Japanese Braiding Part I: International Conference on Braiding in Manchester

Do you know what Japanese braiding (Kumihimo) is? It is a traditional way of braiding to create cords. These cords were used to tie a scroll, or sword, or lace armour, among other things. Now, the most common use of Japanese braids is to tie a sash (obi) when women wear kimono (this type of cord is called Obijime). But if you look carefully, you may notice some of the popular mobile phone straps have a small version of Japanese braids.

Although Obijime are extremely common in Japan, very few people would ever think of making one on their own. I for one was thinking that Obijime was something to buy, not to make on my own. I knew, by reading magazines, there were a few places where you can learn how to make obijime, but I have to say those who are interested in such a hobby are a tiny minority.

So, once again, I was extremely surprised to learn there were some people around Manchester who are interested in Japanese braiding. Not only that, I found out there is even a Braid Society! I thought that was surprising enough, so imagine how I lost my breath when I learned that the 2nd International Conference on Braiding (Braids 2012) was to be held in Manchester! I learned that the first one was in Kyoto, which seems most reasonable. But why Manchester? I managed to interview the organiser of the conference, Debbie Richardson, who herself is a very keen braider, to find out all about it. Please watch the video below.

OK. So now I understand that they chose Manchester because it is the birth place of the textile industry. Although I did learn about the Industrial Revolution in history a long time ago, it hadn’t really sunk in, and I did not realise the practical implication of it.

It took Debbie five years to organise this conference, but it was worth her effort and the conference was a great success, well attended by close to 200 people from all over the world. They had a whole week full of lectures and workshops. This interview was conducted at the conference dinner on Thursday. Many Japanese participants at the conference came dressed in kimono, showing off their beautiful obijime (well, actually, Japanese ladies are very modest; they weren’t showing off intentionally). The only kind of conference I have previously attended was purely academic, but this conference was very practical. Many participants were able to learn new ways of braiding at the various workshops during the conference. Now they have new skills.

As Debbie said, they do other kinds of braiding besides Japanese braiding, but still Japanese braiding is a quite big part of it. It’s so wonderful to know that Japanese braiding is enjoyed here in the UK (and some other parts of the world as well, such as the US). As a Japanese, I would like to express my gratitude to Makiko Tada, who worked tirelessly to spread this traditional Japanese art overseas.

At the end of her speech, the president, Jacqui Carey, thanked Debbie for her hard work organising this large scale conference, and you wouldn’t believe how loud and long everyone there applauded! Thank you, Debbie, for bringing this special conference to Manchester.

You can have Nishikigoi in Manchester!

If you ever visit Japan, you will notice that it is very densely populated, and a house with a big garden is a rare luxury. Not to mention a big pond in the back garden with nishikigoi (Japanese coloured carp) swimming gracefully in it. Nishikigoi themselves are expensive; a big and good quality one can easily cost a few million yen. Thus, being able to have nishikigoi in one’s garden is a sort of status symbol in Japan. If somebody says, “on weekends, I enjoy feeding my nishikigoi in my garden,” you can be pretty sure they are boasting. For most of ordinary Japanese, nishikigoi are something to enjoy when they visit famous temples’ beautiful gardens.

Thus, I was surprised to learn that there are quite a few people around Manchester who keep expensive nishikigoi in their own ponds. I found out about it when I somehow bumped into a man who belongs to a Nishikigoi society. I had a chance to visit his house one day, and after having a tea in the living room, he said, “Would you like to take a look at our nishikigoi?” and opened the door at the corner. I was assuming that the door would lead into another room, so guess my surprise when I saw a big, beautiful pond in the next room! Well, it was a sort of a conservatory, only, with a big pool in it. In the pool, there were many beautiful nishikigoi swimming. He and his wife sat at the lounge chair next to the pool, and said, “You know, it is quite relaxing watching the nishikigoi here.” I bet!

So I realized that there should be nishikigoi dealers around here in Manchester. And I found one! Since I live on curiosity, I visited there as soon as I managed to make an appointment.
Now, please check out this video.

This place is called UKNishikigoi, which opened in 2008. One of the owners, Chris, said he had been keeping nishikigoi as a hobby for 25 years, but one day, realizing how big the demand for niskigoi was in the UK, he decided to become a dealer. It seems someone brought back nishikigoi from Japan for the first time in the early 1970’s, and since then, its popularity has been steadily growing.

