Next stop Tokyo..

Next stop Tokyo..

Our next step is to base ourselves around Tokyo for a few days, so with our first day to spare, where do two shoemakers find themselves? .. In Asakusa of course which is basically a whole street of leather and tools and workshops for the shoemaking trade!

We happen to arrive into Tokyo just as the technical college for shoemaking has its end of year exhibition so we popped in to have a look. This college is where my apprentice, Mariko began learning to make shoes so we took a picture of her next to her old machine.

I also wanted to stock up on some tools I use in m own workshop at home, which are exceptionally well made here in Japan. This picture below is to demonstrate what seems to be our theme of conversation in the workshops we have visited in Japan, the challenges of finding of tool makers which are craftsmen in themselves and becoming fe and far between. This pair of lasting pincers for example now have to be brought in from China as the last Japanese maker of them has now passed away with no one to succeed him.


Inden, leather craft, Yamanashi

Inden, leather craft, Yamanashi

Inden is a Japanese craft made of lacquered deerskin with more than 400 years of history originating in the Yamanashi prefecture close to Mount Fuji.There are 3 types of Inden made in the company.

・Fusube-smoking one – This is a very traditional technique from Shousouin (Japanese famous warehouse storage that preserve treasures from 7-8 century in Nara-pref)
・Urushi-zuke-stencil urushi
・Sarasa-using lots of colours of paints

The techniques and patterns for making Inden were originally developed to produce certain parts of samurai armors. The production process follows three basic steps that require highly skilled artisans.

The very soft deerskin leather becomes very durable when Japanese lacquer is applied on it, making it very suitable for objects exposed to day to day usage.

Founded in 1582, INDEN-YA is the oldest company we have visited so far and it is clear there is real integrity at the heart of their business approach.
In our meeting with Mr Desawa we heard about the company’s deeply inspiring philosophy to preserving this ancient leatherwork technique. I love that they make their products to last and are passionate about repairing their work even decades down the line.
As long as their logo is visible on the product, they will repair all their products for free, with a few exceptions.

Mr Desawa specified he wants his products to last for a least 3 generations in a family. In ancient Japan people would remake or reuse objects, using an old jacket to make a new wallet for example and creating new things out of old ones is part of this company’s vision to not add to the throw away culture we now live in.

The other truly special thing about Inden-Ya is the treatment of the employees of which there Are 94 altogether, 65 of which are making. It is clear they are treated as family members and they invest a lot in teaching them ancient techniques and many of their workers stay in the company for their whole lives.

They have also been a particularly interesting to talk to because they do the whole process of making inden from beginning to end, with the exception of occasionally outsourcing their stitching. This means it is easier to Quality control – something that is clear when you pick up one of their products, the softness of the skin is unlike many leathers I work with back at home. Mr Desawa said they don’t sell online as they prefer to deal with their customers one to one and allow them to see and feel their products.

One of the techniques we had the opportunity to see in motion was the Fusube – the smoking of the leather. Mr Desawa also gave us a personal tour of the museum he has created which was wonderful to see. Having the opportunity to see this in motion would not have been possible had we not been under the support of the Winston Churchill Fellowhip Trust.

Being the leather craft of Japan, Inden has been the interview I have been looking forward to most and hearing Mr Desawa speak with such passion for the craft has been very inspiring.

One of the designs I like most is the ‘Tonbo’ (dragonfly) whose meaning is to always go forward, never back.




Chiso Yuzen, Kyoto

Chiso Yuzen, Kyoto

Kyo-Yuzen is a technique of hand painting and dyeing silk mainly used for kimonos. It is a combination of beautiful colours and pictorial designs such as flowers, trees, birds, and scenery drawn and dyed on white silk by brush and often finished with gold leaf or embroidery. The beauty of nature is expressed on the fabric. Kyo-Yuzen has two dyeing styles: Tegaki-Yuzen, hand-painting, and Kata-Yuzen, stencil-dyeing. Hand-painting techniques were originally developed by Yuzensai Miyazaki in Kyoto in the middle of 17th century, therefore, the artform came to be called Yuzen. After that, stencil-dyeing techniques were developed by Jisuke Hirose in Kyoto during the 19th century.


