With the promise of spring, warmer weather and vaccinations around the corner, I'm sure many of us are starting to feel a little more hopeful about the times ahead, and looking forward to eventually being able to see loved ones again.
For now though, we are still spending much of our time at home so it is important to try and keep body and mind as active as possible, whilst also finding enjoyment in what we do. It is with this in mind that I wanted to tell you a couple of things that have been happening recently, and hopefully give you some alternative ideas for Mothers' Day and Easter if you are looking to send gifts that are a little out of the ordinary.
A bit of backstory first...I mentioned in the last blog post that Ebony has now left Japan Crafts in order to pursue her own business. This business isn't entirely out of the blue when you consider our family history!
The photos above are of me, circa 1982, helping out in my Dad's plant nursery in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad grew alpine plants which he sold twice a week on Masham market. My childhood Saturdays were spent behind the stall, sneaking free sweets and carrots from other stalholders and with the promise of a bag of chips on good days (as long as I brought some back for Dad).
Later, aged 8, I started my first business, picking daffodils from our land on a Friday night, then selling them for 20p a bunch from a bucket at the side of Dad's stall the following day. All good training for Festival of Quilts!!!
As Dad's stall grew, Mum joined in by growing and drying flowers to sell. My teenage pocket money was earned by wiring thousands of helichrysums in the 'flower barn' whilst listening to Metallica on my Walkman!
Although the work was hard, Dad can now look back fondly on those days and the good reputation he built amongst stallholders and locals. He recently told the anecdote about how the locals felt sorry for him on bitterly cold days and brought a hot water bottle for him to tuck into his jacket. On a hot summer's day, this was replaced by a can of chilled lager!
So how does all this connect to Ebony? Well, the entrepreneurial spirit obviously runs in the family (my brother and sister have also had their own businesses), and much of Ebony's childhood was also spent in my parents' magical garden which - as a mill house garden - had a natural waterfall, stream, cave and many other fantastic features which my Dad and brother laboriously maintained for over 30 years.
When Ebony was little, Mum used to love taking her along when she gave flower arranging demonstrations, where Ebony showed a real aptitude from the age of about 3 (unlike me. I'm lucky if I can get the flowers in the vase the right way up). I believe all these experiences helped to sow the seeds - if you'll pardon the pun - of Ebony's new business...
During the last year many people have had the time to reconnect with nature and explore the joys of growing their own food. Man and I tried this last year - rather unsuccessfully since we didn't really know what we were doing, except for the courgettes which became Godzilla-sized marrows and took over the garden! The day the mini greenhouse blew over in a gale with all our seedlings in it is another story...if only we had a bit more guidance before taking the plunge!
With amateurs like Man and I in mind, Ebony has created - Seedology! Simple kits and all the other bits you need to grow your own food, in one box.
The 'Vegetable Plot in a Box' would make a perfect gift for those who want to dabble in growing their own food, and is also a great activity for families with children. You never know, they may even eat the veggies afterwards!
Ebony has sourced the very best, easy to grow organic vegetable seeds and packaged them beautifully to make a kit, along with other handy bits and bobs needed, and written a well-researched booklet which gives you everything you need to know to start your own veggie patch.
The Seedology website is very informative and includes links to the Etsy shop, where you can buy kits and other related items.
Ebony uses the permaculture approach, working with your garden as a whole and integrating plants which work together, without the need for pesticides or too much human interference. In a nutshell, easy-to-grow, tasty food without any nasties! She is also planning more garden kits for the future, so it's definitely worth giving her Instagram and Facebook pages a follow, too.
In Japan Crafts news, I've been busy stitching a sample of the ever-popular rabbit sashiko kit in a brand new colourway. I felt it was time to update this favourite design with some fresh colours, and what better excuse than Easter to launch the new colourway?
This sashiko kit is perfect as an alternative to chocolate Easter eggs whether the recipient is into crafts or not. If they love crafts, send them the kit. If they are not so keen, stitch it up yourself and make an item with it for them!
As ever, I would love to see your creations.
Oh, and if you're wondering what Dad is up to these days, check out his website www.fabulousfollies.net/
Hi, Katie here, how are you doing? I hope you are making the most of the current lockdown by keeping yourself occupied with lots of craft projects. In fact, I know you are judging by the number of orders I'm receiving each day!
Things have changed recently at Japan Crafts because Ebony has now found herself a more career-worthy job as an online content writer, and is also in the process of setting up her own business! I am so proud of her doing all that during a time when we can't even leave our houses. I'm sure she will let me tell you more about her business once it is officially launched, but suffice it to say I think it's a great idea which will prove very popular, and follows beautifully in the combined footsteps of both mine and my father's businesses.
So it's back to just lil' ol' me, but I have Man providing any images or graphics I need, and she has become adept at unpacking deliveries and restocking my shelves in her spare time!
Speaking of which, I've just taken delivery of a whole new range of sashiko threads and some samplers and fabrics from a completely different supplier called Yokota. Their items are sold under the brand name Daruma, which is very appropriate since Man and I collect Japanese daruma dolls in our favourite colour, yellow.
Since its founding in Kyoto in 1901, Yokota has strived to produce threads of the highest quality and Daruma is a household name for thread in Japan. Their 'thin' sashiko thread is a 4-ply which is in between the Olympus 'fine' (3-ply) and ordinary (6-ply) ranges. This makes it really versatile as you can stitch fine details easily, or double it up if you want a thicker thread.
Another feature is that the thread comes wound on a card, so it is easy to measure and cut your desired amount without the risk of getting in a tangle. The cards can then be stored away neatly, taking up very little space. Each card contains 40m of thread.
Daruma thread comes in a beautiful range of 29 solid and 8 variegated colours, some of which are quite different to the Olympus range, so they will complement your projects when used together. The variegated colours are inspired by Japanese summer festivals and feature evocative names such as kakigori (shaved ice) and kingyo sukui (goldfish scooping). These threads have 2, 3 or 8 colours running through them to create a gorgeous effect when stitched.
Daruma also produce their own range of pre-printed sashiko samplers on white and indigo fabric, so I hope you will enjoy seeing the different designs. Olympus call their samplers hanafukin (flower cloths) whereas Daruma ones are yumefukin (dream cloths). Essentially they are the same thing, though! The Daruma ones are a slightly different shade of blue than Olympus, and 31cm rather than 34cm.
