dawn that day, or so my mother told me when I woke up. Then I went to his room and saw the most beautiful work of art, a kimono. I was a child but I still remember that I was overcome by the wonder of that kimono.

“It was predominantly purple., with scattered pink, black, and green motifs. I was sure the green was that of the Zuishin-in garden, the purple was that of the plum blossom, and the black was that of the monument to Ono-no-Komachi. There was black also on the back of the kimono, which I thought might have a negative meaning but when I looked at the kimono in its entirety, I saw the face of Ono-no-Komachi. My mother thought I was exaggerating, but I was convinced my father had woven her image into the kimono.”

Yukihara-san and I looked at each other, and I thought I understood him. Inspired by his father, he had decided to be a weaver from a young age.

He continued. “After that outing, whenever my father said he would go to a temple, I insisted on going with him. He always wanted to go alone, but as he realized I was not going to disturb him, he didn’t refuse and I was able to join him. Thanks to these outings, I could see how he drew patterns in his mind. It helped develop my own imagination and visual memory.

“Actually, I wasn’t doing well at school, except for painting classes. Then I started to perceive the classes as something more than school work, and I began painting with a passion. When I showed the pictures to my teacher, he was surprised at my creativity and encouraged me to take them to exhibitions, and called me ‘little artist.’ And so I wanted to be a painter, not a weaver. I wanted to paint pictures for kimonos and take my obis from the sky. For me, a kimono that I weave only belongs to one person, but when I paint I believe it can reach out to everybody in the world. For me, woven fabrics symbolize mortality, whereas kimono paintings stand for immortality.”

It seemed to me the 85 year old was himself a symbol of immortality, though I didn’t say anything to him but continued listening.

“Although my father was one of the prominent weavers of the Muromachi area and he always had customers, we were not a rich family. We were five brothers and I was the eldest son. Do you know what it means to be the eldest son in a Japanese family? The meaning has been changing recently; children have started to live separately from their families, and siblings do not take responsibility for the younger ones.

“In my time, almost 60 years ago, we lived all together and I shared the responsibility for covering the expenses of my siblings’ education, weddings and other things. When I grew up, it became a responsibility to be shared with my father. My father knew that I wanted to go to art school, but he did not have enough money for it. I could not spend what I earned on myself, knowing that my younger brothers were in need. We talked about this only once with my father; he got upset, so did I. Having realized that it would not be possible for me to go to art school, I dedicated myself to kimonos, as my father did before me.

“I started to compose paintings that I had always wanted to after that day, for obis, kimonos, and other textiles. That’s why the biggest praise for the kimonos that I weave has always been, ‘It is like a painting.’ I would not exchange the happiness given me by these words for any other thing in the world. For me, the person who says such a thing transforms into an angel who flies up into the sky to spread out the kimono for all to see. I have the feeling the sleeves of the kimono are flung open and the obi unwound so that all the patterns are freed and come alive. While all this happens, I imagine everyone on the ground is watching the spectacle. It is as if another universe is created by the patterns in the sky, which circle the earth like a sphere.

“If I can still do this job at my age, it is because of the hope that people will think that my kimono are like paintings and enable me to spread patterns across the sky.”

On our way back, I looked at my Japanese mother and we tried to imagine a sky full of kimono patterns. It seemed to us that even now the Nishijin spirit of Kawabata Yasunari lives on in the city.