All the nishikigoi they purchased in Japan arrive in London in around two weeks after they were purchased at Japanese dealers, then they have to go through 8 week’s of quarantine. This process is necessary to make sure there are no bacteria on them and to allow them to recover from a long, tiring trip from Japan. Nishikigoi are put in a plastic bag with oxygen and a little water, and it takes up to 36 hours to get to London, so no wonder they will be tired. Chris and John sometimes buy as much as 2 tons of Nishikigoi, so the cost of transportation is really substantial. However, Chris said the best thing about this business is going to Japan once a year to find and buy good quality nishikigoi.

UKNishikigoi takes care of everything you need to keep healthy nishikigoi, starting from designing a pond for your garden and maintaining good water quality for the pond. So, all you have to do is to visit them, if you are interested in nishikigoi.

I would like to express my thanks again to UKNishikigoi!

Famous Japanese Koto Player Entertains Braid Conference!

On Sunday, August 19th, a young Japanese Koto player, Fuyuki Enokido, performed a concert after the key note speach on the opening day at the 2nd Braid Conference, held in Manchester Metropolitan University.

After her performance, she invited everybody in the audience to pose for a group photo with her. She was very friendly and encouraged people to try her koto and to ask her questions after the photo.

If you missed purchasing her CD then, please leave me a comment, as Fuyuki passed on the rest of her CDs to me.

Regarding the live performance I announced on the day, it turned out that her performance will be broadcast in the program called World Routes on BBC3 radio on September 9th from 10pm. (So it’s not a live performance, but a recorded one.)

(Please click the photo to enlarge.)
To be continued….
Coming soon! Fuyuki’s interview will be posted in October.

Learning the Philosophy of Bonsai in Manchester

Have you ever heard of Bonsai? Bonsai is the Japanese art of creating miniature trees, in order to capture and recreate nature in that small world.

I believe most ordinary Japanese people would consider Bonsai to be a hobby enjoyed by old men, and most Japanese people are not that interested in pursuing the hobby. (However, in recent years, the art of Bonsai has been resurrected from that image by some enthusiastic young Bonsai artists.)

So, I was very surprised to see many Bonsai trees beautifully arranged for an exhibition at a Japanese related event for the first time. I was more surprised to find out that there was a local Bonsai Society and that those beautiful trees were created by the members of that Society. The particular Bonsai Society featured here is Wirral Bonsai Society. It is not quite in Manchester area, but is close enough to Manchester, reachable in just a one-hour drive. They hold a monthly workshop at a local garden centre, where anyone can bring their bonsai trees (that usually have some problems) to get a good guidance as to what to do.

This time, I visited the workshop and managed to arrange an interview with the Chairman of the Wirral Bonsai Society, Ian Warhurst. Unfortunately, the day of the workshop turned out to be the wettest possible day for April, not to mention it was so cold. But I braved the elements to find out more about Bonsai trees.

When I got there, about four members of the Society were working on their trees at a corner of the garden center. They bring their trees to the workshop so that they can get feedback from other members to improve them. While I was there, a few groups of people brought their troubled Bonsai trees. Just like an experienced doctor, Ian diagnosed the condition of the tree, and gave the owner guidance as well as actually treating the tree. It was very intriguing to watch the little troubled tree getting to look much better with Ian’s magic touch.

After the workshop, I headed for Ian’s own garden at his house. About 50 Bonsai trees were standing in the heavy rain. I asked Ian how he got the trees, and was surprised to find out that most of the trees were destined to be burned out after being pulled out of someone’s garden as they were unwanted there. Ian managed to get hold of those unwanted trees because his friend is a landscape gardener, and had many opportunities to come across such trees. He said he had rescued so many trees that if he had given a pound each time he rescued a tree, he’d be a millionaire by now.

Then I conducted a long interview asking Ian various questions (please see the video). He said the time he is tending to the trees is like meditation. You listen to the trees, nurture the trees and through the process you become at one with nature. I felt a little embarrassed because I doubt if I have such patience to go through the painstaking work of taking care of the trees constantly AND feel such serenity inside me. At best, I would be only frustrated and throw in the towel. To me, Ian seemed to have overcome such frustration to reach to a transcendental state of mind. I am very much grateful to him and other members for this special opportunity to learn about the philosophy of Bonsai, only to realize that I have touched the mere surface of the Bonsai world.

Taiko Drumming Group in Manchester

Do you know what a “taiko” is? It`s a traditional Japanese drum. Japanese originally played it at Omatsuri, traditional Japanese festivals, as an offering to God, to entertain him. Nowadays, there are many taiko groups who perform at many other occasions. Have you heard of “Kodo”? They are probably the most popular and well-known among those groups. They have visited Manchester more than once, and played at Bridgewater Hall.