Another new product is the Daruma 'sashiko cloth'. This is sarashi fabric (the same fabric as the sashiko samplers) which has been pre-printed with a grid of crosses that you use as stitch guides. You can use these to make many different sashiko and hitomezashi patterns on whichever part of the cloth you like, then simply wash the cloth and the printed lines disappear. You get half a metre of fabric (50cm x 108cm) whch is large enough to make a furoshiki wrapping cloth, cushion cover or any other project you have in mind. The cloths come in a range of four colours - white, natural, mustard and indigo - and are packaged in an attractive box which would make a lovely gift when combined with threads and needles.
I hope you enjoy exploring the Daruma range and would love to hear your feedback on it and see pictures of what you make x
During these strange times it has been really heartening to receive many messages of support and thanks from customers. Even the simplest message to say that an order has been received or that the fabric is beautiful means a lot and shows that the customer realises there is a real 'me' on the other side of the website, busy packing and sending their orders by hand every day. I am lucky to have a Post Office at the end of the road which is open 7 days a week, so I am able to send orders out by 1st class post every day. After a rocky few weeks, the Royal Mail seems to be back on track and parcels are being delivered quickly again.
This is good news, as it seems people are really getting into crafts during the lockdown! It is well known that engaging in craft activities is very beneficial to mental health, and sewing is a perfect way to keep busy at home during the lockdown. I'm sure the new series of the Great British Sewing Bee and Kirstie Allsopp have something to answer for, too.
I have been sent many pictures, all of which I will put up on the customer makes page in due course. For now, I would like to share a few examples of what customers have been up to. Maybe these will inspire you to have a go? If you've also made something from our range, don't forget to send a picture to me and I'll put it up on the website.
Click on the images to see the full picture.
Momo made lots of fashionable face masks from gorgeous metallic fabrics.
Alison's inspirational bags are based on the Mini Rice Bag Kit pattern.
Lin hand-stitched a boromono-style notebook cover with funky red sashiko thread.
Iris looks so cool in her trousers and shorts made from non-metallic fabric.
Helen's lovely lap quilt started life as a charm pack and 4 fat quarters.
I really love when a customer has a project in mind and asks for help in choosing fabrics, especially when their idea is something a little bit different...
In Autumn last year I was contacted by a regular customer, Val, to source fabrics for some curtains for her living room. Not much unusual there, I thought, as I've supplied plenty of curtain fabric before and people generally want about 6-10 metres, which I've often got in stock already.
Val lives locally and had visited the house several times, as well as making a point to say hello and give us a hug at many of the shows, so I was really happy that she wanted to use more Japanese fabric in her home. However, I must admit I was a little surprised when she asked for a full roll of fabric which is 36 metres!
I source fabrics direct from the manufacturers in Japan, and the minimum quantity of each design is a 36m roll. So I have to be very discerning about which designs and colourways to stock. When I receive a delivery of fabric, I roll each 36m down into 4 smaller bolts, folding the fabric in half as I go, to create bolts which are more manageable to cut for web orders and take to shows. The rolling process is quite laborious and I have honed my skill at this over the years so I can now roll 36m accurately in about 20 minutes. Which is great when I have a delivery of 50 rolls...
Sometimes customers need more than my 8-9m bolts (see the previous post about fashion brand Eponine), so I have to custom-order their fabrics on the roll for them.
One thing I always keep an eye on is the exchange rate between the £ and the Yen. When I first went to Japan in 2005 the rate was incredibly favourable and everything seemed quite cheap...now, sadly, this is no longer the case. So my fabric's base price is in Yen, then there is the cost of shipping to the UK. I can choose either air freight (arrives within a week) or sea (arrives within 3 months) and pay accordingly. Obviously, from a practical point of view, air freight makes more sense but costs more. Once the shipment lands in the UK it then has to be held in a warehouse while it clears Customs. I am charged a warehouse holding fee and then a whopping Customs charge which is usually roughly 20% of the price of the goods. Then I have to pay a courier to deliver from Manchester airport to my house, over 100 miles away. So the seemingly reasonable wholesale price of fabric (or sashiko, or whatever), doubles by the time it arrives on my doorstep. And is variable depending on the exchange rate on that particular day (did I also mention the rubbish exchange rate that banks give, and the extortionate fees they charge to send money abroad?).
Anyway, I'm digressing hugely, and maybe I should write another blog post about how I feel when customers at shows say loudly that the fabric is expensive at £10 a metre...
Back to Val's curtains!
The point of that long-winded explanation was to say that when a customer wants a large or special order, it makes far more sense to combine it with the next order I make to Japan, rather than order one roll to be sent just for them. Val is lovely, and was more than happy to wait a few weeks, and then even came to the house to pick up her precious roll.
After a lot of consultation with her husband, she chose this beautiful fabric, depicting Japanese cranes on a background of waves and chrysanthemums.
The fabric comes in four colourways, but Val is very much a purple girl so it was obvious which one she would choose.
After several email updates, Val finally got her copious curtains completed and I was delighted to see the finished result! Although we are now under lockdown so I cannot go and visit in person as planned, I'm so glad that Val and her husband can enjoy their time in such charming surroundings.
Notice the other Japanese touches in the room - a sashiko koi carp based on a design by Susan Briscoe; some exquisite kogin work; patchwork cushions, and a gorgeous quilt made from one of our Japanese layer cakes.
I'm sure you will agree she's done an amazing job!
In fact, the next blog post will be all about what customers have made, so if you've made something and not sent a picture to us, please do so as soon as possible for a chance to be featured. In the meantime, all customer 'makes' are displayed on our gallery page.
Stay safe, and keep stitching
I'm so excited to reveal that our fabrics have been used for the latest ready-to-wear collection by Eponine London! Launching later this week, here's a sneak preview which I can share with you now.
Eponine create beautifully feminine pieces in bold, vibrant fabrics from around the world and I am absolutely delighted that designer Jet Shenkman chose to work with fabrics from Japan for her latest collection.
Knowing that this brand frequently dresses the Duchess of Cambridge and other celebrities, I am thrilled to see the potential of our fabrics and who they might be seen on.
The fabric used for this sample piece is the beautiful Cranes and Waves in black. In total, six of Japan Crafts' fabrics were chosen for this collection and I can't wait to see how the other pieces turned out.
