Northern Kyūshū: a treasure trove of traditional crafts—Part 1
Last October and November, I had the honour of guiding two groups of wonderful tour guests (if you are reading this article, thank you!) in the northern part of Kyūshū, Japan’s southern island. A major focus for both tours was to explore the craft traditions of this fascinating region, which has one of the highest diversity in this regard in the whole of Japan. One reason for the cultural richness of northern Kyūshū is its location near the Eurasian mainland—it is where waves of different peoples and cultures entered Japan over the millennia, progressively enriching the existing culture, to shape the Japanese culture as we know today. It is where the Yayoi people entered Japan around the 4th century BC, bringing irrigated rice cultivation—the basis of Japanese agriculture and food traditions. Some historians believe that northern Kyūshū is where the mysterious 2nd–3rd century Yamataikoku nation, the ancestral Japanese nation-state, was located.Since then, the region has absorbed influences from China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, Middle East and other areas of the world, to result in a distinct culture that is both rich and unique within Japan.
There are so many different craft traditions in northern Kyūshū that my tours last year could only ‘scratch the surface’ of what is a treasure trove of Japanese traditional crafts. Ceramics, washi paper, kasuri (ikat) textile, indigo and natural dyeing, bamboocraft, woodwork, paper and textile lanterns, traditional dolls, ‘butsudan’ (Buddhist altars), and stone lanterns and carving are some of the celebrated traditions that artisans continue to uphold across the region.
Northern Kyūshū is blessed with a mild but highly seasonal climate, and abundant water resources, both of which have contributed to the diversity of its craft traditions. During the long hot, humid summers, paper mulberry (Broussonetia kazinoki x papyrifera) trees and a variety of bamboo grow vigorously, the growth being hardened off in the short, but sharply cold winter—producing long, durable yet silky-smooth fibres for washi paper, and supple yet strong canes for bamboocraft, respectively. Water, in particular, has a particularly important role in so many craft traditions; who would have thought that, in this modern age, some ceramic traditions in northern Kyūshū still rely on waterwheels to finely mill the pottery clay? Clean water is, of course, also crucial in making washi paper, and in textile dyeing—water quality is a decisive factor in how a particular plant-based dye, whether it be indigo, cherrywood or persimmon tannin, will behave on the textile.
The highlight in both tours last year were visits to craft workshops, where the tour guests could see the master artisans at work, and also try their own hand at creating their own piece of northern Kyūshū tradition. At the Chikuzen-Akizuki Washi paper workshop in the charming historical town of Akizuki, the tour guests had an opportunity to see how the sinewy bark fibres of paper mulberry trees are handcrafted into beautifully textured washi paper using age-old methods. Operated by the Inoue family since 1876, the workshop is the sole surviving producer of the celebrated Akizuki washi paper, which has a history dating back to the late 16th century and previously had 20 producers. After temporarily closing shop for a decade, the third-generation papermaker Mr Yasuomi Inoue recommenced washi production during the 1970s, despite economic hardships and loss of sight—yes, I was astounded to see a blind man producing a sheet after another of washi paper all alone in his workshop, when I visited the shop for the first time several years ago. Now, his son Mr Kenji Inoue and his wife run the daily operations, driven by a strong sense of ‘responsibility’ in preserving local traditions. The superior quality of the paper produced by the Inoue family is widely recognised, particularly for traditional Japanese ink calligraphy. During one of the visits last year, the Inoues were busy making washi to be used for labels on bottles of shōchū (Japanese vodka-like drink), just in time for the Festive Season gift-giving.
In the rural outskirts of Akizuki, the tour guests rolled up their sleeves and experienced ‘kusaki-zome’, textile dyeing using natural plant-based dyes, which has a history going back at least 3400 years in Japan. Before the days of mass-produced textiles, kusaki-zome was common throughout rural Japan, using locally available plants to produce everyday items. The rise of consumer lifestyle in the 20th century led to the tradition becoming largely forgotten, but the founder of Yumezaiku textile dyeing at Akizuki, Mr Yasuhisa Komuro, established his workshop in 1992 according to his philosophy that natural substances have healing powers, as many ancient cultures believe, and that the ‘unnaturalness’ of our modern lifestyle is the cause of many issues with health and life-satisfaction we suffer today.
Mr Komuro is actually a ‘tree-changer’ in Australian terminology, born in a city environment and having had a successful corporate career in his previous life. He is part of the growing movement in Japan toward a more natural, sustainable and healthy lifestyle and renewed interest in ancient Japanese traditions. Mr Komuro collects his own plant material in the surrounding countryside and prepares the dyes from scratch—a process that can take months. He achieves an astounding variety of effects, even from one type of plant, by skilfully using the different chemistries of local water sources (river, granite and limestone), weather conditions, and mordant types. Mr Komuro’s ‘signature colour’ is the exquisite soft pink he extracts from Japanese flowering cherry trees—evocative of the blossoms. The surprising thing is that the colour is derived from the wood of the trees, not the flowers as one might expect—Mr Komuro explained that tips of cherry branches need to be collected just at the right time, a few weeks before the blossoms start in March. From its humble beginnings, Yumezaiku’s textile dyeing has been a huge success, helped by his business background—his innovative products are now sold in major Japanese cities.
Northern Kyūshū is renowned worldwide for its ceramic traditions. Arita (Imari) ceramics were exported en masse to Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch East India Company, but the region is home to many other ceramic traditions that remain poorly known to the outside world today. Many of the northern Kyūshū’s ceramic traditions developed with the arrival of Korean potters, following the Japanese military campaign on the Korean Peninsula by the powerful warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the late 16th century. During our tour in October, we visited the charming village of Sarayama, deep in the forested mountains near the historical town of Hita. Life in the village centres around the production of Onta ceramics, originating in 1705 when a potter from the Koishiwara ceramic tradition—established in the 1600s by Korean potters—was invited to the Hita district to produce ceramics for the thriving town.
As we ambled along the winding narrow roads of the pottery village, we could see and hear the pounding of the pottery clay mills powered by waterwheels, and smell the resiney smoke of the local Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) wood—much of it ‘scraps’ from Hita district’s age-old forestry and timber industries—being burnt in clay kilns for firing. I was yet again reminded how so many Japanese traditions had developed in harmony with the natural environment (unlike the modern Japanese society, unfortunately)—using renewable resources and reducing wastage.Culturally, the ceramic tradition is really a part of the agrarian economy in that pottery has been produced by farmers for additional income during periods of ‘downtime’ in farming. The connection is also evident in such things as the use of rice straw—a by-product of farming—to produce ash for pottery glazes. Until recent times, much of the pottery produced was actually for farm use, e.g. grain and water storage jars.
Onta is unique among the Japanese ceramic traditions in that it has been strictly passed down the generations within the original founding families, and no apprentices from the ‘outside world’ have ever been allowed in—so that the original 18th-century techniques are still used today. The renowned British potter Bernard Leach (1887–1979) stayed at the Sarayama village during 1954 and 1964 for research, introducing the Onta ceramic tradition to the world. The tradition faces challenging times ahead—the village is only starting to recover after the effects of catastrophic floods and landslides in 2017, while aging and a shortage of young successors is taking its toll, as demonstrated by the closure of one of the village’s ten pottery studios in 2019.
Discover more of northern Kyūshū’s craft traditions in: ‘Northern Kyūshū: a treasure trove of traditional crafts—Part 2’