Model case 24

Living Alongside Indigo. New Stories from Tokushima Featuring Japan Blue.

Reinventing the Charms of Ancient Indigo.
New Potential in New Forms.

Tokushima Prefecture—The Home of Tokushima Indigo, Awa Indigo, and Indigo Foods

Japan Blue is a variety of the indigo color that is highly sought after worldwide. The plants used for indigo dyeing can be found throughout the world, and their history can be traced back approximately 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. Verses mentioning indigo can also be found in the ancient Manyoshu book of Japanese poems, suggesting that indigo dyeing began to spread across Japan from the Nara and Heian periods.
Today, the indigo color is known for its use in jeans, for example, but the majority of this indigo is synthetic, with only a few manufacturers using natural indigo dyeing methods. Much of the indigo found in Tokushima, however, is produced naturally. Moreover, in addition to its use as a dye, indigo in Tokushima has long been a familiar food. There is a saying that indigo craftsmen never get sick, and due to its nutritional value and functionality, in recent years it has been garnering significant attention as a so-called superfood. Rethinking the possibilities for indigo from diverse perspectives, a new generation of individuals from Tokushima are kickstarting new indigo movements.

Chapter 01

Unique Regional Characteristics

Tokushima Prefecture is famous for its traditional Awa-odori dance, but it is also Japan’s largest producer of a natural dye known as Awa indigo. Awa indigo, or sukumo, is a natural dye made from the fermented leaves of indigo plants produced in Tokushima Prefecture. With a warm climate and low rainfall, the fertile land around the Yoshino River basin is ideally suited to the growth of these indigo plants. In the Edo period, production of these indigo plants flourished both in terms of quality and quantity. Later, however, due to imports of cheap indigo and chemical dyes, production of these indigo plants began to fall. That said, the history, culture, and techniques of the industry have been passed down uninterrupted to this day.
 As a key presence that is helping to support the world-famous Japan Blue industry, Tokushima Prefecture is working to uncover and develop entirely new indigo-based charms while maintaining the traditions of the craft.

Chapter 02

Watanabe’s—Communicating a New Indigo-dyeing Culture Worldwide

More than ten years ago, Kenta Watanabe came across indigo in a magazine and decided to take part in an indigo-dyeing workshop.
He was instantly attracted and inspired by the smell, texture, and complex yet beautiful color. Today, Watanabe is the representative director of Watanabe’s and an active indigo craftsman and dyer.
 He says, “When I first experienced indigo dyeing, it was as if a forgotten memory had come back to me, and I knew there and then that it was something I had to do.” Four days after participating in the workshop, Watanabe submitted his letter of resignation to the company he was working for, and applied to the Local Vitalization Cooperator program in Kamiita Town in Tokushima Prefecture. He says that the beginning of his new life came almost instantly.
While engaging in the program’s activities, Watanabe took it upon himself to learn about everything from the cultivation of indigo plants to the dyeing process itself. With friends, he then established BUAISOU, a company undertaking every process from the creation of sukumo to the dyeing and manufacturing of products. The company opened a studio in New York and caught the attention of celebrities from the fashion industry and the entertainment industry. However, to “further engage in the indigo dyeing process as a producer,” Watanabe set up his namesake company Watanabe’s in 2019.
 The sukumo required for indigo dyeing is created via a lengthy process. The indigo plant seeds are planted in spring, and the leaves of the plant are harvested and dried in summer. From the beginning of autumn, the dried leaves are fermented using only water and air for around 120 days. Those who create the sukumo are known as aishi, or indigo craftsmen, and those in charge of the dyeing process are known as someshi, or dyers. Originally, aishi and someshi were two different professions, but in line with today’s society and the local environment, Watanabe is in charge of both roles. This is one of the major appeals of his company Wanatabe’s. The company embodies Watanabe’s belief that this is “not for tradition, but for innovation.”
 In Watanabe’s workshop today, there are numerous young workers silently and carefully devoting themselves to the dyeing process. Among these workers are an individual who joined after seeing the workshop on a university trip, an individual who came directly to the workshop with his resume and asked for a job, and an individual from the US. All of the team were attracted by the charms of indigo. On the day of our interview, also visiting Watanabe’s workshop was Melanie Mano of France, owner of the ainisomatte indigo workshop in Misaki Town in Okayama Prefecture. Mano is another individual who, like Watanabe, is fascinated by indigo and a technique called shiborizome, or tie dyeing.
 Watanabe’s vision is to “communicate the indigo culture as it is to the rest of the world.” To do so, he believes it is important to incorporate the culture into our everyday lives and leave it there for all to see. Not doing so would be meaningless, he says. A concept he is currently planning is a project to make sukumo more widely known. One idea is to distribute indigo plant seeds to interested parties to share the cultivation process. The plants could then be returned to create sukumo. He has also thought about creating a DIY sukumo fermentation kit and driving throughout Japan and countries overseas to spread the indigo fermentation culture in different areas. He has even considered creating a documentary of this process.
 “When I first came to Tokushima after quitting my job, I had such a sense of fulfillment from indigo dyeing that I much preferred working over sleeping,” says Watanabe, showing his real passion for the craft. Speaking with a twinkle in his eye, Watanabe exuded positivity. We look forward to seeing the different ways in which he communicates the indigo culture worldwide.