You can follow Eponine on Instagram to see the rest of the collection when it is released.
Jet has been absolutely lovely to work with and I wish her every success with her Japanese collection (although I may be scouring the sale page afterwards to see if there's one left in my size!)x
Hi! Nice to meet you, I'm Ebony, daughter of the brilliant Katie and I'm the newest member of the Japan Crafts team! I know that some of you may remember me as a shy 11 year-old modelling the kimono during my mum's talks, and it's lovely to be a full time member of the team. Today I'm sharing an overview of my side of the Japan Crafts story.
Mum first began her business when I was at primary school. We fell into pretty desperate times, but with her creativity and focus, Mum grew a small idea into a successful business which allowed her to thrive on her own two feet, and I will always be so proud of her for that. In the beginning, I would just trail around after her, spending hours upon hours walking around the same museums while Mum taught silk painting classes and exhibited her artwork on the weekends. However, soon enough, Mum decided to develop new products and create her own workshops, all of which require a guinea pig…
By nine, I had tried and tested every kit, critically reviewed each workshop, and even done some teaching! I loved getting properly dressed in kimono for shows and then walking around to show it off. One year, I even entered a quilt in the Festival of Quilts, which was a big deal for me at the time. I spent weeks choosing my design (a cityscape of Kyoto), laying the pieces and getting to grips with a sewing machine. The final product may not have been of professional standard, and it certainly didn't get close to the top prizes, but the joy it brought me was totally worth it.
One of the main by-products of having a mother in the trade mine is in, is the regular visits to Japan. While I am a terrible traveller (one plane journey to Japan even resulted in temporary blindness), I am so grateful for the opportunities to travel Mum has given us. In return for dragging me round all sorts of tiny, dusty Shibori/Sashiko/Kimono museums, I got the chance to see some incredible scenes and have lots of fun along the way, not to mention spend time in my favourite building, Kyoto Station!
As I got to my teenage years, I became more interested in modern Japanese textiles and fashion. From cosplay to Harajuku Lolita style, which was popular at the time. My mum always supported these interests, taking Japan Crafts to various Japanese conventions so that I could visit them too. I have definitely grown out of this stage, but there are still areas of Japanese culture that I enjoy, namely sumo! We watch every sumo tournament, going so far as to decorate the house with sumo merchandise every two months when the 'Basho' rolls around. I also enjoy a lot of Japanese cooking in my day to day life.
Nowadays, I live a few hours away from Mum, but we still work together all the time. As I said before, I'm so proud of all of her achievements and feel so lucky to be a part of the Japan Crafts story. Thank you for being part of our Japan Crafts family!
I've got some exciting news to share, fresh from Japan! Olympus, the sashiko manufacturers, are bringing out a brand new range of fine sashiko threads in early February. I was lucky enough to get my mitts on a preview pack of all 20 shades and let me tell you, they're gorgeous.
These threads are supplied as an 80m ball and are 3-ply which is half the width of the ordinary 20m ones. The colours correspond to their 20m, 6-ply counterparts. So you can use them to add fine details and accents to your projects, alongside the 20m threads of the same colour.
At first glance these fine sashiko threads look quite similar to perle thread, however perle has a sheen whereas sashiko thread is matte. Perle is also 2-ply rather than 3. With these, you know you are getting the real deal, authentic product from Japan rather than 'making do' with something that isn't quite right.
Of course, if you don't want to buy the 20m and fine versions of the same colour, you could always stitch with the fine thread doubled. This will give you the same thickness as the 20m thread, although the effect will be slightly different as the threads will lie alongside each other rather than be one thread. This is still very much in the tradition of sashiko, though!
I can't wait to have a go with these super cute little balls of thread. They look so sweet all lined up ready to use. In fact, the labels on the packets were even designed to make them look like 'mochi' rice cakes!
Check our Facebook and Instagram for updates of when they come into stock, and as ever, don't forget to send us pictures of your work for the 'customer makes' page x
Man wanted to buy souvenirs for her friends and colleagues so before we went shopping, we packed our cases and discovered there was plenty of room going spare. I decided a mini fabric run was in order! We walked to the Mihama shop in Nippori and picked about 200m of fabrics for a new kit I'm planning. The lady in the shop suddenly recognised me from all of my previous visits and seemed very happy that I'd come back, so we had a very brief chat while she totted up my purchases. Mr Mihama packed everything into large bags, and we enjoyed a gym workout carrying them all back to the hotel, stopping frequently to stretch our tired arms.
There was one place that seemed perfect for our last day in Tokyo...Harajuku! Harajuku station is a lovely old wooden building which is due to be demolished after the Tokyo Olympics, so I really wanted Man to see it before that happens.
With a 4-storey 100 yen (70p) shop in the middle of teenybopper hangout Takeshita Dori, the beautiful, 120 year old Meiji Shrine set in a forest and a sushi joint on a street full of designer shops where you shout your order over the counter to the chefs, this area of Tokyo is buzzing with people from all walks of life.
Having worked up an appetite lugging 50kg of fabric around, we headed to Heiroku Sushi in Omotesando first. I've been there a few times before as they serve one of my favourite foods, avocado maki.
On the way we saw these people dressed up and driving Mario Carts around the streets! This was already on our bucket list to do, but we didn't manage to get our international driving licences in time.
Unfortunately the sushi place seems to have gone downhill a bit and the sushi on the conveyor belt looked like it had seen better days. When I ordered my avocado maki, there was instant consternation between the staff and four members of staff were discussing whether it was possible to make a sushi roll with avocado rather than cucumber, and which colour-coded plate to put it on (each colour denotes a different price, and they all get added up at the end of your meal). In the end, I got my avocado maki but it was on a plate far more expensive than the other dishes.
We even had a baby cockroach crawl out of the tea dispenser drain on our counter! The waitress dealt with it immediately, but didn't seem overly surprised. Guess it's time to find a new sushi spot.
We shuffled along Takeshita Dori in the crush of people to the Daiso 100 yen shop. This shop is very famous as being one of the largest 100 yen shops in Tokyo, and is always very busy. You can find all sorts of weird and wonderful things in there, and Man's friends are in for some treats! Even I picked up a few goodies, plus some more Dr Yellow amd other train merchandise (mini Lego set, flashing pen and something Dr Yellow that I'm not quite sure what it is!).
