Northern Kyūshū: a treasure trove of traditional crafts—Part 2
Continued from Part 1
Kurume, the second largest city in Fukuoka Prefecture, is famous among textile enthusiasts around the world for its ‘kasuri’ (ikat) textile tradition. The weaving technique originated in the region around India, and involves separate resist-dyeing of the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads before being woven together to create the desired pattern. The technique arrived in Japan around the 17th century and has traditionally been used to weave durable cotton fabric for everyday clothing. The indigo dye is most often associated with kasuri textiles, however, other natural dyes have also been used to derive a range of colours. The kasuri tradition of Kurume owes its origin to a young talented weaver Den Inoue (then 12 years old), who independently invented the thread-dyeing technique after analysing a stain that had formed on an indigo-dyed cloth. Kasuri weaving became a major industry of the Kurume area during the 19th and early 20th century, however, the tradition rapidly declined after World War II as manufactured Western-style clothing displaced traditional wear. Today, only a handful of family-operated weaving workshops remain in the area.
Our tours last year visited one of these workshops outside Kurume city, run by Mrs Sayuki Ogata, an award-winning master-weaver, and Mrs Hitomi Suetsugu. The mother-and-daughter pair are driven by a strong passion in preserving the Kurume’s kasuri and indigo-dyeing traditions, which are in danger of disappearing entirely—like many other Japanese craft traditions. Innovation has been key to survival of workshops such as theirs, where the focus has shifted in recent years from traditional weaving to applying indigo-dyeing techniques to produce modern everyday clothing—including children’s wear, which has been immensely popular due to the non-allergenic, non-toxic and anti-bacterial nature of natural indigo dye. Our tour guests were treated to a kasuri handweaving demonstration, during which the pre-dyed threads came together perfectly to form elaborately patterned fabric, millimetre by millimetre, under the eagle-sharp, experienced eyes of Mrs Ogata—now in her 80s. Mrs Ogata explained that the length of fabric required to make a single kimono (c. 12 m) may take a few months to weave, using the early 20th century handlooms (salvaged from now defunct textile workshops) that Mrs Ogata uses.
The weaving demonstration was followed by a hands-on session during which the tour guests tried their hand at indigo dyeing. Entering the workshop, we were greeted by a number of vats sunken into the floor, in which the dried and fermented leaves of the Japanese indigo plant (Persicaria tinctoria) were being re-fermented into dyeing solution. The incredibly dark blue colour of the frothing solution seemed to almost tint the air in the room a bluish hue, but Mrs Suetsugu was quick to explain that the thread or fabric requires at least 17 or 18 separate dippings to attain the familiar indigo blue colour, and over 40 dippings for very dark tones. Different colour effects are also achieved by dipping in solutions of different ages, and temperature conditions. The tour guests also had fun experimenting with shibori-style tie-dyeing, with some serendipitous results—stealing a famous line from the 1990s movie ‘Forrest Gump’, “…you never know what you’re gonna get…”.
Kurume boasts another craft tradition that is hardly known even among the Japanese, yet so unique. Rantai lacquerware is crafted by applying ‘urushi’ lacquer—traditionally made from the sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum)—to woven bamboo. Rantai lacquerware has a history spanning some 3,000 years in Japan, and similar styles of lacquerware are found in parts of China and Southeast Asia. The Kurume ‘rantai’ lacquerware tradition, however, is a comparatively young tradition, having developed during the late 19th century through an innovative fusion of the age-old local bamboocraft and lacquerware traditions by artisans.
During our November tour last year, we had an opportunity to visit the Inoue Rantai Lacquerware Company’s workshop in Kurume city. Mr Masamichi Inoue, the third-generation owner of the family-operated company, stepped us through in detail how the locally sourced madake bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) is harvested during November and December—as the cold weather starts to harden the canes—peeled, trimmed and split with precision to wafer-thin slivers, painstakingly woven, and the gaps filled with cements made from wood powder and diatomaceous earth, before the lacquering can even begin. The beautiful geometric patterns that characterise Kurume’s rantai lacquerware are achieved through multiple applications (typically 5 to 10) of different coloured lacquers, each application being sanded down to partially expose the raw bamboo beneath before the next. As we were guided by Mr Inoue through the different sections of the workshop, we could feel the sheer concentration of the artisans completely focused on their work—there must have been about 10 of them on the day but the workshop was silent, with the soft late autumn sunlight streaming in through the windows.
Mr Inoue worries about the future of the rantai lacquerware tradition—his company is one of two only surviving workshops now, a far cry from the early part of the 20th century when Kurume’s rantai lacquerware was being exported to the world—and the average age of his staff is in the 70s, with no successors in sight for his company (Mr Inoue tells us that he is approaching the age bracket himself). His story is yet another painful reminder of the ‘cliff-edge’ situation that Japanese craft traditions are currently facing—aging and population decline, lack of ‘young blood’, economic hardship, decline in demand, and difficulty in sourcing raw materials all contribute to a real and immediate threat of many such traditions dying out within the next decade. And this, at a time when the rest of the world are discovering the wonders of Japanese traditional crafts…
If you are an enthusiast of traditional Japanese crafts, northern Kyūshū is a must-visit destination. The region is easily accessed from Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyūshū, which has frequent Shinkansen (rapid rail) and flight connections with the rest of Japan. Traditional crafts are only one of the many travel experiences that northern Kyūshū offers—the region is renowned for its particularly diverse food culture, numerous onsens, fascinating history and prehistory, and scenic beauty, to name a few.The mild climate makes it an year-round destination—perhaps the perfect place to ‘defrost’ after a ski trip to the more northerly parts of Japan?
We, at Deeply Regional Japan, use our own cultural background (my maternal family is from Kyūshū), local connections, and extensive travel experience to craft our expert-guided tours to northern Kyūshū. Having direct personal connections with craft artisans in the region means that our tours can access small family-operated studios that generally do not have any non-Japanese language information or even a website—and practically invisible to the outside world. Our tours specialise in ‘hands-on’ experiences, where you receive instruction from experienced local artisans, with full English-language guidance from your tour leader. We provide a holistic understanding of the craft traditions—how the traditions fit into the overall culture, environment and history of the region—while having a lot of fun, of course!
So what’s holding you back? Discover northern Kyūshū and its treasures on your next trip to Japan. We would be pleased to provide you with advice on travel in this fascinating region. Please contact us via the enquiry form at the bottom of our webpages. For further information on our tours to northern Kyūshū, please visit https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/tours-northern-kyushu. [Please note that all our tours are currently suspended due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.]