Usually I travel to Japan four times a year, often for just 3 or 4 days at a time, meeting contacts and suppliers, attending exhibitions and events, and scouring for new products and ideas to bring back to customers in the UK. Obviously this has all been put on hold during the last 18 months, so I'm delighted to have set up several new suppliers recently, especially since most Japanese businesses prefer face-to-face contact.
I can now proudly announce that I am the new UK distributor of Fujix threads - a company founded in Kyoto 100 years ago which manufacturs beautiful sewing and embroidery threads for domestic and industrial use. Although I am not planning on stocking many of these threads at this stage, the ones I am very excited about are their special threads which are hand-dyed with persimmon juice and suitable for sashiko!
Dyeing fabric and thread with the astringent juice of unripe green persimmon fruits is a tradition dating back over 1,000 years in Japan. As well as providing a waterproof layer, persimmon juice is also said to be a natural antiseptic and an insect repellent. It is also used to make sturdy katazome stencils from washi paper for kimono dyeing.
These beautiful threads come in a range of 5 colours, all with evocative names for each shade:
1. Green Tea 'Mouse' Grey
2. Clove Brown
3. Astringent Persimmon Brown
4. Sparrow Head Brown
5. Dusky Brown
I have listed them to buy individually, or as a special-price pack of all five colours here.
Since each dye is made by hand, there may be slight variation between batches, which only adds to the charm. Colours can change with age, exposure to sunlight, humidity etc, and also leach a little into surrounding fabrics if rubbed. This will add authenticity to any boro-inspired projects and lend a sense of wabi-sabi chic similar to antique Japanese textiles.
I hope you love these threads as much as I do, and please share any photos of work you make with them. I've got lots of plans for the set that I've snaffled for myself - hopefully I will get time to complete my project and show you soon!x
OK so my latest news isn't strictly Japan Crafts but I am sure a lot of you will be interested to hear what has been happening behind the scenes. This fortnight was supposed to be a well-earned break for Man and I, but instead we have embarked on an exciting new project together - we are opening a shop!
As many of you know, I have a rather large collection of vintage and antique kimono (including all the accessories and many other things I've picked up in Japan over the years). I've been wanting to downsize it for a long time but most of it is not suitable for selling online or sending through the post.
Last week we happened to visit a new, very cool indoor venue in Digbeth (Birmingham) called Red Brick Market. It is a former factory which has been converted into lots of units for independent traders and artisans and has been likened to Camden Market in London. The traders themselves don't have to attend - you just pick up your purchases as you go round, and pay at a central desk. We found ourselves buying a few bits and pieces, then later that day the lightbulb started to go on for both of us...why not rent a unit ourselves?!
Within 24 hours we had picked a unit and signed the lease! A fleeting trip up to North Yorkshire to load the van full of my collection and now we are busily preparing for our opening launch on 3rd July.
The beauty of this venue is that we don't have to be there, so we can operate Retro Kimono in our spare time, popping in once or twice a week to restock. Don't worry, Japan Crafts will continue as usual! But since Retro Kimono is completely separate, I'm afraid I can't offer any of the kimono goods for sale online - you will have to come and visit us in person.
Our key concept is 'authentic and affordable', so we will be offering genuine, beautiful pieces from Japan at reasonable prices so that everybody can enjoy these stunning textiles. We also promote the idea that it's ok to repurpose the fabric into something you will use and love, rather than pass up a kimono because you won't wear it. This is done in Japan all the time as people don't wear kimono so much nowadays but they still appreciate the beauty of the fabric and want to give it a new lease of life.
In time we will also be supporting the work of some of our creative friends, and we already have Seedology, Toslisy and Equality Cards lined up to showcase their products in the shop.
We've already got more stock on its way from Japan so there will be new things to look at each time you visit!
The address is
Red Brick Market
119 Floodgate Street,
Monday to Saturday 10-6
We would really appreciate if you could follow us on Facebook and Instagram where we are posting regularly to show new stock and give more information about kimono, Japanese culture etc.
Red Brick Market Birmingham also has social media pages where they show the various traders so you can get a flavour of what else you will find there. It's a real treasure trove! It is right next door to Birmingham Big Bake, and directly opposite the famous Custard Factory where you can find more wonderful independent shops, bars and restaurants. Why not come for a day out?
