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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #046 Indigo studio

#046 Indigo studio2016/04/22

Rediscovering the power of indigo to create a new market Handcrafted soaps help preserve a community and its traditions

A farmer's daughter unlocks new possibilities for indigo

The indigo soaps made at Indigo Studio were originally made for family members, and are overflowing with the same tender-loving care to this day.

Miku Bando was making a name for herself as a pianist when she decided to try her hand at soapmaking as a way to alleviate her beloved husband Junichiro's skin problems. When he was in his 30s, Junichiro suffered a terrible sunburn while staying in Arizona, and he had been struggling with bad skin ever since.

"His skin would just peel off in flakes day after day," Bando told us. "It was so sad to watch him constantly patting his face with both hands to try to alleviate the pain and itching. He had been getting treatment for two years, but was showing no signs of improvement. One day, I had him use a handcrafted soap made with natural herbs that I got from an acquaintance, and we were amazed at how much it helped."

Bando immediately taught herself how to make soap, sending away for all kinds of herbs from around the world. Through trial and error, she was determined to make a soap that would suit her husband’s skin. But she could never find just the right combination. All them worked to some degree, but…

"The answer came to me when I was studying herbal medicine, and learned that the natural ingredients that were best for people were the ones that were available locally," president Bando explained. "I decided to use Japan-grown indigo to make soaps that would delight both the people that used them and the people that made them."

On a trip back to her childhood home in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima Prefecture, Bando found a book from her father’s collection in a corner of an old bookshelf—A Dictionary of Medicinal Herbs. She flipped through it and found the entry for indigo on the first page she opened to. It said that indigo was effective for detoxification and alleviating fever. It would be perfect for reducing skin inflammation.

“The light bulb really went on for me at that moment,” she said. “You see, my family is one of the few indigo farming families left in Japan. I had been buying herbs from all corners of the world—and yet there was one that was even better sitting right under my nose.”

Tokushima is Japan’s top indigo-producing region. The farming families there traditionally drink indigo seeds in a tea during the summer harvest. Crushing up the leaves and applying them to bug bites is also said to be an effective remedy. But the idea that indigo is meant to be used as a dye is a powerful one, and nobody had thought of incorporating it into soap or other beauty products.

“I did some research, but I couldn’t find a single instance of indigo being used in soaps in Japan. If I couldn’t get it on the market, I thought, I’d try and make it myself. After all, my own parents had dedicated their lives to growing tons of it.”

So as a result of this seemingly fated string of events, Miku Bando set out to create an indigo soap.

“If the soap helped me, it’s sure to help other people.”

   

Ichimatsu indigo-dye soap
This cleansing soap is specially formulated for the sweltering days of summer to leave skin feeling refreshed and baby-smooth. Gives off a gentle aroma thanks to skin-friendly lavender, sandalwood, patchouli, and palmarosa oils.

 

Futae indigo-dye soap
This soap is made to target the sensitive areas around the eyes or mouth that tend to get rough with the changing seasons. Leaves skin feeling velvety soft and exquisitely refreshed.

 

Kamifubuki indigo-dye soap
Formulated especially for the dry winter months, this soap infuses skin with moisture for a plump, dewy softness.

The indigo soaps from Indigo Studio are also popular for their chic look—from the checkered Ichimatsu to the two-tone white and indigo Futai and confetti-flecked Kamifubuki. Bando was even crafting these beautiful designs when she was only making the soaps for her husband.

Then, after tinkering with the formula for over a year and a half to make it better and better, she finally came up with three recipes (combinations) that she was satisfied with. Bando wanted to create different soaps to match the season or skin condition, so she settled on one that felt comfortable and refreshing to use, one that left skin feeling clean while keeping in moisture, and one that left skin richly and deeply hydrated. She then came up with her own unique and playful designs so that each one could be readily identified at a glance.

Then, after tinkering with the formula for over a year and a half to make it better and better, she finally came up with three recipes (combinations) that she was satisfied with. Bando wanted to create different soaps to match the season or skin condition, so she settled on one that felt comfortable and refreshing to use, one that left skin feeling clean while keeping in moisture, and one that left skin richly and deeply hydrated. She then came up with her own unique and playful designs so that each one could be readily identified at a glance.

Despite the fact that she had created soaps of far better quality than what was available on the market, Bando still had no plans to start up a business. Even when the people she gave her soaps reported better skin and wanted her to make it for sale, the thought of commerce never crossed her mind.

It was then that fate visited Bando again. The company that her husband Junichiro had been working for collapsed in the bad economy and went bankrupt. Although they decided to start their own business then, they had a baby and Miku couldn’t be away from home. Junichiro headed down to the local Chamber of Commerce instead of his wife and enrolled in a business startup class to learn about management.

“If the soap helped me, it’s sure to help other people.”

Thus Indigo Studio Limited was founded in November 2005. Unsure of whether anyone would buy their products, the couple started out by setting up an online store.

Honest products that pass indigo traditions on to the next generation

Sure enough, the business struggled tremendously at first. Since nobody had ever sold indigo soap before, customers were worried about purchasing it. “Indigo soap? Won’t it turn my face blue if I use it?” They thought. Getting people to try it for the first time proved to be a difficult hurdle.

Of course, the soaps don’t stain the skin at all. Bando determinedly set up shop at sales event after sales event, encouraging people to try her products and see the benefits for themselves. Sometimes she would even use her electric piano to play popular anime songs to draw children over, and then have their mothers try out her soaps.