No visit to Harajuku (for a non vegan) is complete without choosing a speciality crepe. There are loads on offer, and Man chose banana, custard and cream with chocolate sauce. Mmmmm.
Tired (and hungry, in my case), we headed to Ikebukuro station as I'd seen a place that does vegan ramen. It was super tasty, and flavoured with yuzu, a type of Japanese citrus.
An impromptu message to Susan Briscoe and we arranged to meet at the local sento - public bath - to enjoy our last evening in Japan together. In 15 years of coming to Japan I have never been to a public bath (blame body issues), but it was well and truly time to enjoy this facet of traditional Japanese life. Men and women are segregated, so we waved Glyn off and met up with him later after 2 hours of blissful relaxation and of course lots of girly gossip (which shall remain behind the sento curtains!).
Whatever was I worried about?! Women of all different shapes and sizes enjoyed the baths on their own and with friends, and it was immediately apparent that nobody stares or cares what you look like and you find yourself not staring or caring either. After squatting on plastic stools and giving ourselves a thorough scrub under the shower whilst casually chatting, we hit the baths.
This sento had everything including hot, cold, mineral, jet, outdoor and even electric(!) baths and we hopped in and out of each. You can take as much time as you like, but we had to meet up with Glyn and he was already waiting when we emerged, ready for us to choose the traditional milky coffee or beer in the foyer.
What a wonderful end to a very special trip, and the first of many more to come for Man. We are now safely back in Birmingham nursing our aching shoulders from all that fabric carrying!
Today was the main reason for coming to Tokyo at this time of year - the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival! It always clashes with a show I exhibit at in the UK, so I'd never actually visited this show before. I switched my UK shows around so I could come to Tokyo. It also made for a slightly more romantic birthday for Man, who spent her 40th with me at the Newark show last year. The quilt show is held at Tokyo Dome - the same venue as the food festival we visited the other day.
With the outbreak of the Chinese coronavirus looming, we were concerned about spending the day in such a huge crowd so bought face masks to wear. Many other people were wearing them, too. Before entering the dome we had a quick business meeting with a supplier over coffee, which went very well and we were shown lots of new products, some of which I think my customers will like.
There were huge queues but the lines moved very quickly and we were soon inside the dome. From the vantage point at the top of the stairs, we could see the show was very clearly laid out, with shopping stalls around three sides and the displays in the middle. We decided to look at the stalls first.
At the very first stall there were a few things we wanted to look at, and the stallholder spotted the bag we'd bought at the Ghibli museum. He showed us some almost identical webbing to the bag strap...sold! We bought a few other bits here and moved on.
To be honest there wasn't much that appealed to us and certainly none of the type of fabric that I sell, so I can see why many of my customers have told me they were disappointed after visiting the show armed with cash and expecting to buy Japan Crafts-type prints. There were lots of stalls selling used kimono fabric, though, so any boromono enthusiasts would have been in heaven.
We bought a few small things including one of these rather gorgeous sample books of various fabrics treated with persimmon juice to make them waterproof and give them a beautiful, aged patina. The owner told me he was based in Arashiyama, a district of Kyoto that I know quite well, so I made sure to say thank you in Kyoto dialect "ooki-ni", which made him laugh.
With a measly (but probably for the best) tote bag of purchases, we found a fat quarter of yellow fabric for the '50 shades of yellow' quilt we are going to make together, then moved on to the quilt displays.
The quilts were clearly grouped into themes, so it was easy to zero in on ones that appealed. This one by Kumiko Fujita was a joint favourite for us with its bold, fun design.
The overall show winner was stunning and I could have spent hours taking in all the details, but there were many other people who wanted to do the same so we waited our turn, Man took some photos and we moved on.
You are allowed to go out of the show and reenter by having your ticket and hand stamped, so we had a long sit down and late lunch at one of the restaurants around the outside of the dome. Delicious sushi in a private room. By the way, we didn't really have to sit on the floor - there is a 'cheat' footwell under the table!
One of the displays was a fabulous Nutcracker installation with quilts by Akane Sakamoto. After chatting for a while, she said she spoke English so we switched languages. Turns out she had studied embroidery at Hampton Court with the Embroiderers Guild for three years and she was keen to understand the political situation in the UK. When I gave her my business card, she said she follows me on Instagram! Small world.
Please enjoy the slide show of some of the other amazing work on display, and thank you to Man for taking all the wonderful pictures.
For dinner we had another busines meeting and were treated to a fancy meal near the dome. Upon hearing the word 'vegan', the manageress was specially assigned to us and wrote a menu for me by hand. She came back numerous times to discuss the food and we all shared many dishes together.
This cute shiba inu was parked outside the supermarket next to our hotel on the way back.
After a leisurely brunch of vegan ramen, gyoza and mapo tofu, we indulged Man's geeky side in Akihabara. I've been to this area a few times but not really explored it very much before.
The main streets leading from the station throb with bright, flashing lights, video screens and loud music as each building competes to attract the attention of young people eager to try the latest arcade games and buy electrical goods and collectors' models. Our attention was caught by the multi-storey Sega building, which had about four floors crammed with grabber machines offering various prizes.
I spotted a machine with the chance to win small yellow rubber ducks for 100 yen and got all excited because I need a replacement one to use as a bathroom light pull since my other one broke. Man (who grew up playing funfair games) skilfully managed to grab me one.
On the top two floors were arcade games, mainly populated by teenage boys and young men who obviously spend a lot of time honing their skills. We had a go at the taiko drumming game which was fun.
For refreshment, where else would we go but Becker's coffee shop!
It was raining and miserable so we didn't want to be outside too long. Next stop was Man's choice as she wanted to compare one of her favourite guilty pleasures with the UK version - KFC. There was a branch under the railway arches, but before we had a chance to enter, we were stopped by a TV crew and asked to give an interview about the food we were enjoying in Japan! Apparently they had been asking foreigners all day and everyone had said the same thing (sushi, ramen...) but we said warabi mochi sweets so they interviewed us for quite a while for a programme due to be aired in March.
Eventually, Man got to enjoy her piece of chicken.
I wanted to show Man a lovely indoor food court where small stalls sell specialities from each prefecture in Japan, and there is also a small vegan cafe selling shojin ryori - monk food, which is typically a meal made up of lots of tiny, vegan dishes all perfectly balanced and healthy.
