When people call Kyoto the Textile Capital of Japan, it’s easy to write it off as some kind of nostalgic comment.

But there is still a very real and functioning network of textile companies in Kyoto today, tucked between carparks and petshops, incomprehensible from the next house on the street besides a small company sign, and taking up multiple floors on non-descript 1980’s office buildings.

Looks like any old house right? 普通の家に見えるでしょう?

Almost all of the signage and information about these companies is in Japanese, of course, so visitors to Kyoto probably don’t even notice. These businesses also tend to be concentrated in pockets of the city that are removed from the tourist areas, so it’s easy to miss them. I think even Kyoto residents don’t even really notice.

近く見たら、染織関係だ!看板小さいね。A closer look at the building above shows it houses a Textile Artists’ Association and a decorative textile research office.

As a kind of experiment last week, I walked around some of the streets I know to be textile areas just to see how many of these companies I could spy. The answer? In just 30 minutes, stacks!

I was excluding those specialising in weaving (you can hear the whirrs and clacks of the looms beyond the frosted windows); trying to just narrow it down to businesses related to dyeing and the kimono industry. The number is practically exponential, once you start looking up and reading the signs.

A company specialising in dyeing Black. Black is known as a very technically difficult colour to dye well, hence entrusting that step to a separate business. 黒染屋さん。黒って、染めにくいから、分業して、黒染専門の工場が作られたでしょう。
黒染屋さんの看板。着物の形。Black Dyeing shop with it’s Kimono shaped Sign.
tiny sign to indicate this is a dye workshop. In the Nishijin district of Kyoto. 西陣にある染め工房。
This one was a triple line-up. Dyeing workshop with the blue signs, then a business that does dye finishing processes and then a flag business. 三つも並んでいた!
Right next to a pet shop, this one is more weaving oriented, silk fibre company.
Typical looking house on a typical looking street.. 普通の通りに普通に見える家は・・・
but it turns out to be another business that does specialised Black Dyeing. 黒染屋さんでした!

Business making chirimen silk kimono
Another dyeing company…
and another…

And another…

and another!!

This business sews Japanese clothing like kimono or haori etc.
This one specialised in Kyoto style embroidery. Probably for embellishing kimono
the shop with the red noren curtain sells kimono lining fabrics.
これは紅型の会社だそうです。This one is a Bingata (okinawan style stencil dyeing) business.

I think you can start to get a sense of how numerous these businesses are. There were many others I didn’t take photos of because it felt rude. I know there were also many more that I missed or that are not specifically marked on the building even though they are operating some kind of textile business. You can see below where these businesses are concentrated.

the red dots are dyeing-related businesses in Kyoto
Now that kimono are no longer standard everyday wear, many businesses such as these presumably have less work than they used to. I wonder what will happen to them in the future? They are powerhouses of knowledge and specialised equipment as well as links in the chain of kimono production. The division of labour means that when one business closes down (such as a steaming company that shut down 2 years ago) then the rest of the chain is affected. As more start to close, the chain will end up with some big holes. Can the individual businesses find ways to keep their services relevant in future? I guess it remains to be seen.