Misuyabari Needle Shop
Of the many million things I love about Japan, one of my favourites is the ever-present contrasts – between old and new; big and small; over-the-top modern and ancient traditional. All in the one place.
This is never more in-your-face than Kyoto, which, for an ancient city, has its fair share of shiny and new. The city centre is full of traffic, tall buildings and international chain stores. But wander down a side street and within minutes you’re in a maze of narrow laneways lined with old, rickety wooden shopfronts; tea houses big enough to squeeze in two tables; and dozens of tiny handmaker’s studios. Stoop down a little and peek through a shop window and chances are you’ll see artisans at work, quietly sitting at wooden benches doing what they do – stitching, carving, whittling, knife-sharpening, spinning clay. All day. Selling straight from studios – tiny shops often stocked with only four of five different things. It’s a maker’s town and a maker’s culture – slow, small, respectful and beautiful. This is the Kyoto I’m crazy about.
A visit to the Misuyabari Needle Store perfectly illustrates this contrast. This 400-year-old family business, selling the most exquisite handmade pins and needles, is a piece of old Kyoto literally hiding away in the middle of a busy modern shopping strip. Finding it feels like culture shock in 15 footsteps – one minute you’re splashing some cash in a slightly tacky, covered shopping arcade, then turn down a corridor, past a fortune teller’s shopfront (I’m not making this up), and just like that you’re standing in a crumbling stone courtyard, staring at a tiny, ancient little pink shop nestled among bonsai trees.
Inside the shop it’s really just a single glass counter, covered with teeny, tiny, wares. Pins are displayed in small, sweet clusters – sprouting like blades of grass out of their little foam beds. I bought a box of glass-topped ones (so much better for mid-project seam pressing as they don’t melt when you accidentally iron over them). The decorative pins are almost unbearably cute – individually hand made from resin, there are so many to choose from: pigs, ducks, mushrooms, leaves and flowers, cats. Total kawaii overload – I wanted them all.
The needles are even more amazing. Each of the many different types is handmade for a specific purpose, so a needle for sashiko is completely different from a needle for kimono silk. I’m not that experienced at hand sewing, but the lovely shop owner and his son were very patient at helping me choose…with some help from Google Translate! All of the needles have a circular-shaped eye to make threading easier, and they’re all crazy-sharp and slightly flexible.
After much deliberation I made my purchases, and stood back in awe as the son hand-wrapped each one individually. With a smile on his face the whole time. These needles aren’t cheap but hand-making shouldn’t come cheap – it should be valued and treasured and rewarded. I’m hoping my needles will be with me for years.
For some further Kyoto contrast, I’m slightly ashamed to admit I emerged from the needle shop oasis and took my individually wrapped treasures to Starbucks for a closer inspection over a frappuccino. Because Japan, although your artisan wares are to die for, we really need to talk about your coffee….
Misuyabari Needle Store isn’t super-easy to find, and luckily a number of thoughtful bloggers have written posts about how to track it down. I used a bit of Google Maps and a lot of Cashmerette – her directions are straightforward and helpful.