folk art

Shop Talk…Amy Katoh’s Iconic Blue & White

blue and white sashiko sign

So it occurred to me in writing my last post on LuRu Home that Claire and Liza are possibly at the beginning of a similar journey to that started some time ago by Amy Katoh, author, shop owner and flame keeper of all Japanese things handcrafted, indigo and folk art. When Amy Katoh moved to Japan in the 1960s, the local mood was to jettison everything Japanese and traditional in favor of things western and modern. This wasn’t a new trend – it had been happening since the Meiji Restoration – where seemingly overnight Japan went from an agrarian culture to an industrial one. But pockets of the old ways remained for those who sought them out and at the forefront of this group was Amy and her perfectly named shop Blue & White.

blue and white

It seems ironic that it takes an outsider to shine the light into the corners of a culture, pulling out and saving the pieces that are about to be discarded, both figuratively and literally. Amy went to markets and bought up old indigo work clothes, almost warm from their former owners backs, tools considered defunct and pottery no longer wanted. She started out by saving things and went on to re-invent and help create new things from the old. She has been instrumental in bringing outside interest to the folk arts of Japan and it is that very outside interest that has helped the Japanese see the magic of their traditional arts culture themselves.

Amy Katoh

It is not just her knowledge that makes her so compelling, but also her very personality. She is never still, never bored and always interested in seeing and learning more. Whenever I am with her she is engaged and excited about something – a new exhibition or experience – and her vibrancy is infectious. Many a new expat wanders into her shop only to be seduced by the charm of the goods and their proprietor. In fact, I’ve head from numerous people that they chose their neighborhood and apartment because it was near Blue & White.

Lately Amy has been very involved in working with handicrafts fashioned by the handicapped, a group that can often be overlooked. Her committment to numerous groups is strong and the wares in the store reflect that. In May, after Golden Week an exhibition featuring handcraft by the handicapped from Tohoku will be on display. The regions hit by the tsunami were known for their traditional arts and much was destroyed. It has been hard to get those small industries up and running and particularly so for handicapped artists. Money raised from the sale of the genki tenugui (written about here) will also be put towards this cause.


The Blue & White shop is an atmospheric hodge-podge and has bits of everything, from antiques and modern ceramics…


…to charming little chopstick rests. Do I spy Otafuku?


It’s the kind of place where at any moment, an itinerant indigo peddler may show up and stark unpacking his wares. I’ve been lucky enough to be there on one of those days. He should be coming back quite soon, perhaps in the next week or two.


Kasuri slippers anyone? Not to jump the gun, but you’ll be hearing a lot about kasuri from me in the coming days.


While there is no formal lesson schedule posted, Kazuko Yoshiura does teach sashiko there…

sashiko throw pillows

as does Akiko Ike, who teaches the rough and primitive form called chiku chiku, which is the sound a sewing needle makes when going thru cloth. I can’t imagine actually using these charming dust cloths for their said purpose.


And Amy has almost single-handedly kept traditionally dyed yukata fabric from Tokyo Honzome (a consortium of dyers) in production.  No one can afford to buy the handmade rolls anymore for making yukata, but she sells it by the meter, perfect for projects like quilting.  You all know how often we have turned to her for the fabric in the ASIJ quilt borders. These days the dyers are surviving by making tenugui – the Japanese equivalent of a dish cloth – with the traditional techniques and stencils and Blue & White has a large selection of those too.


One of the most beloved things sold at Blue & White are the small quilts and hangings by Reiko Inaba. She uses vintage mosquito netting, kasuri and other fabrics to turn out her charming kimono and fish quilts, something she started doing as cancer therapy.


For those of you who can’t just pop in and visit, Amy’s books have been reprinted a million times and still feel as fresh as ever.  She is currently working on a fifth – I’m not sure that I can give away any details on it!

Blue-and-White-Japan-hardcover japan country living

japan the art of livingotafuku amy katoh

For me personally, Amy has been an inspiration, a teacher and a wonderful example of how to live a life full of constant discovery. She sees the wow! in everything.

Put Blue & White on your bucket list….

Blue & White
2-9-2 Azabu Juban.
Telephone: 03-3451-0537

On a related note, the giveaway for an indigo and white nankeen pillow from LuRu Home has closed. I’ll have a winner for you by the end of the week.

