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Cool covers: East Japan shop's traditional indigo dye masks a huge hit

Indigo dye cloth masks using the traditional Kurobane Aizome technique are seen at the indigo dyeing shop Konya in the eastern Japan city of Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, on Oct. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Seiichi Yuasa)

OTAWARA, Tochigi -- Cloth masks using an indigo-dyeing technique designated as a traditional craft by Tochigi Prefecture in eastern Japan has been gaining attention among the public.

    Konya, an indigo dye goods shop in the city of Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, known for its traditional Kurobane Aizome dyeing technique, launched the items following the short supply of masks amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. The products have been popular even after mask shortages have been resolved, particularly among young people who seek a unique look.

    Konya Shinbee, the founder of Konya, opened a facility in the Kurobane area in 1804, which is said to be the origin of Kurobane indigo dyeing. The dyeing technique is characterized by a preliminary process where a mixture of liquid taken from soybeans and high-quality soot from burnt pine tree roots is applied onto the material before dyeing it, which is said to enrich the color of the indigo dye.

    The mask products were developed by the shop's eighth-generation head Yuta Onuma, 34, in early April. Following a process of trial-and-error that continued for around two weeks, the mouth part of the mask was made three-dimensional in order to make it easier to breathe, and the mask was also shaped so that it would not slip off while talking.

    However, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency not long after, and the shop was temporarily closed for about a month until early May. The store has been flooded with orders since it began to sell the products online in response to customers' requests, and apparently sold 150 masks in one week during its peak. The maker has prepared some 60 different types of patterns, but production has not caught up with demand as the masks are handmade. The covers are so popular that the shop has suspended online sales at present.

    Onuma commented, "I didn't think that the masks would become this popular. There are also many people who buy them as gifts, and I'm happy if more people come to know about Kurobane indigo dyeing."

    The shop located in the Kurobanemukomachi district of the city of Otawara is open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and is closed on Thursdays. Medium-size masks measuring 14 centimeters by 20 cm, and large-size masks measuring 15 cm by 21 cm both cost 1,900 yen each. The products are currently sold mainly at the brick-and-mortar shop. For more inquiries, please contact Konya at 0287-54-0865 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Seiichi Yuasa, Otawara Local Bureau)

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