Man spotted a gachapon (capsule) vending machine containing hand-painted papier mache daruma dolls of all different colours. She had wanted a daruma doll ever since Emiko told her about how they are sold with blank eyes and the idea is to paint one eye in whilst making a wish, then put your daruma in a suitable place and paint the other eye in when the wish comes true.
As we are both huge lovers of yellow, I knew which one she wanted and had a good feeling about it. Before she could stop me I put in 500 yen, turned the handle and out popped...a yellow daruma!
Man was still full from her chicken, so I tried to order a meal set from the vegan cafe, only to be told that sharing wasn't allowed and each person had to order a meal. Grudgingly, we ordered two meals and some hot amazake rice drinks.
The food all looked amazing with lots of variety including miso soup, brown rice with red beans, several tofu dishes and vegetables. Unfortunately, only a few dishes were really tasty and we ate what we could but were ultimately left feeling a little disappointed.
The disappointment couldn't last long though as I knew there was a model train shop just up the road! For Christmas, Man had somehow procured a Dr Yellow model train and starter N-gauge track for me, but the set only included carriages 1, 2 and 7, so I thought I'd see if I could find the others in Akihabara. The shop we went in had lots of exciting sets and accessories, but unfortunately no Dr Yellow this time. I didn't mind, and bought some models of Japanese shops and a cinema instead. Come the day we have time to actually set these up, we will probably have collected a whole city's worth!
We were both struggling with tiredness and the dank weather by this point, so we went for a mooch around Ueno station before a quiet evening napping and catching up on our respective work back at the hotel.
Man wanted to visit some of the main tourist sights so Asakusa was a must-see. We decided to walk there as it's only a couple of miles from our hotel, and enjoyed the stroll through the back streets of Uguisudani, past a cluster of 'love hotels' where you can rent a room for 90 minutes (I'll leave the rest to your imagination!) and then down a main road, heading towards the tallest building in Tokyo, the Sky Tree. We even passed a sumo wrestler on a bicycle!
Asakusa is famous for the large Senso-ji temple complex and in particular the two huge, red paper lanterns hanging at either end of a shopping street full of tacky, touristy shops. This street is always crammed with tourists.
In the last few years, kimono rental shops have become popular, where you can be dressed in kimono and stroll around for a few hours, so we saw lots of young people doing this. The kimono used are yukata, cotton summer kimono which can be easily washed, so they look quite strange in January, especially when paired with a parasol on a dry, cloudy day...oh well, as long as they're having fun! It was a cold day though, so I imagine people were freezing in their thin yukata with so much skin exposed.
We found some nice quiet areas with old fashioned streets, and snacked on dango - chewy rice balls on a stick, dipped in sticky soy sauce and grilled.
We took the obligatory photos with the Asahi building in the background, lining up the shot to balance the lucky 'golden poo' on our heads.
It was getting colder and we were hungry, but we struggled to find anything hot and vegan despite looking in many restaurants. Until we stumbled across a ramen place where the owner came running out to try to encourage us into the restaurant. Man asked about vegan broth, and she said yes, she has a special broth with no fish sauce. The holy grail! I had vegetable tempura and Man had beef and egg, all served over thick udon noodles in broth. The lady was Filipino and spoke good English, keeping us entertained between serving her other customers. Her ramen was delicious but we couldn't manage it all.
It was too cold to keep walking around outside, so we decided to head to Odaiba and visit an art installation we'd heard about. Odaiba is a manmade island reached by monorail, and is full of amusements and futuristic ideas. Getting off the monorail, we walked through a showroom of Toyota concept cars and it really did feel like we'd stepped into the future.
On the way we spotted a melon on sale for £70!!!
The art installation is an immersive experience in a huge building over several floors and is set in darkness with digital artwork moving across the walls and floors, between rooms and with lots of mirrors on the walls and floors. Some rooms have amazing installations with lights, lamps and even a huge net you can lie in for a 360 degree experience. We spent a few blissful hours here and would highly recommend visiting if that's your kind of thing.
In the evening we met up with Susan Briscoe and her husband Glyn for a good natter over a few drinks to round off the day.
I wanted to introduce Man to a very dear friend of mine who I have known for 15 years, Emiko. Emiko is the one who patiently taught me how to wear kimono, in person but mostly via email. Together, Emiko and I have had so many adventures over the years both in Japan and the UK, my dad calls us the Dynamic Duo. Emiko has studied many forms of Japanese culture to a very high level including music, kimono dressing, tea ceremony...but her first love is always Japanese dance.
Each time I come to Tokyo I try to see a kabuki play, and since this month's play at the national kabuki theatre is based around dance, I thought it would be perfect to meet Emiko and watch it together.
The Kabukiza Theatre is in Ginza, the most upmarket shopping district in Tokyo, and is a gorgeous building with high quality gift shops and cafes in the basement. Emiko gave Man a warm welcome and we were ushered onto an outdoor bench to wait our turn.
A full kabuki performance starts at 11am and continues until fairly late in the evening, but it is possible to see just one act by queueing for a limited number of tickets immediately beforehand. At 10am we were already numbers 28 to 30 in the queue, and with a maximum of 90 tickets available, this was the optimum time to meet. The wait gave us a nice chance for Emiko and Man to get to know each other.
The performance itself was gorgeously set, with live musicians on the shamisen and koto and lots of Kyoto-style dancing to tell the story of a famous cherry blossom viewing party at a temple there, in 1598. This act only lasted 25 minutes, whereas some can be up to an hour and a half. But for 500 yen it was an absolute bargain to see Japan's top actors on the most prestigious stage.
After a quick drink and a look around downstairs, we headed to Ryogoku for the main event in my sporting calendar - sumo! My family and I are extremely keen followers of sumo and watch each day of the 6 tournaments a year (each tournament lasts 15 days), usually via YouTube, but obviously I go to watch sumo live when I can. Usually I am happy with a cheap seat at the back of the stadium but last year for my 40th, Emiko managed to secure an exclusive box seat much nearer to the action. Today, again, she got box seat tickets and we were privileged to watch sumo from close up.
Before entering the stadium, we stood outside to watch the top division wrestlers arrive and shouted encouragement to them. It's all part of the experience!