Related Posts:
Artist Spotlight…Kazuko Yoshiura and Sashiko Fever
Feeling Fresh…Indigo Textiles and Tenugui
LuRu Home…Keeping the Folk Art of Chinese Nankeen Alive And a Giveaway!

Finding the Thread…Between Boston Ferns and Japanese Spools

Can one plant make a room? I think so…

No Victorian house is compete with out a Nephrolepis exalta, better known as the Boston fern. One of the most popular houseplants of that era, they seem to be making a comeback these days and perhaps never lost their popularity as a hanging basket on covered porches. Adding one to my home has been a priority from the very beginning, but what I needed was some kind of plant stand to give it a visual lift.

Now I have shown photos of vintage itomaki (Japanese thread spools) on this blog before.

And if you find it hard to imagine how one was used, here is an actual example of a thread spool on its winder.

But it wasn’t until I stumbled across this big six spoke spool just before leaving Tokyo for the summer that I had the epiphany of using it for my still to be purchased Boston fern. I also bought a smaller one to use as a counterpoint accent, perhaps without any plant on it all, like in the very top photo.

Both had interesting burned in markings that I haven’t had time to investigate. Unfortunately, they don’t show with a plant on top.

For me, I think my fern obsession started with this photo of Chessy Rayner‘s Southampton beach house. Living for over 20 years in my tear sheets, for me it has always represented the perfect summer house. The casual choice and arrangement of furniture and objects is everything a beach house should be. Over the years, I can remember so many bad “Before & After” spreads, particularly in Architectural Digest, where they would take a simple beach house and throw away all the wicker and bring in contemporary furniture.

But it was the image of a single Boston fern that I carried most strongly in my memory  – not the furniture – and so I am actually surprised to see that there are a few other plants, such as the pair of Hibiscus standards in the room.

A more recent photo with a similar plant vibe, Joanna Madden’s Point Pleasant beach house would fall flat without its single Boston fern adding a bit of color to her carefully curated all white room. Only about 20 minutes south of here, her home shop Summerhouse nestles in among all the Point Pleasant antique stores I keep writing about.

So I have added my fern and now I needed an entry bench. Remember this Alexandra Angle bench from here? It has been my main inspiration. And an orchid, not a fern, adds the needed touch of green.

I am trying to content myself with an inexpensive version of the above – a Dorchester Bench from Ballard Designs. I haven’t yet made a cushion for it in my lovely Kemerton Check from Cowtan & Tout, but you can get the general idea. I am loving the vertical accent the coat rack adds to the room, but it is the Boston fern that makes the vignette.

But at the same time, I think I might want a fully upholstered settee in that wonderful fabric. Obviously this entry hall is much more spacious, but I wonder if comfy seating might make more sense.

And notice the single green boxwood in the planter. Not a Boston fern, but kinda the same idea..

Image Credits: 1-5 & 9. me, 6.Elle Decor September 1990, photo credit: Karen Radkai, 7.Country Living February 2011 photo credit: Bjorn Wallander, 8. House Beautiful February 2011 photo credit: Victoria Pearson, 10. I know this is House Beautiful, but I just can’t remember the credit. Please let me know if you know it.

Shop Talk…Discovering Antique Treasures in Nishi-Ogikubo

While not quite on par with Dixie Highway, relaxed Nishi-Ogikubo in Tokyo’s western suburbs has a grouping of 60+ antique and vintage shops gathered near the train station. Situated along the Chuo line, Nishi-Ogikubo (nicknamed Nishiogi) was a counterculture hotbed in the 1960s, then receded from notice, only to become popular in recent years as the “slow life” movement has gained steam in Japan. It seems like just the kind of place one would find a collection of quirky and individualistic antique shops.

Conveniently, a free map of the stores is available right in front of the koban (police box) on the left side of the station right outside the North Exit. The map seems fairly current but things can change overnight, so think of it only as a basic guide. Most stores do not open before 12p.m., they all seem to have variable hit-or-miss opening days, and there is not much spoken English to be had, but it is a lovely way to while away an afternoon. Hopefully this post will help steer you in the direction of the best shops!

Organized into four zones, NE, NW, SE and SW on the map, I’ll say right off the bat that the South side of the station has much less to offer than the North side, and can be skipped entirely when pressed for time. The NW zone is by far the best for traditional antiques, so I will start the tour headed in that direction, counter-clockwise around the rough rectangle the walking tour makes.  The shops are numbered numerically on the listing pages, but do not always appear in numeric order on the map.

