It is often said that Japan has a way of borrowing from other cultures and adapting that which is borrowed to make it both distinctly Japanese and better than it was originally. In the case of quilting, I can attest to the former, but am not prepared to make any judgment with respect to the latter.
Until June 24, 2018, there is a special exhibition of nearly 400 Japanese quilts at the Hyakudan Kaidan (Hundred Step Staircase) of the Gajoen Hotel in Meguro. The opulent suite of rooms climbing a side hill of the Meguro River valley date to 1935 and are truly an exhibit in their own right, which also makes them a wonderful venue for exhibitions such as this.
Although the staircase leading to seven rooms on different levels is actually only 99 steps in total, it is known as the Hyakudan Kaidan. Each room features paintings or carvings from the pre-war era. Often a single artist was responsible for the decor of a particular room, so that a theme or style emerges.
Since the bulk of the artwork appears on the ceilings and at the transom level, these rooms have been easily transformed into exhibition rooms and are now regularly used for that purpose.
On entering the first room, it is difficult to know where to focus one’s attention: the quilts on display or the room itself. Both were spectacular.
Some quilts were stitched in geometric patterns that I might characterize as “traditional”, familiar to me because they were similar to the American-made quilts I grew up with.
Others contained designs more uniquely Japanese, evidence of Japan’s penchant for Japanizing what it borrows.
Still others were stitched to make pictures, again most often renditions of traditional Japanese images.
In all cases, the fabrics and colors used were very Japanese, and often seemed to be kimono fabric or even pieces of old kimonos. In addition to stitching together fabric pieces or using applique to overlay patterns on a base, tiny intricate stitches in various patterns attached the overlay piece through the thick center onto the backing.
I particularly liked this use of shibori fabric to create applique flowers.
The patterns on the fabrics were also used to good effect. Sometimes small 3-D effects were stitched in as well.
In some cases, the display of quilts was incorporated into the other features of the rooms.
In one room, large quilts were hung high on the walls, while small quilt squares and quilts of runner proportions stood below. One display of four such works evoked the four seasons.
The colors, the patterns, the creativity, the sheer volume of person-hours involved in the production of these amazing quilts was awe-inspiring and a bit overwhelming. One might even say it must be seen to be believed.
And who can pass up a chance to see the Showa Period decor of the Hyakudan Kaidan at the same time? Get there if you can!
Location: Gajoen Hotel Tokyo, 1-8-1 Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Admission: JPY1,500 for adults; JPY800 for children
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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