The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Crafts
This is a complete guide to traditional Japanese crafts, which are crafted using skills and techniques cultivated over a long history. In this guide, we will extensively cover traditional Japanese crafts from all over the country, from famous ones such as kimono, yukata, and tatami, to lesser-known ones such as kokeshi dolls, fireworks, kendama, origami, daruma dolls, Woodblock Prints, Bonsai Tree (Bonsai) and rounded and folding fans. They make amazing souvenirs as well as beautiful art pieces. We hope to convey the splendor of these traditional Japanese crafts through this article.
Jul 28 2020 (Jan 12 2021)
Textiles: Woven, Dyed, Etc.
Kimono have been known as Japan's traditional dress since ancient times. Two representative fabrics include "Nishijin-ori" (Nishijin weaving) from Kyoto, which is mainly made of silk, and "Kurume-gasuri" (Kurume weaving) from Fukuoka, which is mainly made of cotton. Although it resembles a robe, the shape is unique: a particular characteristic is how the sleeves (called "sode") hang low under the arms. Kimono with particularly long sleeves are called "furisode" and are the formal dress for unmarried women. These are most commonly worn at "seijinshiki" (coming-of-age ceremonies) and are also wedding guest attire.
Kimono, regardless of gender, are worn with specific undergarments called "nagajuban" and are tied with a sash called an "obi" around the waist. Furthermore, wearing a kimono requires special knowledge of "kitsuke" (how to put on a kimono), so those who would like to wear a kimono in Japan are recommended to rent one and have it put on by a kitsuke professional.
It is important to remember that an all-black kimono ensemble (including the obi) is a mourning dress called "mofuku," and it is a special type of kimono often worn at funerals, meaning it is not appropriate to wear normally. Similarly, a completely white ensemble is called "shiromuku," and it is a special type of kimono that women wear to Shinto ceremonies at shrines.
The most significant difference between kimono and yukata is that they are not worn with undergarments (neither the aforementioned nagajuban nor "hadajuban"), and the yukata is instead worn directly. Made out of cotton, yukata became popular during the middle of the Edo period (1716 - 1829) as comfortable clothing to wear after taking a soak in "sento" (public baths) during the hot summer, and this spread across the entire country at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 - 1912). Another characteristic that sets yukata apart from kimono is that it is comparatively easy to wear, and it is often used as room wear at onsen (hot spring) inns as well. (Thicker outerwear worn during the colder seasons is called "tanzen.")
Kimono is worn as a more formal dress, but yukata is casual wear for the most part and can be seen worn as street clothes. It is important to keep this difference in mind, as yukata may not be appropriate in certain public places and during events when formal wear is required.
Furoshiki (Wrapping Cloth)
Furoshiki are pieces of cloth usually made out of cotton. The shape is always a square, but the size can range from 45 cm ("chuhaba," or medium-sized) to 238 cm ("nanahaba," or massive-sized), which is large enough to encase a futon. In the past, these large furoshiki were used to entirely wrap household items such as furniture, but nowadays, they are mostly used to wrap gifts such as sweets or "shugibukuro," special envelopes that hold money. More recently, people have been finding new wrapping styles and arrangements, so there are people who use furoshiki to hold sake bottles or as eco-bags, making it a useful and versatile product.
Men have several styles of kimono that are worn for different occasions as well, adding to the wide range of traditional crafts. "Hakama" are often worn for weddings or public events, "jinbei" are used as casual wear or street clothes, and "samue" are worn by monks as their work clothes. (To be precise, women can also wear hakama, and during the Taisho period (1912 - 1926), wearing hakama with boots was a very popular trend that mixed Japanese and Western styles.)
In the past, "tenugui," or hand cloths, were used instead of towels. There is also the "Imabari Towel", which has become popular worldwide due to its high quality, although it has a relatively short history.
Related article: ▶ Defining Japan's Traditional Crafts
Kitchen knives are exemplary examples of Japanese cutting tools, but the craft also extends into other fields, such as "nomi" (chisels), "kanna" (wood shavers), and scissors for carpentry, and hoes and sickles for fieldwork.
What is special about these tools is the sharpness. With precision smaller than 1 mm, this accuracy is incredibly important to many professions, including shrine and temple carpenters, traditional craftsmen, and sushi chefs, where the level of cutting accuracy can completely change the taste of sashimi and sushi. It is no exaggeration to say that the products that Japan is so proud of are in part due to the high precision and sharpness of these blades.