Actually the first few shops don’t even seem to be listed on the map. After peeking in grape, a small but charming vintage kimono shop with two other locations in the area, our first stop is not Japanese at all. Filled to the brim with lanterns, poufs, silvered mirrors and embroidered slippers, Morocco Marché is one-stop shopping for adding a bit of middle-eastern flair to your decor.

Weaving up and down the small side streets along the main road, we pass a few small shops, including Baby Doll (#60), which is not open, but full of antique and vintage toys and dolls. Moving back towards the main road we come to Les Yeux Noirs (#42), the unquestionable star of the tour, deserving its own individual post (coming tomorrow). Owner Haruko Hasegawa has one of the best eyes I have seen for choosing unusual and rare pieces of porcelain. We were very excited and spent a long time (and quite a bit of money) in her shop. If you are interested in porcelain, this is one of the main attractions and it is well worth the train ride for this store alone.

As we continue along the main road we pass mood (#45), full of groovy 60’s looking used goods. We try to stop into Quilt & Old Textiles (#44) way hidden in a back lane, but they are closed – perhaps to go to the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival. At the turn in the main road, we come to Kido Airku (#59), a great mixed shop full of smaller tansu, porcelain, textiles and odd and ends. Unusual things there include vintage spool threads, great for using as plant stands or display props. A collection of old iron tea kettles looks great on these.

Some modern shibori dyed textiles.

One of the most interesting finds for me personally were wood blocks, used to print patterns on textiles. I have been scouring eBay for Indian wood blocks for a DIY project I am planning this summer, but hadn’t considered using Japanese ones.  Frankly, I hadn’t realized that in addition to all the stencils, tie-dying and resist techniques used here, that wood blocks are too.  Definitely something to look into more.

Numbers 48,49 and 54 were all the same named shop, Antiques Jikoh, with mainly used modern furniture. The branch at the #49 location was full of heavy oak Victorian and Arts & Crafts era furniture.

My friend H spotted a gorgeous blue and white porcelain “umbrella stand” that she loved there. I was so sorry to have to let her know it was actually a late 19th century urinal. Needless to say, she could not look past its original use.

The next two shops were eureka! moments for me. I have been searching for the perfect vintage milk glass ceiling fixture for the bathroom in the beach house, passing up many individual pieces at shrine sales. Imagine my delight at stumbling across the Teardrop Club (#53). I’ll be dragging my patient husband back there soon. If you too are interested, please note they are open 12-6 and not on Wednesday. More photos here and here.

Rakuda (#51) which means camel, also had numerous vintage light fixtures in addition to ranma (transom) panels, old doors, stained glass and cut glass…

Turning the corner right after Rakuda completes the NW zone. The tour continues east, crossing a small river. Other than the charming Le Midi (#37) full of imports from the South of France, not much else was open. Any visit to Nishi-Ogikubo comes with that risk.

Continuing to the next major intersection the tour turns right to head south back to the station. Most of the shops along this NE section seem to specialize in vintage clothing and used goods. Perhaps because we were getting hungry, they didn’t hold our attention. In the grand tradition of antiquing outside of Tokyo, we ate Indian food for lunch at Ganesha Ghar, right near #31 and the bridge over the river on the map. As would be expected, it was packed! And following shortly thereafter was Amy’s Bakeshop, which billed itself as “NY Style Sweets & Things”. Of course we had to stop!

If you arrive hungry, it might be easiest to head the opposite direction (clockwise from the station) and eat first as shops don’t open until lunch time or afterwards.

We skimmed the shops listed on the map on the South side, but many were closed, perhaps permanently. None stood out this visit but perhaps they merit a second chance.

Nishi-Ogikubo is very easy to get to and quite close to central Tokyo. It is only 16 minutes from Shinjuku and 18 minutes from Yoyogi on the Sobu Chuo line. Taking the Toei Oedo line from Azabu Juban and changing at Yoyogi took a total of 32 minutes. I’d love to hear from anyone who goes, especially if you discover a gem I haven’t mentioned. Happy hunting!

Kashigata at Kim Raver’s

Today I went hunting for kashigata (sweets molds) at a few shrine sales and got lucky at Tomioka Hachimangu. A utilitarian but charming folk craft easily found and inexpensive to collect, most of the readily available molds are from the Showa era (1926-1989), and most are not particularly old at that. In use since at least the Edo period, the higashi (dry sweets) made by them are not what we would consider oishi (delicious), but they are very pretty.  They were designed to last long periods of time and to suit a very different palate. Because they were sometimes left as funerary commemoratives, some have designs and writing to honor the departed. Other common designs include fruits and vegetables (great for kitchen display), fish and turtles (rarer and harder to find), and botanical motifs (plum, cherry, lotus, pine), as well as more unusual shapes (figures, kamon, etc).

Today, a number of dealers had bins of medium quality molds in common botanical motifs.

This dealer had a few unusual ones, such as the fan in the lower right.

In this picture you can see a fish, most likely tai (sea bream) and a turtle. These are highly covetable motifs.

A friend displays her fish on a small easel, with the cover resting in front.

Amy Katoh’s Japan: The Art of Living has a great photo of a kashigata grouping hung on the wall in a more traditional Japanese style house.

I have one older kashigata, in a stylized chrysanthemum pattern.  I have been waiting, holding on to it, thinking I needed a group like that above to display it properly. Then I came across actress Kim Raver’s charming “undecorated” Bridgehampton home that she shares with her mom and family. Propped on the rustic brick fireplace is a single kashigata. Hard to see, but peer very closely at the mantlepiece…The fireplace is original to the 100+year-old house and where the first residents did their cooking.

I can’t resist adding one more photo of this home. I always love mismatched chairs and tables in a dining space and these bentwood ones painted blue are so charming with the scrubbed pine and simple kilim. The key to this house is that it has been assembled over time by Raver’s mother. “She gathered things from her whole life and created an accessibility and warmth in every room,” says Raver. Go to In Style to see more pictures of this house and Raver’s very different West Coast home.

Sweets and candy molds seem popular right now and not limited to those made in Japan. Barry Dixon has this vintage candy mold in his current One Kings Lane sale, with no provenance information listed.

Eddie Ross tweeted about his newly purchased German cookie presses a few weeks ago. They feel very reminiscent of the Japanese molds. I wonder if there is any relation between them?

For more on kashigata, pick up back-issue 50 of Daruma Magazine. They have a great article on them, with photos of rare examples and details on how the sweets are made.

Image Credits: 1. yukkimura, 2-4 & 7. me, 5. P. Huxtable, 6. Japan:The Art of Living photo credit Shin Kimura, 8-9. In Style Magazine November 2010 photo credit: David Mushegain, 10. One Kings Lane, 11. Eddie Ross, 12. Daruma Magazine

Shop Talk…Okura Oriental Art


For me, there are two perfect kinds of antique stores.  The first is a carefully curated small shop, while the second is a large unorganized warehouse that you have to search through.  Mizue Sasa’s Okura Oriental Art is the former and it is a jewel – my favorite in central Tokyo.  She and her husband Yasuhiro Shimizu are celebrating their 10th anniversary of owning Okura this year.

In addition to wonderful tansu and porcelain, Sasa-san has a great mix of hard to find items such as altar candlesticks…

antique maps of Tokyo and Japan, both framed and unframed…

ikebana baskets…

and lanterns.

She is also the only dealer I have found who carries traditional copper rain chains, which are the “gutters” of Japan. These are not antique, but they patinate quickly and easily. An amazing sayonara or housewarming gift!

Sasa-san’s pick? This Meiji period tai (sea bream) jizaikagi yokogi (decoration on hanging hearth pole) is a great piece of folk art. Used over a traditional irori (open sunken hearth) it held the kettle above the flame.

My current pick? This hard to find small size step tansu. Often they are very large and very deep and can be impractical if you don’t have the perfect space.

Sasa-san has a fully detailed on-line catalogue and a loyal customer base that visits often from around the world. She handles on-line sales easily, speaks English and ships just about anywhere. She also has a decorating site with staged rooms – you can purchase a whole look if you like or just browse for ideas. Sasa-san will also help her customers arrange their items and improve their decorating in their home. She is not afraid to tell clients to get rid of stuff (which is unusual here). She will also track down specific items for you – just give her dimensions or good descriptions.

I love the juxtaposition of the poured concrete wall with the tansu and the giant porcelain plate that she shows in the photo below. Sasa-san is interested in mixing antiques with modern furniture, a trend that is just getting off the ground here in Japan.

Here she stages vintage blue and white in the bathroom.

The shop is full of great gifts for the holidays!

Image credits: All shop photos taken by me, courtesy of Okura. Decorating photos by Mizue Sasa.

Okura Oriental Art

Tokyo Jinja

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