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Northern Kyūshū: a treasure trove of traditional crafts—Part 1

#Japantravel #Kyushu #craft #handmade #ceramics #weaving #kasuri #naturaldye #indigo #japanblue #papercraft #washi #bamboocraft #lacquerware


Natural indigo dye being fermented in a vat at a kasuri textile workshop near Kurume


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.


An ancient camphor laurel tree stands sentinel over a 10th-century Shintō shrine in Akizuki

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 rich natural environment of northern Kyūshū—nurturing craft traditions since millennia

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.


Mr and Mrs Inoue at work, Chikuzen-Akizuki Washi paper workshop

Branches and bark fibre of the paper-mulberry tree for washi paper making

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.


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 materia