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Kyoto Master Artisans Keeping Traditional Crafts and Design Alive

Japan continues to be a top request here at Nine Muses Travel, and this week one of my favorite clients and her family booked an amazing journey through Japan including Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hakone. They're big foodies, so we've got delicious private tours arranged for them: in Tokyo they'll have a gourmet evening tour plus a special ramen tour to relish Tokyo's excellent culinary scene, and in Kyoto they'll have a private market visit, sake tasting, and cooking lesson plus a private tea ceremony inside a temple. In Osaka they'll have a private comfort food tour, which sounds SO good. From Hakone, they'll also visit Owakudani volcano crater and try the tasty and renowned black eggs boiled in water that bubbles up from within the volcano.


Japan is undoubtedly a foodie's dream destination, and it's also absolutely wonderous for lovers of the arts, crafts, design, and history too, of course. This article below is a fascinating insight into the world of the local master crafts makers in Kyoto. Would you like YOUR trip to Japan customized to include experiences with artists like the ones mentioned below?

However you dream of Japan, Nine Muses Travel can design an inspiring journey just for you! 

Excerpt below from 6/27/2023 Virtuoso article by David Hochman can found here


In a quiet temple courtyard not far from Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, Kotaro Nishibori shares a technique that’s been a family go-to for more than 160 years. Whenever the sun is shining, the fifth-generation umbrella maker pops open an assortment of colorful, handmade bamboo-and-paper parasols – some as wide as a table for ten – as part of the 100-plus steps in their making and drying.


Once, umbrellas like these covered heads across Japan – the fashionable, all-weather canopy of choice for sovereigns, temple-goers, Kabuki dancers, and geisha. In the 1920s, when Nishibori’s grandfather-in-law learned from his father-in-law to make Kyo-wagasa, as they’re called, the Kyoto region alone was turning out millions of umbrellas a year. Today, the company Nishibori and his wife inherited 20 years ago is one of only two traditional umbrella studios left in the prefecture.


Across the street in his tidy two-story workshop, Nishibori opens a laptop and pulls up a magazine photo of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip seated under his family’s magnificent red umbrellas at a tea ceremony during a 1975 state visit. “I remember seeing this picture and thinking, ‘Wow, what an important legacy,’ ” he says. “But also: ‘If we want to survive, we can’t just make umbrellas for royalty.’ ”


The image inspired Nishibori to bring new dimensions to the handiwork he’d cultivated for seven years as an apprentice. Guided by a philosophy that tradition requires continuous innovation, he and another artist came up with a prototype that applied what he knew about paper and wood to a line of contemporary lighting products. Those creations – lampshades of bamboo and washi paper that open and close like umbrellas but are fit for modern hotels and living rooms – now win international design awards and adorn interiors from Tokyo to Milan. “We continue to make and repair Kyo-wagasa in the traditional way,” Nishibori says, “but it’s the other work that points us to the future.”


In Kyoto, craft is deeply embedded in nearly every experience. From the lacquerware canisters holding your morning matcha to the woodblock patterns inked onto sliding bedroom-door panels, art and beauty elevate the ordinary. At the Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design, which received a welcome refresh in 2020, the city’s crafts are divided into 74 categories. Paper lanterns, folding fans, ornamental hairpins, bamboo flutes, tasseled cords, wooden signs – each trade has its revered masters and arcane practices. Often these are generations-old businesses. Talk to a candlemaker or yuzen dyer or confectionary-mold maker in the historic Nishijin district, and you’ll likely hear about a great-grandparent’s great-grandparent who employed the same methods in the very same spot.


That may sound quaint, but quaint isn’t always sustainable. With Japan’s low birth rate, a rapidly aging society (almost 33 percent of the country’s population is over 65, compared to around 17 percent in the U.S.), and younger generations smitten with technology, Kyoto’s storied artisanship is giving way to laser cutting and robot assembly. Or worse, these trades are silently vanishing. “In 10 to 15 years, we could lose the traditions completely,” Nishibori says.


This sense of urgency led Nishibori and some friends to launch the nonprofit Dento Foundation to support and reinvigorate Kyoto’s artisan trades. Instead of watching traditional Japanese workshops fade away, the organization is collaborating with scores of craftspeople to update their skills, connect them with outside mentors and funding, and open their ateliers to select groups of visitors.


The Park Hyatt, in the heart of the historic Higashiyama neighborhood, provided an excellent base for exploring the old town and its storied workshops. Seeing Japan’s cultural capital through the eyes of its esteemed makers is a true insider experience. Visiting experts at their cutting tables and kilns is like a portal into Kyoto’s history, art, and community, and its spirit of shokunin kishitsu – the way of the artisan.