【Watanabe’s website:】

Chapter 03

Bon-Arm—A Scientific Approach to Showcase the Charms of Indigo from the Food Sector

Yoshihiro Mitani is the manager of a pharmacy and food sales store, and is working to spread the indigo culture from the food sector. His first encounter with indigo was completely by chance. It was only when someone came to him asking whether he could make use of organic indigo plants that he took an interest, and after examining various pieces of literature on the subject, he discovered that since long ago it had been used as a medicinal plant for detoxification and for the alleviation of fevers. After learning more about the plant’s benefits, safety, and nutritional value, he made it his mission to “communicate the potential uses of indigo more widely.” Tokushima Prefecture has one of the highest mortality rates from diabetes in Japan, and with his knowledge as a pharmacist, Mitani had always looked at different ways in which he could improve patients’ lifestyle habits. In this sense, perhaps his desire to work with indigo was inevitable.
 Mitani says, “Although indigo and Tokushima go hand in hand, I did not think that its reputation as a dye alone would go very far. This is why I came up with the idea to communicate its potential from the food sector, which is much more familiar.”
 When using something in food, the utmost priority is to communicate its safety. As such, Mitani decided to use organic indigo carefully raised by contracted farmers in the Mima area of Tokushima Prefecture, which is around 400 meters above sea level and part of a wider area that has been recognized as a World Agricultural Heritage Site. Moreover, worried that a bright blue color might not be very appealing in food, he researched ways to create deep blue colors. He also went through much trial and error to discover roasting methods that would draw out the flavor of the indigo and ways to process the leaves into powder.
 Elsewhere, since 2017 Mitani has been involved as a producer in the industry-academia-government Indigo Research and Development Platform, whose aim is to promote diverse uses for indigo. Working with Shikoku University and Tokushima University, the platform is taking a scientific approach to creating indigo-based innovations. In fact, research by Shikoku University has helped uncover scientific proof of the functionality and safety of indigo, and as a result indigo leaves and stems were approved for consumption by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in July 2020. The commercialization of indigo food products has since increased rapidly. Today, working alongside the comprehensive sweet manufacturer Kotobuki Spirits, Mitani has commercialized Awa indigo tea, indigo candy, indigo langues de chat biscuits, and more. These products are on sale online and at outlets throughout the prefecture.
 However, Mitani’s plans for indigo do not stop at food. He is advocating lifestyles in which indigo appears everywhere, from clothing and food to homes and beauty products. “To properly highlight indigo as a culture, it is paramount that we create new values and attractive stories,” he says. Mitani is currently working on an accommodation facility where guests can attend indigo workshops, while at the same time dyeing and creating dyed products in-house and collaborating with woodworkers. In fact, numerous plans and promotions are underway to further communicate the charms of indigo across Japan.
Mitani has adopted a scientific approach to showcase the charms of indigo from the food sector. As he looks far into the future, for him indigo is something that is an integral part of life.

【bon-arm website:】

Chapter 04

Sizento—Showing Indigo as a Regional Culture on a Plate of Food

Just a five minute walk from JR Tokushima Station, Sizento is a popular restaurant serving wine and Italian food using seasonal ingredients from Tokushima. The owner is Ken Takuwa, who was born in Osaka. After training at famous Italian restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto for nine years, he moved to his family’s hometown in Tokushima Prefecture. On each of his previous visits to Tokushima, Takuwa was fascinated by the diverse range of food that the prefecture has to offer, including the food from its mountains (game meat, mountain vegetables, and seasonal local vegetables), its seas (fresh seafood), and its rivers (fresh sweetfish from the clear waters of the Yoshino River). The restaurants he trained at also used many ingredients from Tokushima, and he knew that these connections meant that there was every reason for him to open up his own restaurant in the prefecture.
 Sizento opened in 2019, and it was here that there was an unexpected encounter. The abovementioned Yoshihiro Mitani and a friend came to Sizento, and suggested to Takuwa that he use indigo plant powder in his cuisine.
 “After doing some research, I discovered that indigo was growing in popularity as a healthy superfood. Also, rather than the blue of indigo dye, the powder was more like the green of yomogi (Japanese mugwort). I decided to incorporate the powder straight away and start developing my own menu using local indigo from Tokushima,” says Takuwa.
But the process was not easy. Indigo powder is incredibly fine and absorbs moisture, and so using too much would make the dish dry and difficult to put together, while on occasion the fragrance of the leaves was too strong. Making the required adjustments involved lots of trial and error. Today, with a desire to showcase Tokushima’s famous indigo to as many people as possible, Takuwa uses indigo powder in his homemade focaccia and pasta, two things he always serves to his customers. He says that there are many people from both inside and outside the prefecture that stop by the restaurant after attending indigo-dyeing workshops. Recently there has been an increase in number of inbound tourists from Southeast Asia and Europe. Takuwa always introduces the dishes himself, directly communicating with the customers. Moving forward, there will no doubt be many more occasions in which he and his customers will have animated discussions about indigo.
 Sizento’s dishes embody the potential of indigo and showcase it as a regional culture. When asked about his outlook for the future, Takuwa says, “Since opening the restaurant, I have built up the business by serving wine and food using predominantly ingredients from Tokushima. With the addition of indigo, which is a traditional part of Tokushima’s culture, I hope to further embed the restaurant in the region and show off the unique charms that Tokushima has to offer.”

【sizento website:】

Watanabe is aiming for innovation through indigo dyeing. Mitani is using a scientific approach to increase the potential for indigo’s use in food. Takuwa is serving indigo-based foods in a familiar restaurant setting. Seeing the different ways in which these three individuals are researching the potential of indigo was fascinating.
Tokushima Prefecture boasts a warm climate across the year and is blessed with stunning nature from its seas, mountains, and rivers. With a popular anime cafe in the city center, too, it is home to a diverse range of charming features. We look forward to the day when Tokushima becomes the center of global attention as the home of indigo culture innovation and of indigo as a superfood.
Written by : Takahiro Miura