Oddly Enough

Japanese tailors' needles find soft grave in tofu

TOKYO (Reuters) - Kimono-makers laid their old needles to rest during the “hari-kuyo” needle festival at Buddhist temples all over Japan on Thursday, sticking them into soft chunks of tofu bean curd to thank them for their hard work.

A needle is place on a pan of tofu during the 'Hari-kuyo' festival at the Senso-ji temple in Tokyo February 8, 2007. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan’s throwaway culture can rival that of any Western country, but at the Sensoji temple in central Tokyo, dozens of women in jewel-coloured kimonos honoured their broken tools with the 400-year-old rite.

“I came here to say thank you,” said Keiko Kurukata, a 73-year-old kimono-maker surrounded by her four apprentices.

“We prayed to improve our kimono-making skills,” one of the apprentices added.

Women crowded around a big slab of tofu spiked with a multitude of colourful pins in front of the temple, purifying themselves with incense, praying and carefully adding their own needles as a group of monks chanted in the background.

Hari-kuyo is one of the many festivals where animist beliefs rooted in Japan’s Shinto religion merge with Buddhist rites.

“It’s the end of the (Japanese) new year celebrations and the real work is about to start, including farming, so on this day you don’t do any household chores such as needlework, and that’s the origin of the festival,” said Ryojo Shioiri, a monk at the temple.

Sticking the broken needles into soft materials such as tofu or jelly is a way of thanking them, reflecting the Shinto belief that all living beings and objects have a soul and spirit.

“Sometimes there are painful things and secrets that women can’t tell men, and they put these secrets into the pins and ask the gods to get rid of them,” he added.

While many Japanese women still don kimonos for festivals, concerts or other special occasions, the elaborate gowns have become less popular over the years, and interest in needlework and traditional tailoring has dwindled.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years, but it used to be much bigger,” 58-year-old kimono-maker Toshie Tanioka told Reuters.

“Now there are fewer people. The old ones retire and the young ones are not interested in the festival because they’re not interested in kimono-making. It’s too painstaking and they prefer Western clothes.”

Showing off her elegant black dotted kimono and elaborately embroidered belt, she said her main reason for becoming a tailor was wanting to make her own kimonos.

Some newcomers were eager to continue the tradition.

Standing in a cloud of incense, Hiroko Saito, a 30-year-old apprentice who works in a cafe to fund her passion for kimono-making, said her dream was to become a full-time tailor.

Asked how many needles she had broken during her studies over the past year, she laughed and said: “Many, many.”

Additional reporting by Hiroyuki Muramoto