I've had about 10 shipments stuck in various Customs depots over the last couple of weeks which can get very frustrating when there are new and exciting products in the boxes! The delays are all due to the extra paperwork associated with Brexit, now that everything coming to and from Europe has to go through Customs. Even my shipments that come straight from Japan to the UK get stuck in the same system, so everything takes at least a week longer than it should, and in some cases more.
After what seemed like forever, I have finally received new stock from Japanese sashiko company Hobbyra Hobbyre. Despite the weird name, I like this brand because they have some really lovely variegated sashiko threads, in 56m skeins which are a perfect length for a couple of pre-printed samplers or as an accent on a larger panel.
The colour combinations are very different from other sashiko manufacturers and I can't wait to stitch up some samples and make some kits with them!
Hobbyra Hobbyre pre-printed sashiko samplers are also very distinctive, with traditional designs drawn from Japanese culture. I've got a few designs in stock now but plan to get more over the coming weeks, as they have already proved popular since I put them on the website to pre-order.
There is definitely a trend for luxury sewing goods and accessories at the moment, perhaps because people have honed their needlework so much over the lockdowns that they now want to spoil themselves with the very best tools! Clever storage ideas are also popular, and I'm not going to comment on the reasons for that except to say that my own 'stash' also requires ever-more ingenious storage solutions...
Hobbyra Hobbyre have designed several adorable tins in which you can hold all your sashiko tools and threads. The first is specifically designed for sashiko tools and even comes filled with them so there's no excuse for losing anything!
A traditional wooden Japanese 15cm ruler, 3 sashiko needles, 2 sashiko thimbles, a handmade pincuchion and a quality pair of thread snips are inside this beautifully designed tin which will look gorgeous displayed in your sewing area (or by the sofa. I know what you're like!). There's room for other bits and bobs such as a marking pen, pins, threads and even a folded-up sampler you're working on, too.
If you find your threads are always going a-wandering, then the next tin might be a better choice as it contains 11 of Hobbyra Hobbyre's most popular shades (plus a pack of sashiko needles) and the design on the front makes it very obvious what's inside! This set costs much less than buying the threads individually would, so you're saving money too. Win-win.
I think either of these tins would make a lovely gift for someone who you perhaps haven't seen for a while but who you know would appreciate it. And of course, I've already snaffled one of each for myself (as you can tell I hate my job...)🌸
In other news I have curated a special collection of goodies for Pride month, with 10% of the proceeds going to York LGBT Forum until the end of June. This is a charity that I have been closely associated with for a few years now and have made many friends from, and the work they do literally saves lives.
There are always accusations of 'rainbow washing' during Pride month, as corporations and big businesses increasingly use Pride as a commercial opportunity and many in the LGBTQ+ community see this 'support' as a crass, disingenuous gesture which doesn't last beyond 30th June.
Even as a small business owner who is very much part of the community, I am liable for backlash if I am seen as profiting in any way from Pride, so this year I am donating a percentage of takings to charity rather than having any discounts or special offers.
In case you didn't know, Pride started as a protest against police brutality towards the LGBT community, and in particular was started by and for Black transgender women. It was (and for many, always will be) very far removed from the carnival floats and celebrations we see at parades today. You can read the history of the Stonewall Riots here
When Man and I visited New York in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we were absolutely flabbergasted when Stonewall veteran Victoria Cruz sauntered into the pub! Even more so that nobody else (including the Stonewall bar staff) recognised her, I mean she's hardly a wallflower! Here I am having my little fangirl moment with her.
Personally, although I agree that it's galling to see big businesses flying a rainbow flag whilst having an appalling LGBT record, I also think it's important for smaller businesses to be able to flaunt their goods during Pride. For many customers, it's affirming to see and be able to buy LGBT merchandise and it's a real shame that several friends of mine who own LGBT businesses feel they have to hide for fear of being seen as 'rainbow washing'. I also know people who are trolled online and who have lost customers simply by showing their support for the LGBT community. This is the very opposite of what Pride stands for.
If you own, or know of, an LGBT-owned business, I would like to invite you to comment with a link to it below so that others can have the chance to support it. LGBT people also need allies, so you don't have to be part of the community to add your support. And I have to approve each comment before it is shown publicly, so don't worry about trolls!
