Yosegi Zaiku, Hakone

Yosegi Zaiku, Hakone

It is said that the technique of making Hakone Yosegi Zaiku was invented by Ishikawa Nihei, a craftman in Hatajuku, Hakone, towards the end of the Edo era. As mountains in Hakone are blessed with various trees, Ishikawa took advantage of natural colours and shades of the woods to form geometric patterns. At the beginning, ran-Yosegi and tan I Yosegi moygou (pattern unit with basic designs) were mainly made. Today, as machines and means of processing have been improved, Yosegi Zaiku with a variety of elaborate patterns are produced. This traditional technique is highly original and cannot be found anywhere else in Japan.

This business has been designated as one of the traditional craft products with the stamp.

We met with the decendant of Ishikawa Nihei who gave us a demonstration on how he makes Yosegi Zaiku which is a really beautiful process.

Sakura !

Sakura !

To conclude our week in Tokyo we finally see the first of the cherry blossoms and watch the hanami party’s commence. We went to Marikos old shoemaking school where I made lots of new shoemaker friends and had a hanami of our own.

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Edo folding fan, Tokyo

Edo folding fan, Tokyo

Our final interview we have in Tokyo is with Ms Fukatsu who is a maker of the Edo folding fan, another long standing tradition in Japan. Also meeting us is a friend of hers, Ms Kinoshita who runs a very interesting independent website for new craftsmen and women. She very kindly gave me a new set of books she has just published about Japanese crafts.
It was actually a real breath of fresh air to meet and talk to a female master of craft as everyone we have talked to so far has been male. Although in some of our interviews we have seen women doing some of the work it has mainly been men that we have had our meetings with. Just to illustrate this point, one of the first things Ms Fukatsu talked about was the fact that her father (a master of Edo folding fan) did not want her to learn the craft and pass on his skills and instead be a mother and housewive. In defiance she has spent her life dedicated to mastering her craft and making a name for herself. She spent the day showing us her techniques and giving me a lesson on how it is done!

There are heavily patterned lavish gold designs on some folding fans but I like that Ms Fukatsu is inspired by stories and fiction and as she says, her designs are simple but the space around leaves space for the imagination.

Washi, paper making, Tokyo

Washi, paper making, Tokyo

Washi is a style of paper that was first made in Japan. Washi is commonly made using fibers from the bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub or the paper mulberry, but also can be made using bamboo, hemp, rice, and wheat.  Washi is one of the UNESCO’s Intangible cultural heritage objects and the unique strength makes its many uses so many it is hard to list them all.

Washi is generally tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp, and is used in many traditional arts. Origami, Shodo, and Ukiyo-e were all produced using washi. Washi was also used to make various everyday goods like clothes, household goods, and toys as well as vestments and ritual objects for Shinto priests and statues of Buddha. It was even used to make wreaths that were given to winners in the 1998 Winter Paralympics. Several kinds of washi, referred to collectively as Japanese tissue, are used in the conservation and mending of books.

Mr Tagaki explained the paper actually comes from the bark of the tree, not the tree itself, in fact only 4/5% of the tree is used. The trees grow an very quickly, around 2-3 metres a year and are harvested in December or January as it is important to do it in very cold temperatures. It requires a long process to make it into a pulp, it is steamed and peeled and hammered which has been done for centuries in Japan.

It will take a while to translate the interview but in the meantime here is a few photos to illustrate the amazing process.

Urushi institute of research and restoration, Tokyo

Urushi institute of research and restoration, Tokyo

Urushi or Japanese lacquer has been found to have been used in Japan for something like 7000 years BC. This ancient craft is a method of using the sap from the lacquer tree and coating objects made from wood in laquer and decorating in fine gold. We have seen many bowls and spoons on our journey all over Japan, as urushi is famously used for enhancing the quality and decorative finish of all sorts of utilitarian objects. But in its long history Urushi has been used to make many historical artefacts and the creation of lacquerware has long been practiced only by skilled dedicated artisans.
The craft of Urushi was actually known as ‘Japan’ although nowadays people translate it as ‘lacquer’ researchers and urushi craftsmen are trying to make urushi to be known as urushi instead of Japanese lacquer.
Urushi is produced in a three-step process: first the base is prepared. Most often the base consists of wood, which has to be shaped and is a whole craft in itself, but it can also be of paper or leather. Next is the application of lacquer, which hardens as time passes, thereby sealing the base. Generally several layers of lacquer are applied. The lacquer is then decorated with a variety of methods. the maki-e technique, a powdered metal (usually gold or silver) is sprinkled on the lacquer before completely hardened. This technique was developed and popular in the Heian period but is continued unchanged today.