Box seats accommodate up to 4 people and are just a space on the floor with cushions, so you have to take your shoes off and sit on the floor. With just 3 of us, we were able to sit along the back of the box and stretch our legs out. 4 people might have been a bit of a squeeze! We bought merchandise featuring various wrestlers and settled in for the top division bouts.
Emiko and I have watched sumo together many times before, but I was worried Man might get bored...no need! We all loved it and had a great time, with some exciting bouts and wins and losses from our favourite wrestlers today.
These mochi rice cakes are shaped to resemble the referee's fan.
We enjoyed the view from our box seat, and waved wrestlers' merchandise to encourage them.
After seeing Cinderella (Emiko) safely into her (train) carriage, Man and I stopped off in Shinjuku for dinner at small vegan chain Ain Soph. It was quite cold and very windy by this point, so we were glad of the warmth before dashing back to Shinjuku station.
NB: By this point you may be thinking this is just a holiday, but I promise there is a reason for coming here; I have an important business meeting on Friday, plus the quilt show to go to! But in the meantime there are two whole days with no particular plans...of course I have some ideas to show Man more of Tokyo, but anything could happen, so please check back tomorrow and see what adventures we end up having x
We wanted to have a really chilled day on Man's birthday so after a long lie in we took a stroll in the sunshine through Nippori, Tokyo's main fabric district. There is a street full of shops selling fabrics and associated goods and this becomes very popular during the Tokyo Quilt Festival (which is due to start later this week), as quilting tours from all over the world descend on Tokyo to see the amazing quilts on display, then head to Nippori to add to their fabric stash.
Today was the calm before the storm and Nippori Fabric Town was peaceful and quiet. We weren't on a buying mission, but I wanted to check out one shop in particular which sells the same fabrics as Japan Crafts, to see whether they had any different designs in stock which I could then ask my supplier for.
Mihama Cloth is right next door to the famous Tomato store, about half way down fabric street. They sell all of their fabrics in 2m lengths after being inspired by Burmese customers who wanted to make traditional 'longyi' skirts from Japanese fabric. Over the years I have built a good working relationship with the owners to the point where they gave me the nickname Kei-chan.
Unfortunately, today's visit was very short as the shop was extremely low on stock and there were only about 3 designs that I don't already have in stock. It was quite a sad sight and I do hope they will be able to fill their shelves in time for the quilt tours to arrive at the end of the week.
We took the Yamanote line train 2 stops to Ueno for lunch at one of my favourite spots. Ueno is famous for its huge park which houses some major museums and art galleries and also a zoo. Since the zoo has pandas, the panda is the symbol of Ueno and you can buy panda goods at every turn. On the way to the lunch place, Man spotted some panda custard buns, so of course being her birthday she had to try one.
T's TanTan is completely vegan and serves ramen in various flavours. We chose black sesame and tonkotsu, and shared both dishes, making sure to slurp the noodles as loudly as possible to show our appreciation! Coffee was served with the dinkiest little jugs of soy milk and syrup.
They have different menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as takeaway 'pork' cutlet sandwiches and even pots of instant noodles. I often fill my suitcases with these if there is any space at the end of a trip!
The ramen fuelled us for the main event of the day - the Ghibli Museum. Man had wanted to go for such a long time, so what better day to make her wish come true? You have to book tickets in advance and it can be very busy, so I'd secretly arranged the tickets weeks ago with the help of Naoko.
There is no photography allowed inside the museum and I wouldn't want to spoil any of the magic for anyone, but suffice to say if you like Ghibli films and quirky museums you should definitely put this one on your list.
Photography was allowed outside, where there are several garden areas to explore.
We stopped for iced coffee and custard ice cream (can you tell Man likes custard?!) in the cafe before hitting the gift shop to fulfill several requests from Man's friends as well as some gifts. We both had our eye on a really cool bag, so I bought it as a birthday gift for us to share.
We walked back to Kichijoji station and found Harmonica Alley - a group of tiny side streets full of bars. Many places had open walls so you could walk straight in from the street, and most were only big enough for a handful of customers. Some were standing bars where you stand at the counter to eat. Man tried the fresh taiyaki which we watched being made, although there was no custard flavour so she had to settle for red bean paste.
Most places had no English menu, so I deciphered what I could and realised there were little to no vegan options. Everything smelled delicious, though, so I'm sure it's a great place to eat if you can! We found a branch of chain izakaya Seiryu on an adjacent street instead.
Although mostly meat and fish, we managed to cobble a meal from their menu. Edamame, tofu (I asked for no katsuo flakes), grilled rice ball, roasted garlic cloves, pickles and a plate of chips, while Man had meat skewers, too.
What a lovely, relaxing day. Tomorrow is set to be a corker, too. Can't wait!x
We met up with my very good friend Naoko at Tokyo Dome and joined the queue to enter the Furosato Matsuri (hometown food festival). This festival is extremely popular and is held in January every year. I'd been twice before but Naoko had never heard of it even though she lives in Tokyo!
Japanese people often like to visit their families and home town over the New Year holiday, but many are unable to, so this event enables them to eat local foods as well as try specialities from other regions.
Thankfully, Naoko had secured us tickets weeks ago and already got us a good deal which meant we could save 600 yen each on a ticket AND get in quickly. The queue was a chance to introduce her to Man, and since they share a wicked sense of humour they hit it off immediately.
Once inside this immense space we shuffled our way down the aisles, taking advantage of the numerous free samples on offer and buying things here and there to either eat on the spot or save for later.
Aisles were organised by region, so there were clusters of stalls featuring local specialities such as mikan (orange-like citrus fruit), green tea and garlic (the garlic wine was...interesting!). A lot of the stallholders were real characters who went out of their way to offer as many samples as you wanted, with very little pressure to buy.
As a vegan my choices were somewhat limited, but Naoko and Man enjoyed many foods from around Japan. Despite the crowds, some stalls were quiet while others were obviously more well known and had long lines of people waiting patiently for their delicacies.
Before we left, we watched some of the 'Nebuta Matsuri' performance from Aomori prefecture. This famous festival features a huge float made from paper stretched over a bamboo frame which is carried by about 20 men. Women and children perform a jumping dance while taiko drums pound out a strong beat and everybody shouts a repeated chant to encourage visitors to watch. This was particularly nostalgic for Naoko as she had seen this festival many times as a child, when visiting her grandmother.
We took the Metro to Sangenjaya to show Man a view of Tokyo from the 26th floor of Carrot Tower. Whilst not the best city view of Tokyo, this one is special because Naoko can point out her house from it! Afterwards we fulfilled Man's sushi dreams at the sushi-go-round downstairs.
After saying goodbye to Naoko we decided to head to nearby Shibuya so Man could experience the famous Scramble Crossing.
Little did we know another fabulous and jaw-dropping moment awaited us - in Uniqlo there are now self-service checkouts where you put your basket full of clothes into the 'bagging area' and it automatically tots up your bill!!! How???! And why can't we have things like that in the UK?
Amazed, we took the Yamanote line train a few stops to Shinjuku to check out some nightlife in the Golden Gai district. Because I often come to Japan on my own or with my daughter, I've not really explored Tokyo's bars much, so this was new for both of us.
We wanted to find somewhere really off the beaten track and the first place was a Kyoto-style izakaya bar serving Kyoto food and drinks. You have to be careful in Japan as a lot of places have a cover charge for entry which can be extortionate and you may not realise until you leave! This place clearly stated its cover charge, which wasn't too much and included a small snack.
We ordered two types of sake, some tofu dishes and green tea noodles, via an iPad with each ingredient listed on the menu so we could be sure they were vegan - another great innovation as usually it's a lucky (or unlucky) dip with many dishes harbouring meat or fish somewhere.
Moving on, we found a side street so tiny it felt like we were in someone's kitchen with towels, pots and pans and glasses stacked up next to outdoor taps on the dirt floor. It was hard to believe we were in the centre of one of the busiest areas of Tokyo as we wove our way down the dark alley with the only light coming from tiny bars here and there.
We spotted an open door with some rickety stairs leading to who knew where, and dared each other to see what was at the top...
It was a minuscule bar, empty and quiet, with an elderly owner who looked like he hadn't seen a customer in years! Having climbed the stairs we had no choice but to give it a go, and what a gem it turned out to be!
The owner put on some Otis Reading but was rather unforthcoming with a vague wave at a few bottles when we asked what sake he had. However, when we asked which one he would recommend he became animated and pulled more out from under the counter. He was very generous with his 'tasters' and we felt we had almost had enough before we'd ordered anything! We picked several varieties which were served in large glasses filled to the brim, then the owner proceeded to give us numerous, random snacks from here and there on his shelves until we politely said we were full.
We got chatting, with me translating to Man, and ended up having a really lovely time with our generous host over several hours, during which no other customers came in. There were no prices displayed, so I muttered to Man that I was fully expecting to get fleeced by the cover charge, as well as the snacks and brim full sake glasses - these were regularly refilled with ever more special sake which kept appearing from under the counter. Our 75 year old host also enjoyed generous helpings of 'tasters' and glasses of sake with us, and provided a variety of cool music from Nina Simone to Jimi Hendrix.
When we tentatively asked for the bill, he ummed and ahhed for a bit then plucked a number from midair and asked if it was ok. It definitely was!
What a fun day and evening seeing many facets of Tokyo life. Tomorrow is Man's birthday so I'm sure we will have many more adventures to look forward to x
It's been quiet on the blog for a while but now I have some fabulous news to share with you all...we are in Japan!!! It's amazing to be able to bring Man here for the first time to show her all my favourite places and discover new ones with her. As we arrived in Tokyo by Skyliner train from Narita Airport, it started to snow gently which just added to the magical atmosphere of the moment.
Despite the jetlag, we managed to see and do quite a lot on our first day here. First job after checking in to our hotel was to explore the local area and find some lunch. Man wanted sushi, which can be surprisingly hard to find in Japan! This led us on a wild goose chase around some tiny back streets and cobbled lanes, only to discover that the local 'kaitenzushi' restaurant on Google maps had closed! She enjoyed the street views and was surprised by the tangles of electrical wires everywhere.
It was cold and raining by now, so we decided to take a wander towards the station and see what we could find. As it was about 2:30 and lunchtime was over, many places were closed, and added to the constant challenge of finding vegan food for me, we took a chance on the first place that served anything suitable. This happened to be a tiny side street bar with some pictures of food outside including edamame (boiled soybeans in pods).
There was no English menu but the owner was friendly so I managed to ascertain that indeed the edamame was the only dish I could eat. So we ordered draft Asahi beers, chomped on the free roasted peanuts and ordered edamame, with pork and basil leaf gyoza for Man.
This snack kept us going while we explored some used kimono shops. Man was keen to buy me something, as well as a gift for a friend, so we sought out something lovely for the friend (top secret!), then I found a cool hanhaba obi for just 1,000 yen. In a different shop we were treated like royalty by the lovely staff member - we were just glad to get in from the rain and warm up for a while. We came away with a vintage haori jacket each.
After some street food snacks (yakitori chicken skewer and minced meat between slices of lotus root for Man, a rice ball for me), we decided to get out of the rain and headed for Tokyo station. This beautiful building is over 100 years old and I dragged Man back out into the rain to fully appreciate its facade from the outside. It really looks at odds with any other building in Tokyo, but is charming at the same time.
There was a Strawberry Festival in the station, with several streets of vendors all selling their delicious-looking strawberry cakes, biscuits and myriad other goodies. It was very crowded but we jostled our way through, enjoying the atmosphere. At a station shop, Man indulged my train geekery and bought me lots of merchandise featuring my favourite ever train, Doctor Yellow. These included a spoon and fork (to go with the chopsticks I already have), keyring, toothbrush and even a pack of sticking plasters!
Speaking of Doctor Yellow, I had researched some nerdy Japanese blogs and discovered there was a chance it might be passing through Tokyo Station at 18:46 that day, hence our trip there. Dr Yellow is a bright yellow shinkansen which inspects the track all over Japan, but as it is not a passenger train there is no timetable and its movements are deliberately vague, so nobody knows when or where to see it. Seeing Dr Yellow has become something of a holy grail to me! For the full experience, we battled our way through the crowds at Ekibenya Matsuri to find the perfect ekiben - station lunchbox, of which there are hundreds of varieties including a vegan one - then headed for a department store in nearby Yurakucho where you can get a good view of all the shinkansen coming in and out of the station.
As we had time to kill, we found a swanky restaurant on the 14th floor for a drink and were seated by the immaculately dressed and mannered staff, right by a huge window. At this point we were both feeling quite delirious with jetlag and decided that as soon as Dr Yellow had passed, we would head back to the hotel for an early night. Then we felt it...a slight jolt, the room started to spin a little...we looked at each other in panic, was it an earthquake?
No, it was a revolving restaurant!!! A wonderful experience I'm sure, but at this point it just made us feel a little queasy and travel sick. We finished our drinks and went to wait for the Doctor.
After 18:46 had passed with only ordinary shinkansen for company, we realised the nerdy intel had been wrong all along and made our way back to the hotel. Ah well, I'm sure I'll see it one day...
Exclusive Daily Festive Offers
From midnight every day you can open a new 'advent window' and see what the special offer is for that day. Be quick though - there are only a limited number of items available each day so when they're gone, the window will close! x
When we first started selling sashiko threads many years ago, most customers hadn't even heard of sashiko never mind tried it. The ones who were brave enough to try something 'new' often stuck to traditional colours - white or cream thread on indigo fabric.
Over the years we have introduced more colours to the range and we now stock the entire range of sashiko threads from Olympus Thread Mfg. Co., Japan. These threads come in 20m and 100m skeins in a wide selection of plain and variegated colours. We have found that as sashiko becomes more well-known, customers are happy to experiment and use different coloured threads for their projects.
We have also found that a lot of customers buy multiple threads at a time online, so we have introduced a special range of sashiko thread bundles, featuring a selection of colours grouped into themes. When you buy a bundle, you get a £2 discount on the full price, which is basically a free skein of thread!
Remember, these threads are not only perfect for sashiko but can also be used for Boromono mending, big-stitch quilting and other stitched embellishments.
For a bright, fun selection, how about the 'Rainbow' bundle? All the colours of the rainbow, plus black, white and a variegated rainbow thread.
The 'Autumn' bundle evokes feelings of changing seasons, falling leaves and a long walk in the countryside followed by hot chocolate next to a roaring fire.
'Cool and Calm' is a beautiful, soft palette to soothe and refresh.
With many other thread bundles on offer, there is bound to be something that takes your fancy. Maybe this would be a perfect gift for the embroiderer or quilter who has everything? We hope you enjoy having a browse through these lovely colour collections, and let us know if you have any ideas for other themes!x
The Japan Crafts elves have been beavering away the last few weeks, not only preparing for the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate next week, but also devising some cracking '12 Days of Christmas' offers for the website.
In fact, we got so excited that we made a fun little video for you to watch!
We have also set up a special Christmas Shop page in the form of an advent calendar. There is a special offer behind each window! Check back each day to see what the offer is for that day. Can you guess what some of them might be...?x
I'm trying to give customers as much choice as possible with the sashiko samplers, and am finding that these days, people have had a go and are coming back for their second, third or more designs. It's great to be kept on my toes! But I find people like to see the finished result rather than just being told "this pattern would look nice in this colour thread", so I am constantly stitching up new designs as they are sent from Japan, as well as reworking older designs to see if they look better (or different) in other colours.
Recently I have finished the Hanabishi (Diamond Flowers) and Hanazashi (Stitched Flowers) patterns and am very happy with my colour choices. Apparently, so are customers - the Hanabishi kits sold out at the Duxford show before the end of Saturday!
I've also reworked the Kakinohana (Persimmon Flower) kit with a different colourway. Originally I wanted to make it look like persimmon fruits, with orange fruits and green leaves. It does, but since I finished the design on Halloween I also thought it resembled pumpkins! Either way, I like the calming colourway as a an alternative to the original bright pink one. At some point I will also make a sample using lemon and green thread, to resemble the actual flowers of the persimmon tree.
While I'm waiting for another order to arrive from Japan, I'm working on a Linked Crosses hitomezashi sampler. Hitomezashi uses much more thread so there is more work involved. Usually, I work the horizontal and vertical stitches first, but this time I'm starting with the diagonals. The packet calls for 6 x 20m skeins of thread(!). Originally I was going to do the horizontal/vertical crosses in cream thread and the 'links' in 100m variegated pink (the colour is much more 'pink' in real life), so I wanted to stitch the variegated thread first to see how it looked. I really like the look of the pinks, so will probably stitch the whole thing in them. I also want to see if I can get it all done with a 100m skein...wish me luck! The kit will be available as soon as I've finished x
I've been selling these lovely 'hanafukin' sashiko samplers from Olympus for a few years now and they have always been very popular as a way to dip your toe into sashiko for the first time, and to give as gifts.
The first time I encountered sashiko was on a trip to Japan many years ago when I spotted the rabbit sampler in a craft shop in Kyoto. I just loved the design and could see it was made by following the printed lines with a running stitch, but I had no idea there was a special name for this type of embroidery at the time. The design appealed to me because I knew the Japanese fable of the rabbit who lives on the moon making mochi rice cakes. So I bought the sampler, along with needles and cream thread, and spent some happy evenings stitching it after my daughter was in bed.
I returned to the craft shop to learn more about sashiko, and as soon as I got home I ordered Susan Briscoe's book and began to practice more. Eventually I began teaching sashiko in my workshops and importing the samplers, needles and threads.
I kept that first rabbit I made, and used it as a sample at shows for years; everybody loved it and the rabbit has always been my best seller. Several years later, as a way of introducing more of the different coloured threads, I stitched a Mount Fuji sampler using various colours. This was also a hit. So when I had a rebrand earlier this year, my partner (who was doing the rebranding) suggested I should make a sample of ALL the designs, and make them into kits. Considering I have about 20 different designs, this was no small project!
My routine became: work during the day as usual, then spend every evening doing sashiko with Netflix and Nutmeg for company. My partner did a great job designing lovely, bright labels for each kit, which I then had printed. In time I had stitched a sample of each design, and in some cases two, so I have variations in thread colours for people to choose. I even redid the rabbit one with subtle pale pink thread for the cherry blossoms, and pale blue for the waves. The problem is, as soon as I think I've finished, I see a new design I want to get! So now I'm back to stitching again every day...
Look out for new kits each time you visit!
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I started Japan Crafts in 2006 and have been bringing wonderful fabrics and techniques to people in the UK ever since.