The ancient crafts of Kyoto

In Kyoto's western suburbs, where concrete rubs up against hillsides splattered with autumnal colour, I meet Yuko Nakajima, immaculate in a silk kimono, with a ramrod back and lacquered hair. She's the boss of Nakajima Zougan, an old-fashioned atelier producing Kyoto enamelware. She shows me an inkpot inlaid with chrysanthemums and leaves: more artwork than practical receptacle. The gold was hammered into the pot's surface with deer horn to provide it extra sheen.

"My father had 63 years of experience when he made this," says Ms Nakajima. "My son can't make anything like it yet, he's only been working 15 years." Most enamel workers don't even last that long, she adds. The young get easily bored, they don't have the patience to work for three months on a single inkpot.

The craft of enamelling has a long history here, probably arriving from the Middle East along the Silk Road in the seventh century. For more than a millennium, the Japanese have used enamel inlay on household items, fashion accessories, and the feet and palms of Buddha statues. Kyoto's zougan style is notable for its use of multiple metals – often gold, silver and copper – and for its delicate depictions of scenery and people.

Ms Nakajima's smile is wistful, however. She acknowledges a fading demand for inlaid ceremonial sword hilts, inkpots and obi clasps used by geishas. Nobody wants traditional scenes of Mt Fuji anymore either, and only foreigners want patterns of cherry blossoms and ginko leaves, which have fallen out of fashion among young Japanese.

"But our designers are always pleased to bring pleasing products to the customer, that is their satisfaction," she adds diplomatically. "The demand now is from wealthy Europeans and Chinese, who want accessories like small brooches that hang from necklaces. They're after unique, freehand designs, though still using traditional techniques."

Ms Nakajima thinks this great traditional art will survive, even if not on quite the same objects. After all, quality counts and, for those who can afford it, keeps Kyoto crafts ahead of the poor-quality, machine-made alternatives found in souvenir shops.

Across town, I discover that Tatsuyuki Kosuga agrees when I encounter him in his company's flagship city-centre store. He's the fifth generation and managing director of a family bamboo-weaving business, and thinks Kyoto's traditional arts can survive, providing they turn to producing items suitable to 21st-century lifestyles.

"We're trying to make pieces attractive and relevant, and show that bamboo is beautiful. It recalls ancient traditions while being modern," Mr Kosuga says. "My favourite items are the leather-and-bamboo wallets and purses. One of our philosophies is to fuse the traditional and modern, and here we used Italian leather and a Danish designer."

His company Kohchosai Kosuga has benefited from the recent trendiness of eco-friendly bamboo, which matures quickly and doesn't require pesticides. Bamboo has long been an important material in Japan, however, with different kinds used for making different products. Mousou is a big variety and difficult to bend, used for trays and chopsticks, while madake bends more easily despite being resilient, and has a beautiful surface skin. It's used for making furniture and woven baskets.


The flagship store is a hushed altar to the Japanese ability to make the simplest things of the utmost quality. The most difficult pieces to create are woven baskets used for flower arrangements. Master craftsmen might have 30 years' experience before making the best of these, which can retail at more than $2000. Few people can afford them anymore, and Kohchosai Kosuga supplies mostly to traditional, high-end ryokan (inns) and restaurants.

Mr Kosuga says there are fewer than 10 bamboo masters left in Japan. "Many young ones consider themselves artists, but they aren't. It's like jogging, you have to keep doing it to maintain your skill. We used to work with five masters, now there is only one."

Kyoto's master craftsmen are quite simply dying out. Later that afternoon I head to another atelier and find master worker and owner Tadahiko Ando has a face liver-spotted with age, and wrinkled-up hands that still work with the stiff, gold-threaded Nishijin brocade – named for a Kyoto district – that adorns his hina dolls. You can tell Ando dolls from inferior rivals by their quality, elaborate sleeving and high-set hands. They're famous across Japan, supplied to the imperial household, and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

These traditional Japanese dolls, attired in 16 layers of Heian-period court dress, originated over a thousand years ago, and Kyoto has always been a production centre. Hardly a thing about them has changed in all that time, although the heads, once made of porcelain whitened with powdered clamshell, are now plaster. The work remains arduous. Everything is made by separate experts: the raw-silk hair, painted feet, shimmering clothes, swords and fans. Tadahiko Ando just as expertly assembles them.

"Young people don't understand this culture anymore," laments his wife Keiko Ando. "The only customers now are rich, old nostalgic people and luxury hotels. Actually, foreigners are more curious about our dolls these days."

Yet in spite of the challenges, crafts survive in Kyoto, the traditional manufacturing capital of Japan, whose arts are underpinned by patronage from its many temples and the imperial family. Perhaps foreign interest will keep them going, or a younger generation of Japanese, who have started thinking of new ways to use old products: paper lanterns refashioned as table decorations, rice paper from sliding doors used as wallpaper.

Not everything I hear is good news, however. Only one master remains to make ornamental hairpins for geishas. Attempts to update kimonos with shorter, looser styles have had little success in a youthful environment of Hello Kitty jeans and punk T-shirts. And kimono dyeing, once a major industry in Kyoto, is in sharp decline.

Even those with a lively interest in Kyoto's age-old arts, such as Rie Doi, director of the Museum of Traditional Crafts, seem disinclined to endure a kimono's discomfort. "I admire those ladies who have great posture and never look hot, they're so elegant," she says, looking a trifle embarrassed. "But I last wore a kimono three years ago – and that was at a tourism fair in London!"


If you want to understand more about traditional Japanese products, these museums provide historical context and objects seldom seem in Kyoto's palaces, where rooms are often empty.


Over 70 crafts are displayed, with signage and videos providing insight into manufacturing techniques. Highlights include gorgeous silk kimonos, ceramics and elaborate dolls. Check out the karuta playing cards; Nintendo began as a Kyoto kuruta manufacturer. Apprentice geisha give dance performances, and craftspeople demonstrate their work. See


This private museum is especially good for Shinto and Buddhist art, and also features decorative arts such as ceramics, textiles, woodblocks, lacquer bowls and tea-ceremony utensils. Displays are usually themed, and rotate every couple of months. See


Here you'll find a good collection of ceramics, scrolls, sculpture, enamelware and lacquer, including lovely inlaid sake boxes and trays. The textiles collection features embroidered kosode (robes) decorated with flowers, birds and other animals. See


This local banking family's collection has changing exhibitions of paintings and other artworks, with a particular emphasis on noh costumes and masks, and the exquisite teapots and bowls used in tea ceremonies. See


For a thousand years, Nishijin district was the centre of Kyoto' textile industry. You can try on the 12-layered imperial court kimono, work textiles on a traditional loom, and learn how textile designs are planned and woven using various types of loom. See




Japan Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Osaka, an hour on the train from Kyoto. Phone 1300 525 287, see


Iori Machiya Stay provides renovated machiyia (traditional wooden homes) in premium and standard categories and varying sizes, with cleaning and concierge services. Phone +81 75 352 0211, see


Ando Japanese Doll Shop, 273-2 Aburanokoji, Marutamachi Agaru, Kamigyo-ku

Phone +81 75 231 7466, see

Kohchosai Kosuga Bamboo Company, 74 Nakajimacho, Kawaramachi Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku. Phone +81 75 221 8687, see

Nakajima Zougan, 10-3 Setogawa-cho, Saga Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku. Phone +81 75 871 2610, see

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau.