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Kyoto; a centre of beauty and culture, 74 traditional industries continue and evolve – 1,200 years and counting

July 29, 2020 Visit North Asia No Comments Email Email

Kyoto, former capital of Japan for a thousand years was more than just the capital, it was a centre of beauty and culture. The unique culture of Kyoto has been handed down in various forms and continues to develop while constantly renew. Kyoto’s traditional industry has overcome adversity; wars, natural disasters, fires and the transition of the national capital to Tokyo, but the artisan community has continued to maintain and evolve it.  Many traditional industries have been passed down from generation-to-generation as family businesses. Kyoto City offers visitors a number of ways to learn about and experience these; a dedicated Museum and an Artisan Concierge Service, allowing visits to the workplaces of the craftspeople and artisans.

Here we introduce two families active as traditional industry craftspeople for many generations and demonstrate how they have brought their centuries old craft into the modern day.

The Uenaka Brothers- ‘Kinsai’ Guilding craftsman and hand-drawn Kyo-Yuzen craftsman

Sons of a Kimono craftsman, the Uenaka brothers are both craftsmen in their own right who have successfully inherited traditional techniques generation-upon-generation. The eldest son, Teruhiro, is influenced by his father and plays an active role as a gilding craftsman decorating kimono with gold leaf.  The patterns made by attaching the thin gold foil makes a kimono look even more gorgeous. Teruhiro’s gilding is not limited to kimonos, he also applies it to ceramic plates and denim fabrics.  Everyday items such as a wallet of denim fabric can be enhanced with a stylish gold design in shining gold leaf. Teruhiro uses generations old skills, applying them to items that have context and a wide range of uses in fashionable, modern everyday life.

Teruhiro’s younger brother, Masashige, loved drawing from a young age and made use of his talent becoming a hand-drawn Kyo-Yuzen craftsman. Hand-painted Kyo-Yuzen dyeing is a technique that Japan is proud of, the entire process is delicate and meticulously done by hand and painted with a brush just like a fine painting. The pattern is dyed by placing a thread-like glue on the outline of the picture. Characteristically, the glue acts like a “dike” in a river, and adjacent colours can be clearly defined without blurring. As the entire process of Yuzen dyeing involves no less than 20 steps, it is common practice in Kyoto to divide up the labour, Masahige performs all 20 of the steps himself to ensure that he completes each work of art in his own image.

Masashige has kept up with the times by applying the traditional techniques and sensibility of Kyo-Yuzen dyeing originally cultivated for kimono and has begun to apply it to scarfs and other Western clothing. Using fine silk and cashmere fabric the softness of hand-painted Kyo-Yuzen becomes even more pronounced, his charming artwork on elegant and beautiful scarves. In addition to fabrics he also applies the technique to other mediums such as leather, he has worked on the production of bangles and business card holders, continuing to create beautiful, new and relevant items Masashige is maintaining these techniques for the future.  He takes on new challenges every day. Sometimes, at a customer’s request, Teruhiro applies gold leaf to the fabric dyed by Masashige, thus creating collaborative work of the two brothers.

The Kojima Brothers – Kyoto style Lantern Makers

Kyoto lanterns are an indispensable part of the cityscape aesthetic of Kyoto and at the many festivals. The Kojima Brothers are the tenth generation of their traditional Kyoto lantern making family business, Kojima Shoten, which has been in business for over 200 years. The brothers have inherited a traditional method of making Kyoto hanging lanterns known as the “grounding” type originally from the southern part of Kyoto.

The skeleton in the middle makes the form of the lantern shape, it is all done by hand, first by splitting one bamboo length into about 150 pieces. The older brother, Toshi does the “bamboo splitting”, the younger brother, Ryo goes through the steps; “bone hooking” to form a bone, “line fishing” to connect and strengthen the bones with thread, then “paper-covering” to create the outer form, and finally their father, Mamoru, does the “painting” onto the lantern, each person having their own specialised skill. Their skills as lantern making artisans is rare in Kyoto today.  Until now Kojima Shoten had been doing business as a wholesaler of traditional lanterns, but the brothers decided to take on new challenges.  Instead of just sticking to traditional applications for their lanterns they listened directly to customer requests and have started to incorporate new designs. They are exploring traditional industries that are easy to incorporate into modern fashion and lifestyles. The traditional industry passed down from generation-to-generation has thus been inherited and further developed as a sustainable industry through their efforts and ingenuity as craftsmen keeping pace with the trends of the times and changes in lifestyles.

At present there are 74 traditional industries in Kyoto. They are a diverse variety of businesses, many are making traditional handicrafts, something that supports not only Kyoto citizens but also people all over Japan. It is a rarity in the modern world for one city to be able to boast so many types of traditional industries.

How to discover and learn about traditional industry first-hand whilst in Kyoto:

Visit the Museum:                                                                                                                                                      Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (known as the Fureaikan) reopened after renovations in March 2020.  Visitors can see examples of the 74 traditional industries of Kyoto, as well as collaborative art and design with more modern takes on the various disciplines. The museum has wide appeal.  In addition, a gallery area showcases how craftsmen create in a corner where you can see and touch the items with demonstrations by skilled craftsmen. There is also an exhibition telling their story and background aimed to make visitors more familiar with traditional industries.

Atelier Visits:

Kyoto Artisan Concierge is an online service enabling visitors to book visits to the studios of Kyoto’s artisans. It was created as a bridge connecting people in search of such genuine experiences with artisans. Kyoto City invites visitors to discover the hidden treasures of Kyoto for a valuable and unique travel experience. Experiences take place in the artisan’s own workplaces and include observation of the artisans at work, general explanations, through to hands-on experiences making items. Rates apply and it is recommended to take a translator/guide.

IMPORTANT: Kyoto City is active in maintaining measures to prevent the further expansion of COVID-19. Venues and visits can take place under the guidelines. Please consult the venues website or directly to confirm. Up to date information on guidelines venue restrictions can be found on the main website : LINK

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