Founded in 1555, CHISO is one of the oldest YUZEN dyeing companies in Kyoto. They have been honoured with many awards over the years. They were ordered to create a kimono for the crown princess Michiko in 1958 and when prince Akishinomiya married princess Kiko in 1990 they were asked to create a kimono for the princess. They have developed the technique of velvet Yuzen and in 1994 began to reproduce kimonos from the 18th century to create a beautiful fusion of traditional and innovative designs into their work. They are striving to promote the wearing of kimonos today as Western clothing continues to influence the streets of Japan and cultural traditions are cast aside.

Nowadays they are working in collaborations with other companies using the Yuzen technique. For example, last year they launched a travelling suitcase with Globe Trotter, Chiso provided the hand painted, silk lining for a limited edition range of bags.
One of them encompasses a pattern which is a fusion of the Japanese chrysanthemum (the symbol of Japan) with the classic English rose.
Another case is opened to reveal a design of the crane which symbolizes luck in travel or flight. Despite the ¥2,300,000 price tag they have already sold 5.


Last year they celebrated their 460 years of opening with an exhibition at the museum of Kyoto.

We met with the production department director, Mizumura Hironobu and Chiso gallery curator, Ishida Naoko who took us to Takahashi-Toku, one of Chisos business partners to meet Mr Takahashi who showed us the extraordinary process from beginning to end.

We have been hearing a lot about the Japanese method of separating out each process and designate a craftsman for each stage and Yuzen is the perfect example of this. As we watched each of the master craftsmen at work, painting on to the silk with no hesitation and perfect accuracy you realise you are holding your breath in pure concentration for them. One of the reasons Kio Yuzen is so intensely  beautiful is that, at the hand of the artist he or she can create anything like from the end of the brush using a kaleidoscope of colour (bearing in mind it takes several years to be able to mix the dyes, master the technique and achieve the desired colour). Each kimono is completely unique.

A kimono requires around 16 metres of pure silk which is all painted separately, here is a breakdown of the process which takes around 6 months and quite often longer if the design is very intricate or complicated.

  1. (Zuan) First the designs are drawn by hand on paper with charcoal in actual size.
  2. White silk fabric is cut into 10 pieces and sewn together to create the form of the kimono.
  3. (Shitae) the design is traced on to the white silk with juice extracted from flowers, this blue compound can easily be rinsed away with water.
  4. (Itome Nori) The outline is traced on the white silk with narrow lines of resist paste, this not only separates one colour area from another but also imparts a decorative quality of its own. (The kimono will then be taken apart and worked on in separate pieces once the design is in place ready to be matched up again later)
  5. (Aobana Otoshi) white silk pieces are put into water to remove blue lines.
  6. (Fuse nori) the pattern areas that are not to be dyed are covered with a rice paste.
  7. (Jiire) after the rice paste has dried the whole piece is brushed with gojiru liquid extracted from soy beans.
  8. (jizome) the background colour is brushed over the entire silk piece using a thicker and wider brush.
  9. (mushi) to set the dyes, the silk pieces are steamed at 100 degrees in a cypress box for around 40 minutes.
  10. (Mizumoto) all the rice paste is carefully rinsed off in cold water – they specifically use water from very deep underground to be very cold and clean.
  11. (Jire) the pattern area is brushed with gojiru to prevent bleeding of the dyes.
  12. (iro-sashi) after allowing to dry, each silk piece is attached to a bamboo frame and the dyer artist brushes the colour onto the design outline.
  13. the piece is then steamed again.
  14. (gomu-suisen) the silk piece is then washed in a special kind of oil because the resist paste is made of gum.
  15. Putting the finishing touch (Yunoshi)
  16. metallic leaf (inken) embroidery (shishu) precious metallic leaf or powder is bonded to the dyed silk piece using various techniques.

