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Get your hands dirty with Ai Zomme

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2003-02-28

By: Those of you who enjoy Okinawan arts and crafts have an excellent opportunity to learn the ancient art of Ai Zomme--indigo dyeing-in the Izumi area of Northern Okinawa. Ai Kaze (translated as Indigo Wind) is a small family run business high up in the hills in Izumi that opened 15 years ago. It is run by skilled artist Masanao Shiroma and his family. The location is very scenic and relaxing, and you'll notice as you get closer and closer to the actual factory that the only surroundings are hills and trees and that the only nearby sounds are those of birds and the breeze. Regardless whether you drop by to make your own indigo item or just enjoy a day of Northern Okinawa's slow life, Ai Kaze is a worthy place to drop by on any Northern excursion.

The Ryukyu indigo plant grows naturally on Okinawa and has been cultivated by the local people for centuries. Motobu town and Izumi were the centers of indigo cultivation and dyeing on Okinawa and have a long, proud heritage of the art. Using dye made from the Ryukyu indigo plant, locals in this area make delicate textile goods covered with a special combination of indigo dyes. They say that many of the locals even prefer these textiles and clothing made in this fashion rather than clothing made using a more modern approach. Though the indigo plant can be found all over the world, only five kinds are found in Japan. Okinawa's Ryukyu indigo plant belongs to the Kitsune Mago (Fox's Grandchild) family. Every year, 15 tons of this plant are grown, and most of it is used as a material for classical Ai Zomme.

I recently decided to try my hands at indigo dyeing. Though it was a long drive up north, the weather was clear and crisp. It was a little difficult to find the factory because all of the signs announcing the place were written in Kanji, but once we finally recognized our turn it was easy sailing. Once you finally get to Ai-Kaze, you'll see two buildings. The house-like building on the right is a small gift shop with a café inside. The other building is the factory.

When it was my turn at Indigo dyeing, Yuuki Shiroma--Masanao's son--brought me to the factory. Yuuki speaks English fairly fluently and was able to explain the steps taken to develop Indigo dye. First, the indigo plant is harvested and set in water for two or three days. As the plant decomposes, the water turns green as the separation of the dye and the plant takes place. Then, after the leftover decomposed plant is removed from the water, lime is added to the water and vigorously stirred into the mix for thirty minutes. The water then turns a blue color. Water, charcoal water, awamori, and starch syrup are also mixed in to help with the fermentation. The final dye product is now ready. Also, after six months, can no longer use the dye, so some people end up throwing it away, but Masanao uses the past at the bottom of the basin to paint his pottery.

Next, I was given a small handkerchief. I was told that Ai Zomme is a very relaxed art and to tie my cloth however I wanted using two sets of chopsticks and a number of rubber bands. Because every person prepares their cloth differently, every indigo product is unique and supposedly matches the makers personality. One thing to remember is when you tie your cloth using rubber bands, make sure you tie it tight. You'll get better results this way. Next, I dipped my handkerchief repeatedly in the dye for one minute and then rinsed it in a separate tank. I did this three more times, and then I was told to remove the rubber bands and chopsticks and wash my cloth in a separate tank filled with icy cold water. Here, I was finally able to see the results start to show. Where the chopsticks were tightly banded together, the indigo ink was unable to seep, leaving white lines and patterns on my cloth while the rest had been dyed deep blue. After the final rinsing, we hung our handkerchiefs out to dry for a little while.

During my visit, we tie dyed our crafts, but there are other methods of indigo dying. Another involves brushing the indigo dye over a stencil. Ai Kaze has several patterns available. Also, you have a three choices of items you can make: a handkerchief (¥1,000), a table center(¥2,000), or a scarf(¥3,000).

Since you'll have to wait a little while for your cloth to dry, this is a good time to visit Ai Kaze's gift shop / café. Here, you can purchase indigo items as well as some of Masanao's handmade pottery. They also have a small restaurant / café where you can eat a small meal or enjoy a cup of coffee or herbal tea. Surrounded by nature, this is a very scenic, relaxing spot.

If you'd like to try your hand at indigo dyeing, Ai Kaze is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday except Monday. The factory closes after 5 p.m. You'll need about one hour to make your craft. After drying, your own original indigo cloth will be ready for you to take home. Also, if you want to go but don't speak much Japanese, you should call in advance so that Yuuki can make plans to be at the factory. He speaks English very well.

My first attempt at Ai Zomme yielded good results. My handkerchief turned out pretty well. All in all, the experience of Ai Zomme at Ai Kaze was well worth the long drive. I'm sure I'll return again.

Driving to Ai-Kaze is very easy. Drive North on Highway 58 past the Nago City urban district. Turn left on route 84 towards Kayohako--Ocean Expo Park. About 5 km later, you'll reach the Izumi area. Find route 123 and turn right. You'll see a blue sign for Ai Kaze at this corner. After 200m, you'll see another sign. Turn left here and head up the hill. This will lead you directly to the factory. If you get lost, call them at 098-047-5583.

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