There is something beautifully idyllic about the hammering and brushing noises from Mr Makita’s workshop, deep inside the backstreets of Downtown Tokyo. The early-Show era this may no longer be, but an early-Showa era business this most definitely is. Welcome to Ichiru, a kimono shop that is truly one of a kind.
Until recently, Ichiru used to be known as Koromoya, the elegant Japanese word for “clothing house.” The business was founded in 1938 by the grandfather of Tadaaki Nezu, who still runs that part of the company today. Originally based in Niigata, the kimono-maker switched to its current Ningyocho base in 2003, reportedly becoming the only such business in the country to house design, manufacturing and sales under the same roof. But that was only part of the journey.
Earlier in 2012, Koromoya signed a groundbreaking agreement with kimono school Ichiru which meant that the building’s large tatami-clad second-floor space could be used for kimono dressing lessons. The result: arguably the most ambitious traditional dress establishment in Japan, providing every aspect of kimono expertise within the same four Ningyocho walls. For the foreign visitor, this is a cultural gem not to be missed.
“We very much welcome foreign guests,” said the dressing teacher, Okada-sensei, fully looking the part in her resplendent silk-grey variant. “It would be my pleasure to show them how to put on a kimono – free of charge. We’d take a beautiful photo of course.” Okada-sensei, a highly competent English speaker, is certainly better placed than most to explain the beauty behind the kimono to foreign tourists. A genuine Japanese fashion expert, she has been running kimono classes for over 15 years.
“It is true that young people don’t wear kimonos so much anymore,” she says with a hint of regret in her emotional eyes. “But many students come to take the lessons and that is refreshing to see. The kimono really is a beautiful part of Japanese culture.” Ichiru reveals exactly how beautiful it is.
The youthful Mr Nezu, also a highly accomplished English speaker, has guided many people through the kimono production process over the years in his customary affable manner. He begins by ascending the numerous steps to the third floor attic area, where the indefatigable Ms Gomi brushes and cuts away at historic print patterns. Ms Gomi has been in the trade for over 30 years, and her tight yet cozy workroom is filled to the brim with books chronicling every design she has produced in that time.
Ms Gomi is quite simply a living link to the golden age of kimono-making. When we visited her, she was carefully carving out the pattern of a famous Japanese design: the Edo-bingata.
“This design originally came from the Ryukyu Islands (including present-day Okinawa),” Mr Nezu knowledgably explains. “In those days it was simply known as bingata. Then, in the Taisho Era (1912-25) it started becoming popularized in Tokyo and Kyoto. Design thus branched into two styles: the Edo-bingata (Tokyo) and the Kyoto-bingata.”
As Ms Gomi carves with the utmost dexterity, Mr Nezu makes his key revelation. “In Kyoto, I believe there are only three establishments that continue to hand-make the Kyoto-bingata,” he claims. “And in Tokyo, only one place does. Here.”
Noticing the sheer volume of work produced by one person, and upon which the company sorely depends, it seemed apt to ask if Ms Gomi had actually trained a successor. Not as of yet, said Mr Nezu. “We get people apply every year. Young fashion students straight out of university – people like that. But these days, they don’t have a realistic idea of how much training they need to do. Sure, some people are taken on, but within a few months they find it’s too difficult for them, and they leave.”
Mr Makita is also without a successor. Day after day, this slender bespectacled man in his early seventies applies his muscle-bound arms to the art of pattern coloring and dyeing. Forever in his white t-shirt and black workman’s apron, his grey hair sparkling under the bright overhead lights, Mr Makita is the consummate manual laborer, 100% focused on his job, applying dye after dye with mechanical precision – never seeming to take a break. His workshop is fully visible via a giant window connecting with the adjacent sales space, meaning customers can get priceless views of his master craftsmanship whenever they visit.
The kimono patterns themselves, of course, are all purposefully themed. Ms Gomi’s walls are pasted with designs of every Zodiac animal for people born in that particular year. A turtle design, on the other hand, is for people who wish to celebrate a milestone birthday. As Mr Nezu coolly explains: “The turtle is said to live for 1000 years, so it symbolizes long life.”
The sales area is plush and modern, a true statement of carrying an ancient tradition into the modern age. Kimonos line the carefully arranged sales racks, with Mr Makita’s skillfully dyed fabrics also neatly on display. In the summer season, of course, a host of summer kimono or yukata is also on display, the perfect souvenir for those who can’t afford the standard variant. “We have all the proper yukata accessories here for your summer events,” Okada-sensei explains. “You don’t need to be like some of the young girls I hear about, foregoing these items in favor of wearing a yukata with white shorts and no obi (sash).”
A large collection of smaller souvenirs is also available from Ichiru. “We want visitors to go away with something from the experience,” Okada-sensei maintains. “Not everybody buys a kimono, although a Dutch customer recently did. But we have some beautifully-crafted summer fans for 1000 yen which make a great souvenir, both aesthetically charming and convenient to travel with.”
Asked if there was any other information customers should know, Mr Nezu smilingly replied: “We have a separate branch of the Koromoya store in Ogikubo. And, in Ningyocho, a new Apa hotel has opened opposite our establishment. So visitors can sample the magic of the kimono on their hotel doorstep!”
Although formal tours of the premises are no longer available, merely stepping inside the doors is enough to enrich your Japanese travel experience significantly.