As the finale of our tour we were taken to see a special kimono lit up in a room which was made and presented to Mr Takahashi’s daughter on her 20th birthday. You can see from the long sleeves it is for an unmarried girl (Furisode). This kimono is so intricate with many layers of patterns, hand dyed and painted separately that it took a whole year to make. The lightness of the silk combined with gold embroidery and red silk lining make it such a work of art. The sheer beauty and monumental amount of work involved makes the finished piece truly stunning.


Kawashima Selkon Textiles, Kyoto

Kawashima Selkon Textiles, Kyoto

Our last day in Kyoto and our first interview of the day is with Kenji Tsujimoto, the director of Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co Ltd’s museum.


He told us a bit about its long history after the company was began in 1843 by Jinbei Kawashima. The second generation of the company (Jimbei Kawashima ll) was inspired by European textiles and ancient tapestries after his many visits to Europe.

Kawashima Selkon co is a very big company, occupying many buildings on the outskirts of the city, currently employing over 1000 people. It is pretty unique in that they do hand and machine weaving all in one business, around 40/50 people do the weaving by hand and they also do all the dyeing of the thread and have an extensive private museum of their accomplishments which contains over 160,000 items collected over the 173 years it has been open.

They make small and extremely large weavings, speciality tapestries, theatre curtains and specialized woven recreations of works of art.

They also run Kawashima textile school, short weaving courses for international studenst or graduation students in Japan. The aim is to help create the next generation of weavers.(It was established for originally but nowadays more and more students are so serious to learn) I found it interesting that when we asked more about the students who want to learn to weave, Mr Tsujimoto talked about the common fact that most of them have worked or are working for a business or city firm and decided they need a way out and through the courses they provide, many of them quit to become full time weavers which is very promising for the future of the trade.

It was particularly interesting to watch both the hand and machine weaving in motion, two completely different worlds residing under the same roof. Machine weaving, where the bobbins are about the same size of me, and the huge machines work away churning out 2 to 3 metres per hour requiring perhaps 5 or 6 staff to either press the go button or attend when the red warning light comes on signalling a problem. And in contrast the hand weaving which is so intricate and time consuming it takes 1 person at the machine every day over 3 months to make one obi belt and is entirely driven by hand. – we were allowed to take a few pictures here but not of any of the work in progress which is why they are close up.

We were taken to see the dyeing room where they dye all the silk thread. The room faces North to prevent the sun coming in and distorting the colouring process.


The huge commissions such as theatre curtains will need to be worked on this loom which is the biggest weaving machine in Japan and the whole reason why Kawashima needed to relocate from the city of Kyoto to the suburbs, where a special building was built for purpose. A whole curtain will be woven by several employees working on different sections at the same time and will weigh a whole ton when completed. Picture below is one theatre curtain in working progress.


Kawashima was the first Japanese company to receieve a Royal Warrant, and they have worked on many pieces for the Royal family and exhibited all over the world.

When we walked around the museum it was pretty breathtaking to see the detail and sheer brilliance of Kawashimas work over the years, particularly the tapestries which were often 6×5 metres in size. There were so many works of art that I walked past and did a double take as I suddenly realised, when close up that the pieces are actually woven recreations of some of the most famous works of art in the world. Some of the tapestries are so intricately detailed, they contain over 100 species of birds and plants. It was interesting to see the combination of European and Japanese influences in a lot of the work. They have a licence to weave William Morris designs and had a large exhibition of curtains in his famous ‘strawberry thief’ print. Again we were unable to take any photos of any of the work in the museum due to strict regulations which is a shame as the work was some of the finest I have ever seen.

Museum of traditional crafts, Kyoto

Museum of traditional crafts, Kyoto

Our meeting with the director general, Rie Doi and the executive director Seiji Hatta took place in the middle of the 7 day annual Festival of Traditional Crafts so we had a chance to see live demonstrations of master craftsmen at work and were able to ask a few questions about the work the museum are doing to preserve ancient traditions and see how their projects plus the work of the council/city have developed the craft industry around Kyoto.

