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Traditional Arts and Crafts in Japan

Arts and crafts in Japan are strictly connected to life there. They originated from daily necessities and have been heavily influenced by China, Buddhism and, later on, the West. With time, arts and crafts lost their practical aspect to become pure aesthetic objects, made for the contemplation of the viewer and for decoration.

Nowadays, also thanks to the efforts of the government, especially after WWII, there are many artisans that keep beautiful traditions alive, creating unique objects that have become famous all over the world.

Read our short guide to learn more about Japanese arts and crafts!

Highlights

  • Japanese painting, highly stylized but recognizable, will catch your attention.
  • Bring back home some of the fine textiles used for the marvelous kimonos.
  • Crafting wood is one of the most fascinating traditional arts to be found in Japan…
  • …to which the fascinating lacquerwares are closely connected.
  • Bonsai and ikebana make use of plants to create unique works of art.

A brief history of Japanese crafts

Japanese crafts are as old as Japan itself. Rural crafts were made with natural materials to provide for daily necessities, and with time they became increasingly complex and sophisticated. Crafts were then produced to be exported and to help the economy. Apprenticeships were long and difficult, necessary to master the techniques to work with ceramics, metal, and lacquer.

Traditions were passed down from the teacher to the student (orally or in writing), and industrial production was introduced only during the Meiji period. The feudal lords were no longer able to support the artisans, and industrial production replaced handmade objects as one of the most important part of Japanese exports.

However, Japanese people worked to conserve ancient objects and designated them as National Treasures, and in 1890 the Imperial Household Artists was founded. After WWII, a bigger effort was made to protect the intangible cultural properties of Japan, and thanks to this, a wide number of arts still exist.

Painting

The oldest of the Japanese visual arts, painting, is complex and highly varied. Its history has been influenced by Chinese and western art, and some of its most popular subjects are religion, landscapes, ideograms, birds, and flowers.

During the Meiji period, Japanese traditional painting was called nihonga, mostly to distinguish it from western painting. The main difference lies in the materials used. The painting is done on a base made of paper, silk, wood, or plaster; and the colors come from natural pigments. To master the painting technique, a long training is often necessary.

Among the many influences, nihonga relies on three other concepts: wabi, a transient beauty; sabi, the beauty of natural aging; and yūgen, profound grace. These concepts can be easily seen behind some of the work of masters like KawanabeKyosai, whose Tiger is famous all over the world; and Katsushika Hokusai, who painted the most famous Japanese painting ever: The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Textile

Looking at Japanese textiles is a good way to get an insight into Japanese society. Textiles, in fact, are a social badge and identify the wearer and his/her social status. Japanese textiles have apreference for natural materials and traditional ways of decorating.

Silk, hemp, and cotton are the main materials used, and weaving and dyeing techniques vary from place to place. In Okinawa, materials are dyed before weaving, while in Kanazawa it is common to use a paste for resist-dyeing, which creates intricate patterns. The Ainu people from Hokkaidō mainly use indigo dyeing, maybe the most common dyeing process.

Silk fabrics (when used for kimonos) are batch-dyed, whereas some colored damask employs dyed silk warp thread and do not need to be further dyed. Cotton fabrics commonly uses plain weave. Among the many dyeing techniques, stencil dyeing and freehand pasteresist-dyeing are respectively used for yukata (the summer kimono) and curtains.

In Tokyo, Nippori Tomato Honkan is one of the best furnished stores of the whole capital city, with five floors and hundreds and hundreds of textiles to choose from. In Okadaya Shinjuku Honten, instead, you will find tons of less expensive items.

Woodcraft and bamboo

In Japan, woodcraft has a long history, with each region displaying its own peculiar products. Wood has always been widely used for houses, temples, household items, marquetry (yosegi), and furniture like tansu, a mobile storage cabinetry. Bamboo is mainly used for baskets, interior goods, etc.