🌈🌈🌈 Happy Pride Month to Everybody 🌈🌈🌈
We all need to do our bit to reduce our use of plastics, and the amount of plastic I use as a business has been weighing on my mind for some time now. In particular, the infamous 'pink envelopes' may be cute, but when I see them stacked up in packs of 1,000 they seem like an enormous waste 😔
Ebony recently wrote a very eloquent blog post about the importance of reducing our plastic waste here
Some customers have suggested using cardboard packaging, but this is completely impractical. Sending fabrics in cardboard, during this time of contact-free deliveries which often end up dumped on a soggy doorstep in the rain, isn't ideal. You may not be aware that due to the sharp increase in global internet shopping, coupled with social distancing in factories AND Brexit, there is also a shortage of cardboard! Basically, the majority of cardboard produced goes straight to Amazon.
I can't do much about the amount of plastic a lot of items come wrapped in from Japan (besides badger the manufacturers!), but I have researched alternative mailing bags and have managed to find a viable solution.
So, as soon as my current supply of pink bags is used up, I will be switching over to fully compostable mailing bags made from plant starch! You can pop these bags in your kitchen caddy and fill them with peelings for the compost heap, knowing that's one less plastic bag going to landfill.
These bags also feature a double glue strip, meaning they can be used twice as mailing bags so they are worth hanging onto for next time you need to send something.
Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and the main reason I've put it off for so long is the cost. Each bag costs about 20p more than the pink ones but hopefully if more businesses start to use eco-friendly packaging, the price will come down.
So rather than pass this cost straight on to customers, I've decided I will share it, by increasing the cost of postage by just 10p when I start to use the compostable bags. I can't see that anybody will mind such a small increase, and it may even prompt people to make one larger order rather than several small ones, which will also save on the environmental costs associated with multiple deliveries.
As ever, the postage charge is a flat rate, meaning you can order as much as you like and it remains the same, even when it costs me more.
I do hope you are happy to come along with me on this environmental journey, and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below x
I am so proud to introduce the latest range of products which have finally arrived after languishing in Customs for longer than expected!
'Cohana' is a brand which was founded in 1953, producing top quality, craftsman-made sewing goods using small, local producers from all over Japan.
Combining regionally specialised, exquisite craftsmanship with simple yet practical design, Cohana is truly the best of the best in needlework.
Each product comes with an intriguing story behind its development, and you can coordinate items since many are available in a unique colour palette based on scenes from nature in Japan. The core colours evoke 'yellow daffodil', 'watery blue', 'grey ink', 'rose' and 'dayflower'. Several seasonally-exclusive colours such as 'cherry blossom' and 'winter gold' have also been released recently.
Let me introduce some of the range...
It was these tiny pin boxes that first caught my eye. Handmade from cherry wood in Japan's ancient capital city, Nara, each box is lovingly crafted by skilled craftsmen.
Decorated with a handmade mizuhiki cherry blossom knot made in Nagano, the box is opened to reveal 20 pins with pink and yellow glass heads, made in Hiroshima - a city with a 300 year history of needle-making.
Also made in Hiroshima are these dinky packs of pins featuring 'dragonfly eye' handmade glass beads from Osaka. The craftsmanship on these pins is mind-blowing as each one is completely unique. They will bring a joy to your sewing.
If glass isn't quite your thing then surely these yosegi parquetry pins will steal your heart! The woodwork is unbelievably intricate and each pack contains examples of seven types of Japanese hardwood.
You can store your pins on these adorable masu pincushions! Masu are square wooden boxes traditionally used for drinking sake, but here they have been miniaturised using the same 1,300 year old woodwork technique which uses no nails or glue.
Pincushions come in the five classic Cohana colourways with a hand-dyed and hand-woven linen top and a glass-headed pin made in Hiroshima and Osaka.
How small can the very best scissors be? This was the playful challenge of Mr. Hasegawa to his artisans at Hasegawa Cutlery, a manufacturer of edged tools in Seki, Japan's foremost cutlery-making town. The result: these adorable and remarkably sharp Seki Mini Scissors. They are a true labour of love from a company with a commitment to time-tested craftsmanship and inventive ideas.
Simply pinch between thumb and forefinger to snip your threads with ease.
Wondering how to store your sashiko and embroidery threads? These cute little thread winders could be the answer! Made by hand in Nagano from Japanese horse chestnut, they come wound with your choice of coloured sewing thread from famous Kyoto thread-makers Fujx, who celebrate their centenary this year.
