(Subject written on a bag. Change it in for.. what?)
In Shimane prefecture I was sitting in an old house looking at a bedsheet. The house had been standing for at least a hundred years, and despite that was in great condition. I'd heard that this was a gallery from a student. I was excited just to go somewhere new, see some art, and take some tea in the neighboring cafe, but I hadn't realized just how special this place was. Or how special the bedsheets were.
It's run by a woman named Nobuko. The house was where her husband grew up as a child. Now her husband is gone, and when her mother-in-law passed away, she inherited the house. There's a decline in old Japanese houses recently. They're old, prone to termites, shaken by earthquakes, and the gardens are difficult to upkeep. So when an owner passes away, it's usually bulldozed over, and four or five boxy, concrete homes are erected and sold to young families who have no idea what used to stand there before they moved in, or what memories still cling to the earth buried under the concrete.
I respect Nobuko's decision not to sell or destroy the house. Instead she renovated the kitchen in to a cafe, the side house in to a gallery, and worked hard with her neighbors to develop a reputation and gets a modest amount of visitors on the weekends. The house is only open on Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the time, Nobuko lives in Kobe where she has a job and a life. But she doesn't seem stressed by the added distance and responsibilities. She enjoys her side job making a beautiful, creative space for people to come together.
When Yossi stepped through the tatami rooms of the beautiful traditional structure, he noticed something immediately that my foreign eyes had no way of interpreting. There were nails, hooks, and holes in some parts of the walls. They're out of the way and almost imperceptible in the soft light coming throught the traditional straw blinds, but Yossi noticed immediately and said, "This wasn't just a house, was it. What was it used for before?"
Nobuko admired his observation. "This was a silk worm factory."
In case you don't know about silk worms, they're the caterpillars of a moth called Kaiko in Japanese. They eat fresh mulberry leaves exclusively. They spin their cocoons of silk and that silk is made in to threads, woven in to cloth, and responsible for the beauty of Japanese kimonos. Silk is an amazing substance! A friend of mine with sensative skin uses cosmetics made of ground silk. The organic compounds don't irritate the skin.
Yossi said, "I thought so. One of my neighbors used to raise silk worms. It had these nails in the wall to elevate the platforms with the worms, and fans to keep the air a certain temperative. Man, that house stank of worms!"
I walked through the house again, noticing all the silk products suddenly. Dyed with a locally produced indigo, silken decorations adorned the walls and two beds with silk pillows and futon sheets lay on the floor. I couldn't stop thinking about how worms had been in the process of these beautiful things. Nobuko saw me gawking at the beds and said I could totally stay the night if I wanted to.
As we were leaving, I looked up and found a treasure. Behind a desk, a frame held a silk screen on which was printed a design of silkworm moths and cocoons. Also indigo blue, the traditional design of the moths looks as if it's done with white brush strokes even though it's a silk screen print. I thought it was just wonderful!
Now the heat of summer is just starting to wane, which means the silk moths will be out soon. Only Kaiko moths can make silk for cloth, but there are quite a lot of silk moths in the same genus. They tend to be huge, fuzzy, and can be coaxed to sit on your hand. Kaiko have been so inbred by humans to make the best silk that they no longer have the ability to fly or survive in the wild. However you can buy a start-up kit of eggs and keep them as pets!
Everywhere in Japan, I find tradition and nature, even when I'm least expecting it.