It is evident that in Japan but especially here in Kyoto, traditional crafts are officially recognised and protected. We discovered that around 10 years ago, it was decided by the Ministry of Economy, central government that the definition of craft must be the item has to be entirely made by hand and the process of making not changed for over 100 years. The craft must also be closely related to Japan’s traditional culture and must take place in Kyoto city.

Rie stressed that her belief is that hand crafted items should be used in our modern day lives and not be specially reserved for museums pieces or as it was in the past, made for kings and nobility. Craft should have connection to the user But it’s creating a market and being able to convert the ancient skills to make items tha fit into our day to day lives that will enable the Survival of our important heritage skills. 

Japanese craftmanship is obviously stunning but it is also extremely technically beautiful as we have seen in great detail.  Here in Japan, they have a master craftsman for each process so the attention to detail and division of labour makes the it even more perfect. Yuzen (hand painted and dyed silk) for example employs 11 different craftsmen which make up the whole process as it is so labour intensive.

She also talked about craft being taught in more schools and stressed again that there needs to be more practical and technical teaching and not taught as a historical pieces of the past. The demonstrations here in the museum are a great way to show people the different processes and help others understand the workmanship involved.

Another important factor, is people’s general understanding of craftmanship. Here in Japan for example, much like the £1 shop in the UK they have the 100¥ shop where you can get almost anything at a fraction of the price which is really corrupting our relationship to products and devaluing our need to pass down or repair items. After all, for 100¥ what does it matter of it breaks, you can just buy another one can’t you?

One of the biggest struggles master craftsmen face, as we have heard many times elsewhere, is that the production of tools is facing an all time low which is one of the biggest challenges at the moment. One of the positive technological advances is actually helping this problem in Japan and there is a small movement going on as they experiment by using a 3d printer to recreate the tools needed.

The museum is also working hard to collaborate modern design with traditional craft, for example some hand painted Yuzen fabric is now being used in Dior shops as decorative wallpaper. One of the areas they are working in most is to create workshops for young high school students to participate with traditional craftsmen to help innovate new, modern uses for the work or invent new designs.

When I asked what Rie sees as the most important of all the challenges in keeping ancient craftmanship alive here in Japan she said they have very recently been collaborating with travel agencies and international tours and are busy convincing the craftsmen to open up their workshops for visitors over the busy seasons. She brought out a small pocket size comprehensive booklet of postcards detailing each of the crafts which they are planning to have available soon. They are also soon to be opening a website for this particular venture.

During the interview we got a chance to see some of the craftsmen working away, here is a few of the many interesrting ones we saw.

This man had a natural fascination for the Craft of braided cord so he has been learning for the past 30 years, he tells us with a smile. This craft is more than 1000 years old.

Here is a another master craftsman practising Kyo Zogan or Damascene, a 5th century form of decorating precious metals with gold or silver, originally from Syria. It was brought to Japan along with Buddhism through the Silk Road and is virtually unchanged in its methods. These patterns are obtained by engraving deep, patterned cuts into steel and then placing a gold foil into the lines of the design. This foil is hammered until the gold (or silver) penetrates into the cuts forming the design. It used to be used for decorating Japanese swords and armour, Then 600 years ago the gun arrived in Japan and the amount of practising craftsmen declined. Nowadays there is 25 designated craftsmen, 10 of whom are young craftsmen, 3 are apprentices.

Just to finish off the day, We also had an opportunity to see Nihon Buyo, a traditional Japanese dance performance.

City of Kyoto, traditional industries

We jumped straight in a taxi to our next meeting, this time with Shinichi Nakayama, assistant director of City of Kyotos Craft division. They do similar work alongside Kyotos prefectural government textiles and craft devision but they work mainly within the tourist industry in the city too.

Mr Nakayama explained about their current plans for promoting Kyotos traditional crafts of which there are 74 altogether

They are helping to create text for children in elementary schools to teach what traditional craft is all about. They help to provide demonstrations to help young children understand the work of the craftsman which is proving very successful.