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We met with Tasuku Murose who is one of Kazumi Murose sons, a well known national treasure of Japan. It was actually really nice to have our meeting with the next generation down to a master craftsman, someone who now in his early 30s has decided he wants to continue the skills of his family’s history.

Before deciding to join his fathers company, Tasuku went to university; over this time, he realised he was the only person amongst his fellows who knew about the history and processes of Urushi. So he decided to take a different path and learn more about this ancient craft and then did a masters and doctorate. Now he works alongside his brother and his father.
His father concentrates on the making and repairing Tasuku and his brother help with the business, and at the same time, they are busy running workshops to let others learn about the ancient craft of urushi and bring awareness to this specialist skill. They also employ other craftsmen, some of whom we met in the workshop.
Tasuku talked about his experience growing up with most young people of his own generation aiming to work in a business in the city, choosing a career in IT rather than any learn any kind of traditional craft. Most of them probably ending up blending in to the sea of men in black suits that were packed into the train on the way here today. We talked about today’s choices for the younger generation where there seems to be a shift away from the business world and more looking to the arts for their career path, although interestingly much more Art and Design rather than traditional craft.
The number of craftsmen is certainly fluctuating; in his fathers generation, there were actually only 3 other students on the course at Tokyo Gedai University (Tokyo University of the Arts) who wanted to learn about urushi.

Tasuku then showed us some of the working processes of urushi. This picture reveals the grades of processes from the bare wood to the sanding until the finish is a smooth glassy finish that is so smooth it looks like smooth black marble and is as shiny as a mirror. You can see here that the bare wood is protected by linen as the wooden pieces are often very thin so will need protecting. Then a sand based paste is applied before polishing and applying the urushi around 7 or 8 times. This is a popular method in Wajima, one of the largest production areas of urushi in Japan.


A small piece will take around 1-2 months of work and the bigger boxes or specialised piece will take around 6 months, this is because of the drying time involved between each of the coats of urushi.

The next part of the process is to decorate items which are classically done in ornate gold designs. The gold sprinkled on is called Maki-e decoration. First you paint the pattern then before it sets you would sprinkle he gold powder and then wait 1 or 2 days for it to set. They mainly use pure gold and sometimes the work involves cutting the gold by hand and using a pair of special tweezers to individually apply each tiny by hand, one fleck at a time. Tasuku explained that that once you look close up, the the smaller gold dust is actually round which is why it looks so fine.

Nowadays urushi boxes continue to be used all over Japan for very special items or family heirlooms. In fact Japanese people put so much emphasis on special boxes or packaging, if you go into a shop they will wrap your items up in such elaborate wrapping with so much care and attention it makes you feel like the packet of tissues you brought is a special gift for yourself.

Its the smaller things you notice while being here that actually sustain the bigger things, like part of urushis survival depends on the people of Japan’s continued need for a beautiful box.

We were taken to see the workshop next and were welcomed with the strong, rich scent of urushi as we entered. Each workshop we have visited is so all encompassing. Watching the craftsmen at work and breathing in the smell of urushi is really intoxicating in a good way.

The workshop is one of the 4 largest Urushi restoration centres in Japan. They are currently working on some very important pieces which we were unable to photograph as we walked around the workshop. It was pretty magic seeing some of the workmanship which is 200-300 years old, a bit like leather, the urushi just gets mor beautiful with age. Some of the restoration work is so specialised it can take up to 2 years to complete.
One of the craftsmen showed us a bowl they have finished working on, he told us that because Urushi is made from wood which can swell with age and fluctuation in temperatures make the urushi crack so some of the work involves deciding which parts they need to fill in and some they have to leave as the wood will shrink back again. He also said how much they learn from the restoration projects they do, how they see older techniques and often use them for new creations.
He showed us a special bible stand that was created for churches all over Europe, and exported mostly to Portugal and Spain.

This is the urushi tree. The sap is collected during summertime and the tree is cut down after the season. The sap is collected by cutting the skin of urushi trees. It’s very important for the direction of the cut to be right to gather the sap. Amazingly only one cup of urushi comes from a whole tree.
Nowadays 90% of urushi comes from China but Tasuku said they would like to use Japanese urushi as and when is possible.

There are currently only two official institutions teaching urushi in Japan although there are a few small workshops like Murose’s that teach urushi techniques to raise awareness of this wonderful craft. Here are a few photos of the classes they use for teaching, they currently run around 10 courses per week with 4/5 students each class. Tasuku is also soon to be teaching about urushi at Tokyo University.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.