Creating these crafts is a laborious process that must be performed by highly-skilled artisans. Any small mistake would be evident. To make a yosegi, timberis cut into oblong rods (different woodis used for different colors). Rods are glued together to form the desired pattern, and, as a final touch, coatings of lacquer are finally applied.

Basket weaving (kagome) is an art by itself. The woven arrangement is made by laths, composed by interlaced triangles; any point where two laths cross has four neighboring points, so that a pattern of trihexagonal tiling can be formed.

Maybe the most renowned place in Japan for woodcrafts is Nihon Ichiban, with three different locations in Kanagawa, each one specialized in different items: small crafts, traditional woodcrafts, or food-related objects. The quality of their products is extremely high, and they ship all over the world.

Ceramics

Some of the oldest ceramics on earth has been found in Japan, and, through the long history of the country, dozens of different styles have been developed, especially under the influence of the pivotal tea ceremony.

In the past, pottery was made by pressing the clay into shape; the use of the wheel and of coiled methods developed later. Tools are usually made of wood or bamboo. Some of them are a Japanese version of commonly used tools, while others were especially invented in Japan.

Pottery and porcelain in Japan are unique, mostly because of the unique techniques used. Yuri-kinsai is the gold-leaf application technique that creates some of the most unusual objects. Nerikomi is the traditional technique of creating patterns, using colored clay. Blue and white pottery is maybe the most widespread technique, known all over the world, which came to Japan through China.

Lacquerware

The origin of lacquerware, as well as pottery, can be traced back to prehistory. Japanese lacquerwares are made of wood, covered with multiple layers of lac juices, which make the object waterproof and resistant.

Daily objects, tea ceremony utensils, and incense containers are commonly made of lacquerware and many different techniques are used to obtain the final object. Urushi-e is the oldest decorating technique (also used for woodblock prints), and it simply consist of painting something with actual lacquer; while maki-e is used to apply gold as a decoration.

Some of the highest quality items are to be found in the city of Wajima (Ishikawa Prefecture). It is recommend to visit the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Tokyo, which displays ancient lacquerware that is not possible to produce today, and its gift shop sells good lacquerware for an affordable price.

Ikebana and Bonsai

Ikebana is the art of flower arrangement. It originated during the 6th century and knew its peak under Buddhist masters during the 16th century. Nowadays, there are more than 1,000 schools of ikebana all over the world, all of them guided by the Buddhist concept of life preservation.

With ikebana, humanity and nature are brought together. Shape, line, and form are extremely important, and through every arrangement the artist tries to convey a special meaning.

Bonsai is an art that produces extremely small trees, using traditional cultivation techniques, which are created for the contemplation of the viewer.

Edo Crafts Experience

There are many traditional crafts in Tokyo that have been passed down from generation to generation since the Edo Shogunate period (1603-1867). The spirit of Edo culture and craftsmanship is still alive today. Today you will learn and take part in making these traditional Japanese handicrafts.

Edo ‘Kiriko’ cut glass is one of the original Japanese crafts founded in the Edo period. The geometric patterns of Edo Kiriko cut glass are renowned for their beauty. Today you will etch these strikingly beautiful, traditional patterns on glass in a color of your choice.

In the afternoon, move to Asakusa with your guide to learn more about the old Edo craft culture with a visit to the Edo Shitamachi Traditional Craft Museum. Stroll through the Asakusa town, where remnants of Edo culture are still visible in modern day Tokyo. Visit Edo-style bamboo blinds craftsman, Mr. Tanaka’s workshop. Here, you will learn how to make your own table mat.

The craft experiences are subject to the artisans’ availability and the order of the itinerary might change depending on the artisans’ schedule.

Explore Japanese Crafts with Asia Highlights

When we find a country we love, we wish we could bring it back home with us… We can’t do this, but we can bring back home a small piece of it, a souvenir that will last. Visit Japan and its amazing art history with the help of Asia Highlights. Our professional staff will help you planning the trip you have always dreamed about!

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