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Letters from Hidden Kyoto

Whether it's your first time here or your hundredth, you'll find that Kyoto is full of little-known locales. I'm an American expat living in Kyoto. Come explore the city with me!

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Kyoto Dyeing Techniques Reinterpreted for Today at Pagong

By Abby Smith

Originally from California, I came to work in Japan in 2013. A lover of languages and shady spots along the Kamo Riverbank, I have been living in Kyoto since 2016. To this day, this thousand year-old city continues to surprise me--there's always something new to discover hiding in plain sight.

The Kamedas once produced exquisite bolts of fabric for Kyoto’s kimono makers. Today, with their unique company Pagong, they have reworked their traditional kata-yuzen dyeing techniques to fashion aloha shirts and other modern styles.

The shirt that started it all

Tomihiro Kameda was in junior high school when his father donned the shirt to attend a local festival. It was unremarkable in shape—loose-fitting, button-front, with a collar—but the colorful pattern of twirling circles and frothing waves that danced through it was anything but. “Apparently, people laughed a bit,” Kameda recalls. “‘What are you wearing?’ they asked him. But he liked how he stood out. I think he’s of the mind that if something doesn’t have much impact, it can’t be very meaningful.” Today, that vividly-patterned aloha shirt hangs on the wall of Kameda’s office as a sort of reminder—it’s the shirt that started Pagong, the unique company where Kameda the younger now works himself.

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Adapting traditional techniques for the 21st century

From 1919 to 2002, Kamedatomi Co., Ltd. produced exquisite bolts of fabric for Kyoto’s kimono makers. These were dyed with a number of traditional techniques, including kata-yuzen, which is Pagong’s specialty today. Kata-yuzen dyeing involves the use of layer upon layer of intricate stencils to apply meticulously concocted shades of dye to the bolts. It’s the same concept behind Kyoto’s beautiful ukiyo-e and other woodblock prints, but applied instead to rich fabrics, cut, sewn, and draped into new art around the body.

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Over the years, however, fewer and fewer Japanese people are wearing kimono in their everyday lives—a fact Kamedatomi Co., Ltd. had to come to terms with at the turn of the century. With the reaction Kameda the senior got from his festive shirt, he returned home and produced more aloha-style shirts dyed with kata-yuzen techniques. When they became popular with friends, neighbors, and even sold out in a department store, he decided he knew how to remake his business: blending formality and tradition with modernity and its more accessible styles.

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This was the birth of Pagong (the Tagalog word for turtle—the “kame” in the Kameda name is written with the character for turtle). Today, the shop sells not only silk aloha shirts, but also scarves, accessories, dresses, and t-shirts made of cotton, and a variety of other fabrics—all carefully crafted to best suit their traditional dyeing methods.

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To see exactly how a garment comes into being, I’m allowed back into the workshop.

Creating a Pagong original

The process begins when designers at Pagong sift through their remarkable collection of historic designs, captured in photos of antique bolts of cloth. The designers use these precious photos to reproduce designs, Kameda explains, or sometimes rework them into entirely new designs.

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Colors are selected for each shade in the intricate patterns, and these colors are then created from scratch in the dye workshop. This is precision work, in which each of the pigments is measured down to the gram, and combined in exacting recipes. A slight miscalculation will result in a completely different color: even amongst shades of black, there are variations—one black may have more blue at its edges where the light shines through, while another appears a more “true” black.

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Throughout the room, like a brewing chamber for magical potions, there are countless buckets filled with similarly rich, shadowy dyes. Even the pastes used to ensure the dyes will stick to the fabrics each require a delicate brew, depending on their purpose—thin and runny for silks, a porridge-like consistency for nylon, and so on.

Ducking between the buckets and into the next room, the actual dyeing process begins. Fabric is stretched smooth along metal plates—sometimes Pagong’s signature silk, woven with a pattern of waves and its namesake sea turtle, other times particular blends of cotton or other fabrics, depending on what the final product will be.

“This could be machine-operated work, it’s true,” Kameda says. But Pagong values the human touch of the expert dyers here: with a rack woven of fine mesh and a dollop of thick dye, they move with surprising rapidity along the length of fabric, scraping the dye over the mesh stencils for layer upon layer without blurring or misplacing any portion of the design, until before my eyes an elaborate spread of peacocks has materialized.

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When the dyer’s work is finished, they peel the fabric from the plates and take it off to be steamed. The steaming process will set the colors in place and even deepen them, before the fabric is rinsed in the final step. (Decades ago, Kyoto dyers washed their fabrics in Kyoto’s central Kamo-gawa River, though today the area is lined with stylish restaurants and bike paths.) Once rinsed of excess dye, Pagong’s fabric creations will be cut, and arranged carefully so that the patterns appear to their best advantage.

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The curious can even experience a part of this process for themselves: Pagong offers a chance to try your hand at making a small-scale creation dyed with the kata-yuzen technique, to really appreciate what goes into this Kyoto tradition.

“Nowadays, you can make just about anything with a computer,” Kameda says. “People occasionally make mistakes—that’s something that happens when you’re making something with human hands. But I think there’s value in that.”

Having said that, you’ll see no “mistakes” in the garments, both brilliant and austere, on display at Pagong’s main showroom in Gojo.

“I’d like to preserve the analog world, because even if an artisan makes an error, he’s created something that’s crafted with human feeling. I welcome anyone who appreciates such handmade items to come into the shop and touch the fabrics with your own hands.”

As we speak, his father’s legendary aloha shirt is visible over his shoulder, an old pattern reworked into a relaxed silhouette, perhaps on a whim, but certainly no mistake.

Pagong has three Kyoto locations, in Gojo, Gion, and Sanjo. They also operate locations in Tokyo and in Bangkok Isetan in Thailand, and an online store for overseas buyers.