There are few countries in the world that pay as much attention and care in preserving their traditions as Japan. In many countries, ancient professions such as pottery making and weaving have been relegated to the status of hobby crafts and the skills of their best craftsmen are left to die out.
In Japan, these crafts are celebrated as cultural treasures and generously supported by both the government and the populace. Far from being simple hobbies, the crafts are esteemed as valuable traditional industries, and nowhere is the appreciation for these professions more clear than in the city of Kyoto.
The city of tradition
Kyoto is often called the cultural centre in Japan, the most traditional of the big cities. This ancient city is the complete opposite of frantic, utterly modern Tokyo, with its abundant temples, parks and historic buildings. The most impressive and important of these structures is the ancient Imperial Palace, and its presence has in many ways made the city what it is today. Over the centuries, many craftsmen were drawn to Kyoto to make a better living by offering their services to the royal court. Potters, weavers, doll-makers, fan-makers, bamboo workers, calligraphers, lacquerers and many other artisans established their workshops and families in the city, and became an integral part of the history, society and economy of Kyoto.
Today, many of their descendants still follow the family craft, making their wares and preserving the skills handed down through the family over many generations. In an age where everything is machine produced, disposable and made to mediocre standards, these craftsmen are proud to make their exquisite products almost entirely by hand. They are considered upholders of a proud heritage and the popular respect shown to them is reflected in the title the Japanese government bestows on the very best craftsmen. Though often translated as “Living National Treasures”, the Japanese words are more appropriately translated as “Bearers of Intangible Cultural Assets.“
Another unusual aspect of these Japanese traditional professions is that unlike in other countries, the wares these artisans produce are not simple ornaments or nostalgic products from a bygone era. The goods they produce are still used in normal Japanese life; families eat from the pottery, use the textiles for clothing, store their goods in the lacquered boxes, and cook with the bamboo utensils. Despite their practical use, products are so well made that many blur the line between art and utility. The customers recognize the high level of craftsmanship underlying these simple products and are often willing to pay very high prices to obtain the best of the wares.
Kyoto’s Intricate Textiles and Delicate Ceramics
One of the most famous of Kyoto’s traditional professions is weaving and the epicentre of this industry is the Nishijin district, located to the northwest of the Imperial Palace. Walking along the streets, you can hear the clatter of looms coming from deep inside the workshops lining the roads. There are literally hundreds of techniques involved in the weaving process but the one most commonly associated with Kyoto is yuzen-dying.
Originally Nishijin weaving used silk threads that are dyed before being woven into their intricate patterns; unfortunately, only the aristocracy could afford these expensive fabrics. In the 17th century, wealthy merchants began to clamour for the same materials but the shogun promptly forbade such extravagance. Fortunately, Yuzensai Miyazaki soon came up with a method for hand-dyeing fabrics to create the same elaborate effect.
Yuzen dyeing is an incredibly complex process, involving successive applications of glutinous-rice paste and dye. Afterwards, the pattern is often enhanced with powdered gold or silver leaf, or embroidered with gold threads to produce intricately detailed, multicoloured designs. These elaborate designs sometimes influence the collection of international couturiers and are often imitated by mass clothing manufacturers. Such costly fabrics are available for sale in many of the shops in the Nishijin district and are most often used for obis and other kimono related accessories, though many also use them for decoration. Those not willing to buy the materials can still view the exquisite samples on display at the various galleries.
Another famed Kyoto craft is pottery, which has been strongly associated with the city since its founding. The pottery district is in east Kyoto, in the area known as Gojozaka, or Ochawan zaka, which can be translated as “ceramics vessel street.” Many pottery stores line the streets here, offering Kiyomizu pottery. The name of the ceramics style is taken from the nearby Kiyomizu Temple and the roads leading up to the temple are especially crowded with workshops that sell their wares to the visitors who flock to the temples. Kyoto pottery is best known for its delicate and intricately painted patterns, mostly done in blue on white, though there are many variations of the style. The range of pottery and porcelain items now made in Kyoto is very extensive, from tea ceremony articles to altar pieces, but the most popular wares are good quality tableware for use at home and in the best Japanese style restaurants. One of the most unusual offerings available in these very traditional shops is a very untraditional ceramic toilet painted in the Kiyomizu style.
Of Lacquerware and Dolls
Lacquerware is also another well-known Kyoto product. Kyoto’s lacquer ware industry reached its peak during the Muromachi period, when the techniques and products developed in tandem with the rapidly changing needs and importance of the tea ceremony. Lacquerware production is a tedious business, in which wooden objects are coated with hundreds of layers of refined lac juices. The end result however is often a work of art, decorated with carvings or other embellishments. Most beautiful of all were the items decorated with gold or silver dust. These precious items form a class of lacquer ware known as kanazawa shikki and today, are some of the most sought after products in Kyoto. Among the types of lacquerware produced are tea ceremony items, a staggering variety of tableware, storage containers such as jewellery boxes and even furniture, many of which become family heirlooms.
One of the most charming traditional products still made in Kyoto is the ceramic doll. This exquisite creation had an ancient superstitious purpose: they were first made in the belief that any evil that might affect a child would instead afflict the doll. As time went by these early dolls evolved into the dolls with which children of the noble families played during the Heian period.
Today, the dolls are made for ornamentation rather than play, but are still very popular. These figurines are often dressed in the most elaborate costumes, made from the finest Kyoto textiles and depict members of the various classes making up Japanese society through the ages, from farmers to samurai and geishas. There are many different types of dolls and each is made for a particular occasion: religious offerings, souvenirs, theatrical, festivals both family and public and gifts.
Though the dolls have lost much of their superstitious use, they are still an important part of everyday life. Many families have at least one doll, which plays an important part during the family celebration of the Girl Festival and the Boy Festival. Japanese businessmen also sometimes present them as gifts to their foreign associates and there are many avid collectors, both Japanese and foreign. The highest quality dolls often sells for thousands of dollars.
There are many other beautiful wares on offer in Kyoto, from folding fans to bamboo whisks and stone lanterns. The most exquisite pieces tend to be beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest visitor, but often there are exhibitions and gallery displays where the public can admire these beautiful pieces. Many of the individual workshops offer enchanting products at reasonable prices. For the bargain hunters there are often flea markets offering everything from old kimonos, to ceramics and vintage dolls. In Japan, there is still a strong stigma against buying second hand goods, so these unappreciated treasures often sell for amazingly cheap prices.