An Introduction to the Traditional Japanese Crafts of Kyushu
The southernmost of Japan's four main islands, Kyushu is a popular travel destination thanks to its great weather, delicious local foods, and fascinating history. However, it is also home to some exquisite and highly sought-after traditional Japanese crafts that can only be found here. This article will take you on a virtual tour around Kyushu, stopping at cities and towns that are the birthplace of some of the most famous traditional crafts on the island. If you ever get a chance to visit in person, be sure to remember these places and add them to your itinerary!
Dec 21 2021
Traveling to Kyushu
Kyushu is located southwest of the main Japanese island of Honshu and the smaller island of Shikoku. It is very easy to access via shinkansen bullet train (it's less than 2 hours from Hiroshima Station to Hakata Station in Fukuoka) and there is also an international airport in Fukuoka that serves as one of the gateways to Japan. Once there, it is easy to get around to all of the major cities in each of Kyushu's seven prefectures via train or rental car. Not many people make it to Kyushu on their first visit to Japan, but it is a fairly popular destination for return travelers as it has so much to offer, including some exceptional traditional Japanese crafts, as this article will cover.
First Stop: Fukuoka
The first stop on our traditional Japanese crafts tour is the city of Fukuoka in Fukuoka Prefecture. As the largest city and one of the cultural hubs of Kyushu, Fukuoka is the first place where many people begin their journey in Kyushu. One of the things that Fukuoka is best known for is its culinary scene, and in particular, the "yatai" street food stalls that pop up around the downtown area after dark. It is also the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, as well as some of the world's biggest and most famous ramen brands, including Ichiran and Ippudo. Other than the delicious food, though, the area is also known as the birthplace of Hakata-ori, a famous textile made here.
Now a ward within the city of Fukuoka, Hakata is an old port town that has served as a major commerce hub since ancient times. One of the products born here is Hakata Ori, a woven silk fabric known for its durability and colorful designs.
The origins of Hakata-ori can be traced to the Mitsuta family, a merchant house in Hakata. It's said that Yazaemon Mitsuta spent 6 years studying in China and brought back a weaving technique called "kara-ori" that involved mixing gold and silver with thread to create lavish textiles. Some 250 years later, Hikosaburo Mitsuta, a descendant of Yazaemon Mitsuta, traveled to a different part of China to study weaving, and again brought back what he learned to Hakata, combining it with the techniques of his ancestors to create a new style of weaving that was given the name Hakata-ori.
Hakata-ori soon earned a reputation for its outstanding durability and bright colors and became known throughout Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The tradition is alive today, and there are many companies that continue to craft both traditional and modern products using Hakata-ori.
On to Imari, Saga Prefecture
Next, our tour of Kyushu's traditional crafts takes us west from Fukuoka to neighboring Saga Prefecture. Saga's biggest claim to fame is its ceramics, which are primarily produced in 3 small towns in the northern part of the prefecture. One of the towns is Karatsu, known for its special pottery called Karatsu-ware. The other two towns are Imari and Arita, which are famous around the world for the porcelain produced there.
The town of Arita was the first place in Japan to produce porcelain after kaolin, the clay mineral required to make porcelain, was discovered there in the year 1616. Arita porcelain soon gained a reputation for its outstanding quality and was exported widely, not only throughout Japan, but around the world as well. Since it was shipped out through the nearby port town of Imari, it was known as "Imari porcelain" overseas, where it gained popularity as luxury dishware in China and Europe in particular.
Early Arita/Imari ware featured two-toned blue and white designs, with drawings and patterns painted on under the glaze. This evolved over time, and artisans began using colored over-glaze enamels to create more intricate designs at some point during the 17th century. Today, there exists a wide variety of styles under the umbrella of Arita/Imari ware, and its popularity is as strong as ever thanks to efforts by producers to continue innovating with new designs that are functional for modern use while still respecting tradition. If you visit Imari, be sure to stop in at one of the many shops filled with porcelain to choose the perfect item to bring home.
Arriving at the Port of Nagasaki
From Imari, we will continue west until we reach the historic port city of Nagasaki. Nagasaki was one of the only ports in Japan where foreign vessels were allowed to dock and conduct trade during the nearly 200 years of "sakoku," when Japan's borders were closed to outside visitors. This allowed a unique local culture to develop in Nagasaki influenced by outside sources, while most other parts of Japan remained unchanged. This is evident in the food, architecture, and of course, crafts of Nagasaki.
