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Life on a Japanese indigo farm

Interning at BUAISOU, a farm, dyehouse, and label

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Drawn by a love for the deep blue colour and the mysterious process used to achieve it, Melbourne-via- Tokyo transplant Aya Tatebe spent three months living and working as an intern at BUAISOU, an indigo farm, dyehouse, and label in Tokushima, Japan. As well as growing crops of indigo plants, BUAISOU also uses the traditional Sukumo technique to ferment the harvested indigo leaves, then creates a natural ‘hell vat’ in which to dye its own range of products. It’s a unique place that almost defies understanding from a western perspective. Over a couple of stilted conversations, Aya generously took a shot at explaining her life-changing experience to us.

How did you come to be working at BUAISOU?

I found BUAISOU a few years ago and I became interested in what they do. A few months later, my friend Marty decided to have a shop in Melbourne [Godspeed]. He contacted BUAISOU and started to stock the products. I was working for Marty doing communications with the Japanese companies he works with around the time he opened, so I was in contact with the people from BUAISOU, and I just thought one day: I really want to try to do that, so I asked them. It’s really a lot of physical work, so they refused me in the beginning. But I asked them so many times, I was allowed to go there.

Have you proved yourself now?

I’m still too weak. It’s hard to explain, you really have to experience it. It’s such amazing work. I can’t really say it with words; it’s so precious.

Was working at BUAISOU different to how you had imagined?

I actually didn’t imagine anything before I left my home in Melbourne, as I knew that any imagination would fuck me up if things wouldn’t go how I have imagined. Things are not always how we see it on the surface. I was simply curious how they operate the business and really keen on leaning the process of making that colour.

How was BUAISOU different to other places you have worked in the past?

Of course it is totally different details from any other workplaces, yet it is actually pretty similar to cooking or creating an art. I was a cook before I left Melbourne, also working on my art. The concept of creating something from “the roots” or “limited ingredients/materials” is the same as what BUAISOU does.

Can you explain how working at BUAISOU made you realise how precious indigo is?

I was born in Japan, surrounded with lots of Japanese traditional objects; and of course, these included some indigo fabrics. I always liked that beautiful deep blue since I was a child, yet never questioned why I was so attached to that colour.

It actually doesn’t really matter if I was in a different indigo studio or BUAISOU to know how precious indigo is. As it happens, BUAISOU was the place where I started to look into indigo more seriously. The reason why I have chosen to be a trainee at BUAISOU was simple; more media is involved than any other indigo studio in Tokushima, so there were more information on the surface. Also, they do everything in house, which is very rare and unique.

Learning and experiencing about the farming work was very precious to me. As I realised how hard it is to grow the indigo plants: looking after so many fields, weeding, harvesting… there are so many different techniques and knowledge needed for growing good quality indigo plants. I simply thought: I do not even want to touch the indigo liquid until I master the farming work.

You explained to me how you did not see your time at BUAISOU as work, but as life. Can you explain that more?

Making Sukumo takes a whole year, so they don’t get to see if the final quality is good or bad until they actually make the dye. Every season has different things to work on, but mainly they keep doing the same things everyday. They have a life that depends on nature. They simply keep working towards an unknown goal, starting from the seeds. I think that is life.

Doing what they do is part of life, it’s not work anymore. Looking after the farm and making indigo liquid, and dyeing, and making product feels precious. You wake up thinking about farming. You have to mix the indigo liquid every day, because it’s a living product. You have to look after it like a baby. Of course they aim to make certain things in a few years, but what they do is part of their life. It’s just: keep doing the same things every single day, every year, and there’s something about doing that that makes you find what you’re doing more precious. When I was there I felt it was my life, not working. It was a new feeling for me.

Do you think other brands and businesses should operate more like BUAISOU? How would the world change if they did?

It would be beautiful if other brands or businesses could operations in the same way, but I think it would not be very functional, as we live in this complicated and fast society. We have been gifted so many things from nature, however I think we are not really giving back to it. We have to adopt the movement of this society and world, otherwise we might not be able to have cash to buy food.

It is little bit hard to imagine if other brands or businesses did the same things as BUAISOU does, and how the world would change, because there are so many distractions around us. The only thing I could imagine is that we would appreciate more about life. We would consider more about the time that nature creates, not the time that society creates,  “They have a life that depends on nature. They simply keep working towards an unknown goal, starting from the seeds. I think that is life”  and we would be able to have less things. This world is overflowing with too many things and too much information.

What will you do next?

I will probably keep searching and leaning about indigo; that is the reason why I came to Tokushima. Then I would like to apply what I learn to my art and life. Hopefully I will be able to deliver something different to change this world, even a tiny thing, and bring more light to the people who see more shadow than light even only one person. I have been gifted so many beautiful things from this world, so it might be the time to give back. It might sounds abstract and I am still not sure what I can deliver, but I would be very appreciative if I could do something to this world with my creativity. I will keep growing, absorbing, creating, and never stop learning. Creating things from nothing—that is what I always do. Nothing is everything!


This feature originally appeared in the Versus issue, available here.

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