Now, until relatively recently, you needed to go to London to find a decent enough Taiko group, either Japanese or British. But, I have found this taiko group, Tantara Taiko, right here in Greater Manchester. The leader of the group, John Bolwell, went to Japan to learn how to play the taiko, and he formed his own group when he got back to Manchester.

As a Japanese, I think they are quite good, and they are still developing. They have performed at some major Japanese culture-related events. So, this time, I decided to visit their practice session to find out just how they do it.

I was surprised to find out that they are already so experienced that all they needed to do was a little discussion about the timing and so on. They also have a beginner group, for which John would start from the very basic.

Anyway, please watch the video to see for yourself. Any comments welcome!

Tsugaru Shamisen player in Manchester

What is Shamisen? It is a banjo-like, traditional Japanese music instrument. It is very rare for Japanese to play Shamisen either as a hobby or professionally nowadays. I never saw or knew anyone who played Shamisen when I was living in Japan some years ago. It is something you might see on TV sometimes, or if you go to see Kabuki (traditional Japanese theater), you will see a group of Shamisen players on the stage, instead of an orchestra. 

Then I met this Shamisen player, Liam Morgan, in Manchester. When he first told me that his hobby was to play the Shamisen, I couldn’t believe my ears. And he plays well! It was a funny feeling to watch him play Tsugaru shamisen in front of me, here in Manchester, when I never watched anyone playing back in Japan (except for on TV).  

The type of Shamisen music he plays is called Tsugaru Shamisen. It is hard to explain, but once you’ve heard it, it is easy to recognize. It’s very powerful and masculine, contrasting with the type of shamisen music Geisha play. 

Just listening to his playing was impressive enough, but all the other stories he told me were even more impressive. He found a shamisen with a broken skin on eBay, purchased it and fixed it on his own! He learned how to do it by reading books and watching videos. He also learned how to play the shamisen by ear. And to an ordinary Japanese, his performance seems to reach to a high standard. 

Listening to his shamisen made me wish I had learned more about Japanese traditional culture while I was in Japan. In Japan, the most popular things to learn are such things as piano and ballet. I was also very impressed by his tireless effort to make his performance better. He keeps improving the sound of his shamisen by trying out new skins or new ways to skin, and he spends many hours practicing playing. His attitude was an eye-opener. I’m so glad he agreed to play for my blog.

If you would like Liam to play at your event, you can contact him at vegito_@hotmail.com

Zen Dojo in Manchester

The first one I’m going to introduce to you is Zen Dojo. Do you know what Zen is? I think, if you are interested in Japanese culture, at least you’ve heard of it, haven’t you? It’s a type of philosophy that is associated with Zen Buddism. Most Japanese, like myself, are not philosophers, or Zen monks, so will not be able to discuss it in detail. But at least we know vaguely that zen is the way of thinking and living that goes contrary to material gain and abundance, and places more importance on one’s spiritual development. One of the ways they try to achieve the mentality is by doing “zazen,” which literally means “sitting zen”. This is a way of doing meditation that Zen monks developed a long time ago.

In Japan, people typically do zazen at Zen temples. For busy Japanese people, doing zazen is not a very popular pastime, to say the least, and most people rarely get a chance to do it in their life time. Personally, I have never tried to do zazen at temples.

So, guess my surprise when I discovered that there was a zazen dojo in Manchester city centre! I live on curiosity, so I needed to find out more about it. I finally managed to find the time to visit there when a zazen session was taking place.

The session was held on Tuesday night, from 7pm, and the place was near ManCity football stadium. Please watch the video to find out more about it! I’m looking forward to hearing comments from you.  For more information on Manchester Zen Dojo please visit izauk.com


Hi everyone,

I’m relatively new to the UK. Originally from Japan, when I first moved to Manchester, I did not enjoy it here. The time I came was not helping; January 2nd. It was dark, wet and cold, and everything looked just dirty. I was literally crying everyday missing Japan. But of course I didn’t want to waste my precious time, so I have tried to make the most of my time living here.

Gradually, I started to find various things that are related to Japanese culture in and around Manchester: places, societies, organizations, and people. Each time I “discovered” them, I was first surprised, then impressed, and filled with joy. The more I learned about them, the more I felt that living in Manchester is not that bad. I started to feel more at home in Manchester.

If you are interested in Japanese culture, I’m sure you will find what I’ve found interesting too. That’s why I decided to start this blog, named “Japan Outpost.” I hope you can share with me the excitement and the joy I felt when I discovered the things I’m going to introduce one by one. I’m looking forward to your comments!

Yuko Howes