One of Nagasaki's most famous crafts is called Nagasaki Bekko, items crafted from turtle shells. The technique for making bekko was brought to Japan just as the country entered the period of isolation noted above. Even though the turtle shells needed to produce the craft were imported from China, artisans in Nagasaki were able to continue to produce bekko as Nagasaki was the only place where trade with Chinese merchants continued. However, as materials were limited, early Nagasaki Bekko was extremely expensive and remained out of reach of all but the wealthiest in society until the period of isolation ended and foreign trade flourished again.
Nagasaki Bekko items are made out of multiple pieces of turtle shell that are joined together and carved into intricate shapes. Turtle shell becomes soft when heated, allowing an artisan to bend and mold it into various shapes. This same property allows two pieces to be fused together naturally without the use of any adhesive, allowing the creation of items of all shapes and sizes. Once the general shape is formed, the artisan carefully carves and polishes the bekko to draw out its natural, beautiful luster. Some of the most common Nagasaki Bekko items are ornate "kanzashi" hairpins, folding fans, jewelry, and combs, but almost anything can be made from the bekko. Nowadays, the craft is beginning to die out, since the import of turtle shells from China was banned in the 1970s, meaning that there is a severe shortage of the raw materials needed to craft Nagasaki Bekko. However, it is still possible to find exquisite Nagasaki Bekko for sale at shops in Nagasaki, so be sure to take a look when visiting.
Heading South to Kagoshima
From Nagasaki, we'll head down to southern Kyushu to Kagoshima City in Kagoshima Prefecture. Perhaps the most striking feature of Kagoshima City is Sakurajima, the large active volcano that sits in the middle of the bay next to the city. It provides a stunning backdrop for the city and is also the premier tourist destination in the area. Kagoshima is historically significant as the place where the Satsuma Rebellion took place, when a group of disaffected samurai took their last stand against the new imperial government that replaced the old system. Kagoshima is also famous for its sweet potatoes (the Japanese word for sweet potato "satsumaimo" literally means "Satsuma potato") and the area is one of the leading producers of "shochu," a popular distilled liquor commonly made from sweet potatoes. In addition, Kagoshima is home to some outstanding traditional Japanese crafts, two of which will be introduced below.
Satsuma Ware refers to the pottery produced in Kagoshima Prefecture for some 500 years after 80 potters from the Korean Peninsula were brought back to Japan with the feudal lord of the Satsuma Domain. These potters set up kilns and began producing pottery that became known as Satsuma Ware. Over time, unique styles developed at different kilns, three of which are continued to this day. As such, a notable characteristic of this pottery is that it comes in a range of styles that vary greatly based on the artisan who produces it. Despite this, Satsuma Ware can be roughly divided between "Kuro Satsuma" (Black Satsuma) (shown above) and "Shiro Satsuma"(White Satsuma) (shown below).
Like its name ("Black Satsuma") suggests, Kuro Satsuma is dark in color, using black volcanic clay that gives it a solid appearance. Most Kuro Satsuma items are intended for practical use, such as bowls, shochu cups, and other tableware, but high-end tea utensils are also popular. In contrast, Shiro Satsuma has a delicate, refined appearance, featuring white clay covered with a clear glaze that forms a latticework of cracks when fired. This is covered with a finishing layer of decorative designs painted on in bright colors. Shiro Satsuma items are typically made for decorative purposes, such as vases and ornamental pieces. The stark difference between the two main types is part of what makes Satsuma Ware so interesting, so be sure to seek it out while visiting Kagoshima.
Satsuma Kiriko refers to a special type of glassware produced in Kagoshima that is known for its stunningly beautiful color gradations and intricately carved designs. The history of Satsuma Kiriko is quite interesting, and dates back to the 1840s when the feudal lord of the domain made an effort to create a local glass-making industry. A prominent glass artisan from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was invited to Kagoshima to help develop glasswork production, and a new type of glasswork with a striking red color was born called the "Crimson Glass of Satsuma.” However, after just 20 years, the newborn industry was devastated by policy changes and a bombardment of the city by the British Royal Navy, and the craft was lost for over a century.
