On our first rainy day in Japan we planned to spend as much time in doors as we could, and our first port of call on my textile tour of Japan was to visit the Amuse Museum and see the Boro collection that is housed within.
I’ll be honest and say I never understood people’s obsession with boro cloth. It has spawned what seems to me to be a craft movement all of its own, and one that is not necessarily about mending and making do. There is a lot of work out there that is boro inspired, but – its new. It’s not made because if you don’t patch that elbow your arm might freeze off in the cold, its made purely for aesthetics. I can’t decide how I really feel about it. On one hand I can admire its beauty, on the other hand it seems to almost belittle the roots of boro. The new rise of visible mending I think is entirely different, and one I wholeheartedly stand behind – just to ensure the two are not confused.
So with the thought in mind that I cared not much for boro (having never experienced the real thing), the museum was a wonderful surprise to me.
Looking around the museum I saw a room full of clothes and bedding that were reduced to tatty rags with age. They are stitched together again and again, randomly yet with great care. They are not beautiful in themselves. They are worn out and sad. But as you walk around reading the history of the different pieces, they change right before your eyes. They become imbued with the hardship, the struggle, the love and the care with which they were made and repaired, and beauty of their story shines through.
Each piece is a map of a life, sometimes many lives and generations. There were two pieces whose story I loved so completely. One was the Donja which looks like an extra large kimono, and is many layers of cloth, wadding and stitching. It was used as the family sleeping coat, and the whole family would get naked, and curl up inside it to keep warm. It was beautiful to behold its many layers, but also to consider the closeness families would come to have in their lives. Even if there were squabbles, once the sun went down, they needed each other to stay warm and to stay alive. I wonder if they would reach a point where they had such a synergy that there was never any conflict, and each person became an extension of the other.
The other was the Bodo or Bodoko which translates to being “life cloth”. The bodo is a sheet used to sleep on patched together from hemp and cotton. It was also often used as the cloth that babies were born upon, and was pieced together from clothes worn by the families ancestors. It is a monument to the love of the family, and of welcoming new life into the family. I wont write here everything the sign in the museum says, but reading the story of this piece brought tears to my eyes. It truly embodied my feelings about my own family, and the love I have for them.
Visiting the museum gave me a new sense of why textiles are important, why the cloth, the fibre and even the fashion of it mean something. We cover ourselves every day, we wear clothes for a multitude of reasons – to keep warm, to alert others to our sense of style, and also to display the kind of person we are, what our socio economic status is, and in many cases to show others what we care about. The clothes on our backs become us.
The gallery was empty the entire time we visited. Outside thousands of people were visiting a temple*, and exclaiming over it, spending money to write down wishes on cards, and throwing coins into prayer boxes in the hope that they might find what they were looking for. They were spending money in the museum gift shop, without bothering to enter the museum. It was such a stark juxtaposition that I was shocked, but then of course, was not. If only they would climb the gallery stairs they might find within themselves what they were looking for.
*We visited it too, and wandered around Asakusa a little. It’s very touristy but worth a side visit if you go to the museum. Visiting the temple is free.