As with the previous meeting, Mr Nakayama explained that Japanese traditional crafts, for so many years was reserved for the royal family and the future of the crafts survival depends on creating a market for the every day use which is one of their main priorities today. They are working on creating new markets for the masters of crafts, helping to pass on the techniques to younger generations which will innovate new modern ideas and helping them with branding and advertising.

One of Kyoto City’s recent projects is called ‘Kyoto Contemporary‘ to bring collaborations between Kyotos masters of craft and designers all over the world , which began 4 years ago. One of their collaborations was with Salvatore Ferragamo.

Another recent venture is a new challenge which is connecting Manga artists with global designers.

They have also created a competition for young craftsmen to have a chance to gain exposure in magazine and exhibit their work and receive scholarships for business training and organisation.

It’s been great to see in a bit more detail the work of both divisions who are doing some great work in helping to promote the traditional crafts industry and foster a new generation of makers for the future.

Kyotos council, Textile & Craft division

Kyotos council, Textile & Craft division

The next step of my project will take us from the island of Kyushu to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan with a unique history of ancient craftsmanship still very much present today.

In stark contrast to the workshops and studios we have visited so far, Kyoto Council is in a busy modern building, a large office on the 4th floor.
We met with Hideki Kishida, The associate director of Kyoto prefectural government Textiles and Crafts division.
He explained the work they are doing to preserve and promote the traditional craft industry and provided a good insight into the current state of affairs along with some figures and projections for the current year.

The main points they are focusing on at the moment is:
Developing manufacturing : producing new crafts which are suitable for modern lifestyles using ancient techniques. 

-Developing human resources: conserving and inheriting traditional techniques, and nurturing relationships that will lead to future generations learning the crafts.

-Developing the industry environment : promoting a lifestyle culture which utilises tradition and increase base demand for traditional crafts.

Mr Kishida also talked about the Kyomono traditional crafts festival:
Supporting businesses in traditional industries to cooperate with other businesses and or producers and designers so they can develop products that meet the needs of the market. By Connecting businesses to create products that fit into the every day lifestyle Means the 74 different crafts in and around Kyoto can extend their skills with new innovative markets.

He also provided us with the figures for the number of employees the Craft industry contributes to Japan’s economy.

Kyoto council have helped create opportunities for craftsmen to attend Milano expo – to expand overseas market of Kyoto crafts and develop manufacturing.

He also explained about the subsidies they provide for people working traditional industries. One of the major problems in Japan is the availability of the tools the craftsmen use, so Kyoto council provide subsidies to purchase new equipment and train people in each of the processes of labour to provide more jobs.

They also have a scheme where they commend highy skilled experts as ‘Kyo no Meiko ‘or Kyoto Masters (over 60 years old with over 30 years working experience as a craftsman – so far 1,184 craftsmen have been commended) and to foster new craftsmen for the next generation they have begun to certify designated young artisans as ‘Kyomono Nintei Kougeishi’ or certified craftsmen of Kyoto traditional crafts (under 40 years old with over 5 years working experience as a craftsmen – 129 young craftsmen have been certified so far). 

Part of the work of Kyotos craft council division is to promote the preservation and handing down of high level techniques by having both the experienced master craftsmen and the younger craftsmen work together on project to restore and recreate traditional craft pieces such as precious cultural assets like shrines and temples.

They also talked about the practical training they provide to young people who wish to work in the traditional craft industry and provide their salary for 6months-1 year. Between 2013-15 they have trained a total of 34 new craftsmen, 29 of which are either employed in the business or have started their own company.

They provide workshops for young craftsmen on product development and marketing over 3 years (last year they trained 38 budding craftsmen who exhibited their new products at Japan Expo, Paris)

Finally they are doing a lot of work to encourage young people to wear the kimono once more which in turn helps the kimono weaving and dyeing industry to survive and the cultural tradition to continue.
They organise exhibitions and fashion shows as well as classes on how to wear the kimono at high schools and university’s which is proving to be very successful.
In conjunction with this they have created a ‘Kyoto kimono passport’ which gives the wearer benefits when they visit temples, shrines and museums to boost the demand for wearing the kimono around Kyotos city centre.