Tokyo. Several years ago a friend of mine suggested that I should look into obis to accessorize our place. She had lived for many years in Japan, so it came quite naturally to her to use obis, kimonos, swords, Urushi trays, Bento boxes, you name it to beautify her home. To me this was rather new, but certainly interesting.
An obi is a Japanese sash, that is worn wrapped around a traditional Japanese dress. Obis come in many different sizes, lengths, fabrics, and designs. The longest, heaviest and most ornate ones (maru obis) can be up to 6m long. Fukuro obis are slightly shorter than that (between 3.6m and 4.5m) but have about the same width (~30 cm). The Fukuro usually consists of two different types of cloth. Heavier and thicker fabric (often brocade or heavy silk) is used for the parts that are visible when worn, while thinner and lighter fabric is used for those areas that remain hidden. This is important to know when it comes to repurposing them as home decor. Another, very popular type for decoration are Nagoya style obis. They are pre-folded and shorter than both fukuro and maru obis, but come in a large variety of rich and bright hues. Smaller and narrower styles like the hanhaba variety are also quite popular.
Now, while all that is pretty interesting, what exactly can you do with them? I got some ideas when I thumbed through my friend’s worn copy of Rao and Mahoney’s “Japanese Accents in Western Interiors”. There, across ten pages full of glossy pictures the authors show many creative examples of obis reborn as table runners, cushions, blinds, mats for antique prints, wall decor and decoration for chest drawers. I was hooked.
When some time later I finally had the opportunity to visit Tokyo for a few days, I was determined to get myself a particularly beautiful specimen. I wanted it to be nothing less than an antique fukuro in colours that included either red or orange plus neutrals such as white, grey and black to match the color scheme of our home.
Apparently, the best place (for a tourist mind you!) to purchase obis is the Oriental Bazaar. Being located in Tokyo, it should not come as a surprise that this is not a bazaar at all but rather a well-organised hybrid between Japanese treasure trove and high-end tourist trap.
On the Bazaar’s second floor I found a fairly big selection of modern and traditional obi designs, featuring pieces in various styles, lengths, light and heavy fabrics, antique and new, cheap and expensive ones. At first glance, however, I did not like any of them. Either the designs did not immediately appeal to me or the colours were not quite right. Needless to say I was somewhat disappointed.
Aimlessly I checked out the other merchandise in the store before returning to the obi section once more … I just wanted to take another quick look – maybe I had missed something? Interestingly, during that second round some of the obis did have a different effect on me. I first picked one, then another … both with beautiful designs, color schemes that I could live with, and best of all they happened to be antique pieces of the fukuro variety. Apparently, many years ago they had complemented the kimonos of unmarried women …
Currently, I am using them as table runners. Due to their enormous lengths they are perfect for this purpose.
In hindsight, I am glad that I did not give up on the obi idea upon first encounter … As with many other new things, decorating with accessories from other cultures is a learning process. You need to adjust to these new stimuli before you see their full potential as to how they could work in your own space. But if you are open to this process, the results can be surprisingly cool. It’s definitely worth a try!