Have you heard of the “weaving town” in Yamanashi? It’s okay if you haven’t-- in fact, many locals have never heard of it. Yes, we’re standing at the once-forgotten weaving production area.

However, if you walk around the town, you can still hear the rhythmic rattle of the loom. While the tune in the streets remains unchanged since long ago, what was it that plunged this town into obscurity? I visited the Yamanashi Prefectural Industrial Technology Center to find out. Formerly known as the "Industrial Research Institute," the facility is still known by the townspeople as "Shikenjo". Our guide is a researcher by the name Tetsuya Igarashi.

But first, we have to tell you where the town is. Location-wise, it’s the area between Fujiyoshida City and Nishikatsura Town, but the area is not a town in itself. That is why we use katakana characters when writing out the name "Hataorimachi", to indicate that it’s not an official city name.

The first known record of this weaving town was in the “Engi-Shiki” of 967 AD, a set of ancient Japanese government regulations, which stated that the country tax for Yamanashi was cloth. Since most crops were unable to grow in mountainous regions, textiles were always the main production industry for towns in this region. But when they realized merchants from Edo wouldn’t travel all the way to Yamanashi for textiles they could purchase in closer areas like Hachioji in Tokyo, Yamanashi needed a way to entice merchants to come to buy cloth.

First, they focused on the thread, making it so thin the woven fabric would be light and easy to carry on mountain roads. But they didn’t stop there-- they used advanced technology to make the cloth more delicate and beautiful than before. Almost ironically, these advancements were made and popularity for Yamanashi fabric increased at a time in the Edo period when the Sumptuary Law, a law which banned luxurious items, was issued. How does that make sense? It’s all thanks to the stylish Edo-ites who were resistant to give up high fashion even under the prohibition law. They would design their kimono in a particular way so as to not attract attention, but if you looked carefully, you would notice the delicate and stylish silk from Yamanashi, called “Kaiki”, lining the inside of the kimono. “Kaiki” was an abbreviation of the “Kai” region, which we now know as Yamanashi, and the first letter of the word “Kinu”, meaning silk. Even in the Showa era, when people started wearing suits instead of kimonos, textiles that used Kaiki silk technology continued to develop as the light and beautiful fabric was known to be the best for lining.

And as its popularity grew, so did its worth. At one time it cost 10,000 yen, or 95 US dollars, for a "Gacha", or single weave, and that led to a period of great prosperity which they called the "Gachaman era" where major brands from all over Japan ordered their cloth from this city. But there was a catch-- brands did not want the attention focused on the textile companies instead of their own, so they became OEMs- Original Equipment Manufacturers- for the textile companies. This ensured that the company that sells the fabric would not be allowed to take credit for their work. In exchange for more jobs, they lost something far greater- the potential for their brand and recognition.

There was a time when people said, "If you know anything about textiles, you have to know about this place." But after the economic bubble burst and large amounts of cheap fabrics were imported from overseas, people stopped buying the finer, more expensive fabrics. As demand decreased, so did the number of jobs in the production area, and soon Hataorimachi lost not only its name but its jobs as well. It was especially tough on people who poured their life into the fine textile industry, just to see it vanish before their eyes. But even in such dire circumstances, the weavers of this town began a new mission to mend a thread that was about to break-- the thread between the producers and consumers. The mission was to have them meet again in some form or another.

American researcher Dan Buettner introduced the Japanese term “ikigai” to a Western audience, and the concept became widely known in Europe and the United States. He defined "Ikigai" as the intersection where the following four circumstances overlap: "What you’re good at", "What you want to do", "What’s in demand", and finally "What makes income". Mr. Igarashi of the research institute Shikenjo says that the four parts "Ikigai" are also the components that define a "brand." A brand not only brings about awareness of your product to consumers, but it also shows your “ikigai” to those consumers.

Well, what a coincidence. The word "ikigai" includes "kai" of Kaiki silk. Let's go to see how Hataorimachi found its purpose in life. The shops owned by the weavers featured here are open on the third Saturday of every month. However, some may be closed depending on the month, so we recommend you check the schedule before your visit.

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