Words and images by Georgia Blackie.
We've long admired Eloise Rapp, who has lived in Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney and currently, Kyoto. Eloise has done too much to summarise - she has always poured her considerable talent into multiple projects at a time, as artist, designer, researcher, teacher, producer. Her work is even more impressive as she maintains a commitment to ethical and sustainable methods at every stage of the creative process. We spent time with her at home and around Kyoto, enjoying the city's pace, its secondhand stores, and its tradition of hand-crafting.
ALAS: You and your partner relocated from Sydney to Kyoto at the beginning of the year. Tell us how you've gone about setting up your home.
E R: We arrived in Kyoto at the start February, one of the coldest times of the year, so it became instantly clear to us that we needed to think seasonally in setting up our home! Sydney is so temperate compared to the extremes of Summer and Winter you get here, but despite that, we had our hearts set on renting a machiya, or traditional wooden townhouse. We were happy to freeze in January and melt in July.
The place we found is a two storey home in Murasakino, a little suburb in Kyoto’s north which translates to ‘purple field’ – what a name! Classic Japanese interiors don’t require a lot of furnishing or decoration, and the living and sleeping areas of our place are all tatami and earthen walls. We’ve managed to source almost everything secondhand, from appliances to cushions and the textiles I’ve been using to make our soft furnishings. Kyoto has an admirable approach to thrifting, where products are kept in impeccable condition so they can be sold on to someone else at the city’s myriad recycle stores. You have to be patient and hunt around a lot for what you need, but what’s the hurry? Buying used goods is such an easy and obvious way to reduce consumption, a philosophy I wish was more prevalent in large consumer markets like Australia’s.
My favourite part of furnishing our home has been creating things with kimono and yukata I’ve found at the flea market. I’ve been taking them apart to make cushion covers, curtains and rugs. The cloth is so old but still so strong and versatile, and kimono are made from complete rectangular pieces so it’s easy to use up every bit. In a funny way I think Murasakino has been subconsciously influencing my fabric selection... there seem to be hints of purple and indigo creeping in everywhere.
ALAS: Living and working in another country is tough, even though it is rewarding - what is helping to keep you sane here?
E R: Kyoto is an extremely inviting and livable city, but moving overseas is always a bit of a gauntlet-run if you’re not prepared. The process has been a lot easier for us as I’ve lived in Japan previously and my Japanese is pretty good. We also didn’t bring much stuff with us. Patience is invaluable as there can be an astonishing amount of paperwork involved in some tasks, and a good schedule goes a long way for various job, immigration and admin appointments – Google calendar has been our religion for the last few months!
It’s very easy to get into a relaxed state of mind in Kyoto. The pace is completely different to Tokyo, where I lived years ago. It still feels like a very ancient city in areas, with centuries old temples and homes being spared the unfortunate history of bombings and natural disasters that befell many other cities in Japan. The atmosphere is peaceful and secluded around our way, and the city’s position nestled into lush, forested mountains makes it easy to get amongst nature. It’s a constant delight being outdoors here, in any season. It’s frosty and bright in winter, the trees look like they’ve been set alight in autumn, spring is cherry blossom madness and summer is beer and mosquito coils by the river.
Personally, I love to wind down in the bath and I feel very lucky to be in a city of incredible bathhouses. We live a few minutes walk from one of the oldest and most famous here, Funaoka Onsen. It dates back to the early 1920’s, and the changing areas are covered in Spanish majolica tiling and these incredibly complex wood carvings of the Shanghai Incident, which is a peculiar scene to consider as you undress. A vast, beautiful space with rotemburo (outdoor baths), cypress baths, saunas and koi ponds. Sounds like a dream but it’s just down the road!
Kyoto is also the best cycling city I’ve spent time in, and bikes are the main form of transportation for young and old. I unwind by just hopping on my bike and cruising around to the river, various secondhand shops, markets, or up to the forest North of us.
ALAS: You've started experiments in natural dyeing - what has drawn you to it, and what are you keen to explore with it?
E R: I learned how to dye with natural pigments way back in my studies at UTS, but for most of my working textile life I’ve been more print and production focused. Kyoto is the perfect place to delve back into it as natural dyeing is very popular here; the range of Japanese plant dyestuffs available is vast and so different to what you can find to dye with in other parts of the world. It’s exciting to experiment with totally new ingredients, even though the process of translating metal names and auxiliary agents has been mildly frustrating. Even the dyeing method is completely different here, so I’ve just been trying to find my groove between the European and Japanese methodology.
I’m experimenting with dyeing the old plain, unbleached cottons and silks I’ve found at the flea market and around the Nishijin textile area we live next to. It’ll be interesting to see how they come up, given their age and mysterious origins. Most of the kimono-width rolls I’ve found were woven right here in Kyoto. There are lots of possibilities for what they can become – I might do some clothing and scarves, or work them into small textile art pieces. I’ll just let the colours and cloth dictate what to do.
ALAS: What are your impressions of Kyoto as a city to do creative work in as compared to Sydney?
E R: In Kyoto, I would say the most creative minds belong to the people who make tatami mats, fusuma and shoji (sliding doors), who spend years perfecting their aizome (indigo dyeing) methods or developing the most delicious, smooth and delicate warabi mochi, which is my favourite wagashi (traditional sweet). I think being creative here means perfecting a skill that you’re passionate about. For me, there are a lot of aspects that make my creative work easier, such as access to textile workshops and classes if I want to pick up or hone a new skill. My equipment and materials are also cheaper here, and I think that comes with a stronger localised textile industry.
Working in the handmade creative industry in Sydney can be pretty inhibiting. Rent prices are high, so studio spaces are in high demand and can be tricky to find on the cheap. And for the kind of textile work I prefer to do, I often had to import products; organic natural textiles, dyestuffs, thread and yarn, equipment etc. Textile processes such as print and weaving are quite inaccessible as there are only one or two workshops for each technique that offer small-scale production. All these factors mean you’re working from a high cost point from the start, which can be severely limiting and a little discouraging.
Kyoto is a city built on artisan skills, so it’s important that practitioners have access to everything they need. If you’re looking to get sewing here, for example, there is a shop selling reconditioned sewing machines and overlockers, another for scissors and blades, one selling threads, one to get pins and thimbles, another for yarn and weaving supplies, one for findings and fastenings, and my favourite is a huge store in town that sells every available dye product under the sun. Sellers and makers alike are open and generous with their knowledge, keen to inform you of a useful shop, service or artisan you should speak to. Kyoto is a city made for creative workers, and I feel very lucky to be here.