Satsuma Kiriko was resurrected in 1985 when a company called Satsuma Glass Crafts was formed with support from a company called Shimadzu Limited and the local government. Glass experts and artisans from around the country were brought in to recreate the craft using old documents and antique examples of Satsuma Kiriko. Thanks to these efforts, the craft is alive and thriving today. Many pieces are quite expensive, but the quality and artistic value makes it worth the price for many buyers. Be sure to visit a glass workshop while in Kagoshima to see Satsuma Kiriko being made first hand. You will definitely gain an increased appreciation for the craft once you see it up close!
Moving on to Miyakonojo, Miyazaki
Heading east from Kagoshima, our next destination will be the small city of Miyakonojo in Miyazaki Prefecture. Located in an open plain surrounded by scenic mountain ranges, the city offers great access to nature, including a superb waterfall listed among Japan's best; historic shrines, temples, and old merchant houses; and even hot spring facilities. It is also the place where a special traditional Japanese craft is made: Miyakonojo Daikyu bows.
Miyakonojo has long been known to have some of the best quality bamboo in all of Japan. For this reason, bamboo bows and practice bamboo swords used by samurai were produced here since ancient times. The production of longbows originally began in the mid-14th century, eventually leading to the craft being perfected at the beginning of the Edo period (1603 -1868). These longbows gained a reputation for superior quality and were sold throughout Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia.
To this day, Miyakonojo Daikyu are crafted by hand in a painstaking process with nearly 200 individual steps. Unlike many other Japanese crafts, where craftspeople often specialize in just a single aspect of the production, Miyakonojo Daikyu are made by a single craftsperson who completes each step by themselves. This includes the tempering of the bamboo, the bending and shaping of the bow, the carving, the stringing, and finishing. The resulting bows are masterpieces of craftsmanship that fetch a high price.
Today, Miyakonojo continues to be the leading producer of bamboo longbows in Japan and although expensive, these handmade bows are highly prized by archers.
Last Stop: The Hotspring Town of Beppu, Oita
Our last stop brings us to the eastern side of Kyushu in one of Japan's most famous hot spring areas: Beppu in Oita Prefecture. Beppu has nearly 2,300 springs that output a staggering 87,360 liters of hot water every minute—the most anywhere in Japan and enough to fill up 436 normal-sized bathtubs! Thanks to this blessing of copious amounts of high-quality hot spring water, Beppu is filled with bathhouses, hot spring hotels, and traditional Japanese "ryokan" inns with excellent bathing facilities that draw scores of people from around Japan (and indeed the world) each year. However, Beppu is also known for its traditional bamboo crafts, known as Beppu Takezaiku, which are worth taking home as a souvenir when visiting Beppu.
The history of Beppu Takezaiku goes back all the way to the Nara period (710 - 794) when Beppu's high-quality timber bamboo was used to make woven baskets for various purposes. This tradition continued on a small scale until the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), when Beppu became famous nationwide as a hot spring destination and the production of Beppu Takezaiku flourished as bamboo rice baskets became popular as a souvenir.
Beppu Takezaiku is crafted in a multi-step process that involves soaking the bamboo in a wash that removes the oils from it, splitting and cutting the bamboo into delicate strips, and then hand-weaving it into its final shape. There are 8 basic weaving structures that are the base for some 200 different weaving patterns. In recent years, Beppu Takezaiku has shifted away from inexpensive everyday-use baskets to high-end luxury items and decorative art pieces. You can still find baskets, but also serving dishes, fashion-focused items such as handbags, light fixtures, and other interior items. When in Beppu, be sure to visit the Bamboo Craft Training Center, where you can see artisans at work and take in some of the finest examples of the craft.
Travel Around Kyushu to Collect Outstanding Japanese Crafts!
Thank you for joining us as we circled the island of Kyushu in search of exquisite traditional Japanese crafts. Hopefully you have been inspired to make your own journey to Kyushu to see the crafts and places where they are made in person! Kyushu truly has so much to offer as a travel destination, from delicious local foods, to abundant nature, to cities baked in history, and of course, amazing traditional crafts. For more information, check out the island's official website:
Visit Kyushu Official Website: https://www.visit-kyushu.com/en/
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.