You can make these thead winders into a pendant or accessory, or string several together to keep them safe.
These rustic pattern/paperweights are made from hand-cast iron in the famous Nambu Ironware region of Northern Japan. The foundry started in 1923 and has produced these special weights in the Cohana colours.
Despite their small size, each weighs a whopping 360g! You can stack them or use the 'buttonholes' to store up to four pens and pencils. In typical Cohana style, each comes beautifully presented in a gift box.
Speaking of pencils, how precious are these boxes of coloured pencils in their handmade washi paper boxes?! The pencils themselves are made by Japan's foremost pencil makers in Tokyo and each of the Cohana signature colours is highly pigmented, with a coloured thread wrapped around the end.
The boxes are embossed with a lovely pin design and can be reused to store your sewing notions and other bits and bobs. They feature a pull-out drawer and make a perfect gift alongside...
...the matching gridded memo pads!
These pads (and pencils) are a dream for anyone who designs their own quilts, cross stitch patterns etc as they open completely flat thanks to the patented technology of the printing company, founded in Tokyo in 1938.
These memo pads, as with everything Cohana makes, have been carefully considered down to the smallest of details, such as the paper being slightly off-white, and the ink for the grid being light grey so as to prevent eye strain.
Finally (for now) we have these exquisite shigaraki ware pottery magnets in the shape of a button. Made by one of the world's oldest ceramics factories (established in 1622!), these lovely little button magnets embody the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi - finding beauty in rustic simplicity.
You can use them as pattern weights for dressmaking, and they also come in handy as a pin or needle keep while you are sewing, or to hold a note in place. A lovely gift for anybody who sews.
I hope you can feel that with these delightfully tactile objects you are truly holding a piece of Japanese history and culture in your hand. They will bring a smile to your face and a sense of beauty to your work space, as well as being an ideal present for someone who sews or appreciates Japanese design.
As well as being unique and handmade, you can choose your favourite colour and build up a collection...mine is yellow, and yes I have bagsied all the yellow things already!x
Have you heard of Golden Week in Japan? It is a series of national holidays each year which fall in the same week, giving many people almost a full week off work. During this time there are lots of fun events to visit such as festivals and historical parades, flower viewings of wisteria and azalea, and fantastic displays of koi carp streamers.
Koi carp streamers (koi nobori) can be seen all over Japan flying from homes, public buildings, everywhere! They symbolise a wish for boys to grow up big and strong like the legendary carp which swims up the waterfall to become a dragon. Some attractions such as Tokyo Skytree even have special koi nobori festivals where thousands of streamers are displayed. 5th May is Children's Day (sometimes called Boys' Day) which marks the end of Golden Week.
If you read any travel advice online, it usually tells you to avoid Golden Week as the transport system and hotels, restaurants etc are so busy, but I've been to Japan during Golden Week several times and found that it is not really as bad as it sounds. Of course, you will probably already have accommodation booked before you travel anyway!
My most memorable experience was about six years ago when my flight was rescheduled in Amsterdam, necessitating a mad dash from Osaka to Tokyo by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) the moment I landed in order to attend a business meeting. I ran from the station, exhausted, sweaty and dragging all my luggage, with less than five minutes to spare before the supplier closed for Golden Week!
This year for Golden Week I wanted to offer you something special. The shops are opening up again but sadly it will be at least a few more months before the shows restart so I shall be trading solely online for a while yet. So I have to tempt you however I can!
From 29th April to 5th May the large sashiko panels designed by Susan Briscoe will be just £15 - that's a huge saving of £5 per panel! Not only that, but there will also be £1 off each skein of 100m thread, so there's no excuse not to get stocked up and ready for a summer of sashiko.
The panels come in four different designs and are so versatile. You can leave them as a whole and add a border, or cut them into smaller samplers which can then be turned into placemats and coasters, cushions or even framed pictures. There are eight large and eight small designs per panel, so that's less than £1 per design with this offer!
Why not try different colours of thread (or a variegated one) to add a modern twist?
And as ever, send me a pic of what you make so I can add it to the customer gallery!x
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
we are social
I started Japan Crafts in 2006 and have been bringing wonderful fabrics and techniques to people in the UK ever since.