Another challenge that Bando and her team were confronted with were the sharp rebukes from people involved in the indigo trade. “What do you think you’re doing turning precious indigo into soap and washing it down the drain!?” they ranted.

“Even my own parents gave me disapproving looks at first,” Bando admitted. “But it was only natural. Making indigo dye out of the leaves of the indigo plant requires a sophisticated fermentation technique that turns them into a substance called sukumo. This is an extremely labor-intensive process. Even in Tokushima, which is famous for its awa indigo plant, there are only five indigo masters that make sukumo and only about thirty indigo farming families left. The situation is really dire. But it’s actually because the indigo is so precious that I wanted to create a new market for something that expanded its use beyond dyemaking. I thought that my work would actually help revitalize the indigo industry. In fact, I was convinced that it had to—the thought was never far from my mind.”

Bando’s parents and younger brother help out on the family farm. They now grow indigo on four times the land they once had.

The color of indigo dye is recognized throughout the world as a traditional Japanese color known as “Japan blue”. Dyeing fabrics with indigo makes them more durable and also adds antibacterial and insect-repelling properties—the samurai used it for the garments they wore under their armor, and nearly everyone from commoners to the shogun sought it out for their clothing during the Edo period. This is the same indigo that is in danger of completely disappearing from Japan today. But even Miku Bando herself—the daughter of an indigo farmer—had little interest in the plant until she started making indigo soap.

“I think most Japanese people feel the same way,” she told us. But when they start to incorporate the indigo soap as part of their daily routine, they’ll likely start developing an interest in Japanese indigo as well. I want to stop the indigo industry from dying out.”

“Natural soaps made with zero synthetic dyes or preservatives are of course gentler on the skin, but they’re also important in terms of environmental conservation as well.”

Bando’s passion for this idea drover her to take advantage of subsidies offered by Kagawa Prefecture or the Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation to help her stay regularly involved in local company expo events, gift shows, and more. This opened the door for her to participate in the Business Plan Contest run by Dreamgate, where her company received the top prize. With that as a start, media interviews increased rapidly. NHK did a documentary on her in 2010, thrusting Indigo Studio into the national spotlight almost immediately.

Breaking into new markets to help support the local indigo industry

It has now been ten years since Bando first launched her company, and she’s moved to an expanded office and manufacturing space to accommodate nearly triple her original demand. Indigo Studio has been selected as one of The Wonder 500™, part of a regional Cool Japan project sponsored by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Her presence is now growing internationally as well.

But no matter how big her company gets, the soap from the Indigo Studio hasn’t changed a bit from when Bando was handcrafting it in her kitchen to help her husband. Naturally she’s tweaked the formula here and there as part of her commitment to ongoing improvements, but the soap is still made using an age-old cold processing method—still crafted by hand, and still filled with love.

The soaps at Indigo Studio are crafted entirely by hand. Because almost no heat is added during the cold processing method, the delicate components of the botanical oils and plant-based ingredients remain intact and locked into each bar of soap.

The designs are also created using a labor-intensive process. The indigo soap is first placed in a mold and left to dry for three days before adding the white soap. It is critical that the team carefully manage the temperature and humidity during the drying process to ensure that the soaps do not crack partway through. This is just another example of how the extensive know-how that Bando gathered through trial and error is still being put to use.

“The cold process method allows us to create a soup with a luxurious feel that is both safe and reliable—but it takes a full two months to complete. It’s also extremely difficult to create mixed indigo and white designs.” Bando laughs as she recalled their efforts to reach out to a major soap manufacturer for help securing production volume. “They were shocked that we would even ask them to go to that kind of trouble!”

Similar products have since come out due to the popularity of Bando’s soaps, but there is no way that they can touch the Indigo Studio quality. Most importantly, the indigo they use to make them is completely different. The indigo that Bando uses is all grown in her own company’s fields in her childhood home of Tokushima. The whole family gets involved in collecting seeds, watering, harvesting leaves, and getting the plants to bloom—this is genuine Japanese indigo lovingly cultivated 365 days a year, as attentively as if it were the family’s actual children.

With her increase in indigo usage, Bando has now expanded the Indigo Studio fields to four times their original size. Her parents help out with the cultivation along with her younger brother. Meanwhile, the members of the indigo trade who originally turned their back on her are starting to come around.

Indigo Studio now has a dyeing operation set up near its fields and is selling indigo-dyed variety items as well. They’ve commissioned a traditional ink stick master to manufacture indigo ink sticks for them (which they call Ransho), and they are also involved in collaborative projects with the fabric artisans at Ise-Momen, Tobe-yaki porcelain makers, and others in a bold effort to get more indigo-based products out into the world.

Indigo ink sticks, known as Maboroshi no Sumi (“enchanted ink”), disappeared with the fall of the indigo-dying industry after the Meiji period. The ones that come from Indigo Studio feature a pure dye extracted from the leaves of plants grown on their own farm, which is fashioned into ink sticks by master calligrapher Kido Ito using only glue and water.

“We’d like to make things like stamp pads and ink for fountain pens next,” Bando tells us. “Stationary goods that make use of the beautiful color of indigo. It’s fun to think about ways to bring the old indigo traditions into the modern world. I’m delighted to have gotten chance to meet with attractive companies all over Japan thanks to Rin crossing.”

Indigo studio

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