For seventh-generation bellmaker Kazuya Nanjo, that means using traditional techniques to create something new. His small factory on an industrial strip in southeast Kyoto is one of only two in Japan handmaking the orin, or standing bell, that’s placed on Buddhist altars. It’s a painstaking process. At the factory, Nanjo shows me how a sacred combination of copper and tin is carefully poured into clay molds before each small chime is polished and burnished, one by one. He pulls a cup-shaped bell from a crate and strikes it with a mallet, issuing a clear and penetrating tone that reverberates for 30 seconds. To the untrained ear the sound is enchanting, but it’s not quite right, Nanjo says, and he sends the bell back to be fired and shaped again.


Farther north, not far from the Kyoto Botanical GardensYohko Toda demonstrates the wonders of another plant known as the lacquer tree. The stylish urushi tableware and sculptures she makes from sap and natural pigment reflect Japanese lacquering techniques that date back to 9000 BC. Sitting at a low table in a corner of her tiny home studio, Toda coats her creations up to 30 times with brushes traditionally made from the hair of women who free dive for shellfish off the Pacific coast. (Human hair bristles are firmer than those made from animal hair and are the best for applying sticky lacquer.) But Toda’s time studying art history in Paris lends her work a striking modern edge. Near the end of the visit, she stacks 12 finished dinner plates in a charcoal-to-gold color spectrum that subtly captures Kyoto’s changing seasons. Everyday objects suddenly look like high art.


“Living in Japan, you sometimes hear the orin at temples, but I wanted people to hear this beautiful sound in their homes or maybe in their offices,” Nanjo says. After consulting with Nishibori and taking design courses run by his team, he developed a line of bells and singing bowls with the same haunting tones but a more sophisticated look. His new showroom has a dedicated space for sound baths and shelves of decidedly contemporary products – like an electric turntable that plays multiple chimes with each revolution. “It’s a look and sound for the next generation,” Nanjo says.


Another afternoon, in the traditional wooden house in central Kyoto where he grew up, Takeshi Nishimura, at age 70, is buoyant as a teenager about the new applications he’s finding for his work. The paper-pattern-carving techniques he learned from his father are part of a behind-the-scenes process that goes into classical kimono making. But with demand for these pricey handmade garments dwindling, Nishimura worked with Dento to retool his skills and transfer his talents to the digital age.


Wearing the dark denim robe of his trade, Nishimura – a small man with a huge personality – deftly punches holes in the form of flowers and mandalas into thick washi paper soaked with persimmon juice. Some of these patterns will be silkscreened onto kimonos, but he’s also making pointillist-style sconces, decorative fans, and leather iPad covers for Takashimaya, one of Japan’s high-end department stores, and for orders as far away as Paris (Nishimura is big in France). “The work I do is so different than the work machines can do,” he says through a translator. “I’m happy that people are still happy with craft that’s done by hand.”


Meeting Kyoto’s artists is like peeling a layer off an onion that’s otherwise impossible to peel. Modesty and humility are prized attributes in Japanese culture, and much of what happens on an aesthetic level in Kyoto is inaccessible to casual outsiders.


For instance, a small wooden “Arts & Crafts” sign is the only tip-off to the century-old pottery business behind an unimposing storefront in the Higashiyama District. Yuko Hayashi’s inherited talent for handmade ceramics stretches back to her great-grandfather. For generations, Koson Kiln set standards for its orthodox approach to white and celadon porcelain vases, plates, and bowls. And while these traditional pieces are still popular with older buyers, Hayashi challenged herself to bring freshness and dash to the heritage brand. It took her more than a decade to figure out how. After the foundation helped her find training in Kyoto and Paris, she created a new method for cutting clay – from an unexpected inspiration. “I had a breakthrough moment after watching a video of a confectioner cutting flower designs with scissors,” Hayashi says, as she shows off the trick in a sunny upstairs atelier. Pressing into soft clay with eyebrow scissors – “These are just right for making delicate petals and leaves,” she says – Hayashi gives a flat plate the look of a gorgeous chrysanthemum. Koson’s tsuchibasami, or “scissoring clay,” now ships around the world. 


Nishibori, the umbrella maker, has a global following too. With pandemic travel restrictions in Japan finally lifted, small groups of overseas guests are visiting his craft lab to learn about Kyo-wagasa and follow the steps of making parasols themselves. He shows his contemporary lighting designs at international exhibitions. He also recently helped open a three-floor Kyoto boutique, blocks from Nijo Castle, that celebrates the handiwork of Dento-affiliated artists. There’s a bamboo art installation, displays of lacquerware and Nanjo’s bells, and a wall of woven and dyed textiles that he calls a “fabric forest.”


Nishibori is increasingly optimistic about the future of these crafts. His daughter, an art student, is 19 and considering getting into the family business. “She’s not sure yet, but that’s OK,” he says. “I like to joke and say, ‘It’s your decision. Either way, I will continue to be an umbrella to these traditions.’ ”



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