By guest contributor Alice Gordenker
The idea of retelling history in a quilt is nothing new to readers of this blog, but in Japan it’s hardly a familiar concept. This may explain why my effort to share the story of a once famous Japanese pilgrimage through quilting had trouble getting off the ground.
The idea came to me while making a film about tattoo culture on Mt. Oyama, a peak about 30 miles west of Tokyo that has long been regarded as sacred and worshipped for bringing rain.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mt. Oyama became a popular pilgrimage destination for the common people of Edo (now Tokyo), who would organize by neighborhood or occupation into pilgrimage groups. They would travel together and climb the mountain wearing matching pilgrims’ wear called gyōi—an open cotton jacket bearing their group’s name and unique insignia. This is a tradition that continues to this day.
One of the people who appeared in my film was Takeshi Satoh, a 37th-generation sendōshi, a traditional innkeeper and spiritual guide who leads groups of pilgrims up the mountain.
Satoh-san shared with me a problem common among the Oyama innkeepers: the storage space in his modest inn was overflowing with no-longer-used jackets made for groups that have long since disbanded. Who might take them off his hands? Needless to say, my hand shot up and he sent me home with a bundle of vintage cotton.
A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to show the gyōi to Mutsuko Yawatagaki, a well-known quilter and founder of the Izumo Museum of Quilt Art. Taken with the quality of the old cotton, the varying shades of white, and the stylishness of the individually designed group logos, she offered to work up a design.
What Yawatagaki produced far exceeded my initial idea for a simple bedcover—this was a quilt that could speak to the world, telling the story of the Oyama pilgrimage through precious fabrics and patterns.
But how to get the quilt made? I approached local tourism officials, asking them to cover the cost of materials while explaining how the quilt could generate interest in visiting Mt. Oyama. They listened politely, but being unfamiliar with quilting, it was too difficult for these men to imagine what I had in mind.
I did eventually manage to secure a grant from a private foundation and Yawatagaki set to work. She did all of the cutting and piecing herself, then entrusted the sewing and quilting to a small group of her advanced students.
The four women had previously been solitary quilters and enjoyed the chance for community. Working together, they shared techniques and tips, including that, when sewing the layers together, holding a spoon under the backing makes it easy to return the needle to the top.
Although the coronavirus forced a halt in progress for several months, the quilt—which measures about 8 feet tall and 7 feet wide—was completed in about a year.
The central image takes inspiration from woodblock prints, in which Mt. Oyama is often depicted together with Mt. Fuji. (The two mountains are geographically close, and the god of Mt. Oyama is the father of the female deity of Mt. Fuji!)
Mt. Oyama, on the left, is pieced from cotton jackets dating from the late 19th to 20th century. As homage to the unknown workers who sewed the jackets, Yawatagaki deliberately left the original stitching on some of these pieces visible.
Mt. Fuji and the rest of the quilt are constructed of fabric salvaged from antique silk kimono from the 18th and 19th centuries. The subdued colors in the areas around the mountains are meant to evoke the rain clouds that often shroud the summit of Mt. Oyama. To keep these relatively monotone sections interesting, Yawatagaki introduced texture through intricate piecing in traditional Japanese patterns.
The most difficult section to cut and piece was the pattern at the top left, a variation of the connected seven-treasures (shippō-tsunagi) motif called wachigai. It is considered highly auspicious because it incorporates a chain (implying continuity) and circles (implying plentitude) and has often been used in family crests and the material used to back decorative screens.
This pattern carries a wish for unbroken family lines with many offspring. The other traditional patterns used are (top right) a variation of the yabane (arrow feathers) motif constructed of elongated hexagons, and (bottom, from left) ichimatsu (checks), hishi (diamonds) and, in greens, the asa no ha (hemp leaf) pattern.
The section at bottom right was also demanding to make, as the hexagons that make up the kikkō (tortoise shell) motif not only vary in size, but are individually outlined with a thin border of black silk.
The quilt made its public debut in October at Mt. Oyama’s annual Noh by Firelight event, garnering favorable reviews and press coverage. Local tourism officials, now understanding what a quilt can be, offered an opportunity for an encore exhibition in the lobby of a community center for the month of December.
They will also introduce the quilt in an upcoming tourism promotion in Tokyo. In conjunction with exhibitions, Ms. Yawatagaki will teach a series of “quilting with kimono” workshops, including one in English on Mt. Oyama on February 13, 2022.
Our plan going forward is to show the quilt in a variety of events and settings to promote knowledge and understanding about Japanese fabrics, pilgrimage traditions and, of course, Mt. Oyama.
The Oyama Pilgrimage Quilt was supported by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. It was designed, cut and pieced by Mutsuko Yawatagaki and sewn and quilted by Miyako Matsuura, Reiko Hata, Keiko Fukushiro and Masae Tachibana. Very unfortunately, Takeshi Satoh, the innkeeper who donated the pilgrimage jackets, passed away before the quilt was completed. It is dedicated to his memory.
ABOUT ALICE GORDENKER
Alice is an American journalist and consultant who lives and works in Tokyo. She is intrinsically involved with the travel industry in Japan—helping Japan be a great host country and educating other countries on the treasures of Japan.
To visit Alice’s website +click here
To see Alice's video, Opening Mt. Oyama, which shows how gyōi are still worn today by a pilgrimage group that has made the trek up the mountain every year for more than three centuries, +click here [9:44 video]
To see Alice’s video HORIMONO, which follows a group with full-body tattoos on their annual pilgrimage to Mt. Oyama +click here [17:45 video]