Ironworks have a simplistic charm to them. Many, such as the "Nambu Tekki" (Nambu ironwork) shown in the picture, are made by pouring molten iron (the "casting") into a mold. Recently, colorful Nambu Tekki tea pots have gained traction around the world, but what should be noted is the amazing heat-conducting properties that these ironworks have. Many specialty restaurants even use Japanese "teppan" (iron griddles) to grill foods such as steak!
Traditional Japanese metalwork crafts are mostly made of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, together called "gokin" or the "five metals." There is also a significant difference in how they are crafted. There are two main ways with which the crafts are forged: some, such as the Nambu Tekki shown above, are made by pouring metal into iron molds in a process called "chukin" (casting), while others such as knives are beaten until they are flattened, a process called "tankin" (hammering).
Other notable pieces of metalwork include "Nihonto" (Japanese swords), known for being "sharp as a razor;" the intricate metal guard ("tsuba") attached to it; as well as the art of "Tokyo ginki" (Tokyo silverware) where silver is beaten by hand.
Porcelain and Glassworks
When broken down, there are two main types of Japanese porcelain: "toki" porcelain, which mainly uses clay, and "jiki" porcelain, which is fired with crushed ceramic stone. Toki can be fired either after being covered with a special type of glaze called "uwagusuri" or without any glaze at all. The glaze creates a special warmth in the coloring, texture, and feel. "Satsuma-Yaki" (Satsuma ceramics) are a particularly famous craft, and these can be broadly categorized into the black-colored "kuro satsuma" and the white "shiro satsuma." On the other hand, jiki is fired at high temperatures and is known for becoming very hard after vitrification (i.e. turning into a glass). A famous example is Imari-Arita-Yaki (Imari-Arita porcelain), which is shown in the picture.
To describe porcelain in short, there are many varieties, each with its own special charms. You should certainly explore the world of porcelain to find the type that best fits your fancy.
What is shown in the picture is "Edo-Kiriko" (Edo cut glass), a traditional Japanese craft as designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It is an extremely delicate craft, as designs are cut by hand into the surface of the glasses. They can often be seen at high-end restaurants and are beloved by many, frequently bought to be used during special occasions. "Edo Glass" is another designated traditional craft, and there are many other types of glassware across the country, such as ”Tenma-Kiriko" (Tenma cut glass) from Osaka and "Shimadzu-Satsuma-Kiriko" (Shimadzu-Satsuma cut glass) from Kagoshima.
Kokeshi dolls are believed to have their origins in the 1800s as onsen souvenirs from the northern Tohoku region. The picture shows a "Miyagi Traditional Kokeshi", designated as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. There are around ten to eleven types of kokeshi dolls, with the shape and facial expression differing vastly between each type. Although there are many types with varying expressions, they all have their own set of fans.
These dolls have a profound charm to them, expressing the heart put into them by the craftsman working amidst the lush nature of Northern Japan.
Hina dolls are decorations for the yearly Hina Matsuri (Doll's Day/Girls' Day) on March 3, and they are used to pray for the healthy upbringing and future happiness of young girls. The dolls on the top row are called "dairisama" and represent the Emperor ("Obina," left-hand side of the picture) and Empress ("Mebina," right-hand side), and are the two dolls that are displayed without fail. Aside from the dairisama, there are also three court ladies as well as five Noh musicians that are styled as children ("gonin-bayashi"), and the complete set of dolls together is called "jugonin kazari" (15-piece decoration) or "nanadan kazari" (seven-stage decoration). The entire set is traditionally decorated on a stage of seven steps, but nowadays it is not very common to see the whole thing. The custom of setting up the dolls is very much alive, but people may just set up the dairisama for a more compact display.
There are many "Hina-Ningyo" (Hina dolls) and "Hina-Gu" (Hina accessories) that are designated as traditional crafts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, most notably the "Suruga-Hina-Ningyo" (Suruga Hina doll).
Many other dolls have been crafted across the country since the 1600s, such as the "Hakata-Ningyo" (Hakata doll), and their shapes and expressions vary between each type. If you have the opportunity, we highly recommend looking at all the different Japanese dolls out there and finding your favorite.
Toy Crafts for Kids
The "kendama" toy has a long history in Japan and is said to have already existed as part of a drinking game in the latter part of the 18th century. The way to use this toy is try and get the "tama" (ball) to balance on the "kozara" (small plate) and "ozara" (large plate) on the sides of the rod and the "chuzara" (medium plate) on the bottom, and stick the "kensaki" pole at the tip through the hole at the bottom of the tama.
Nowadays, kendama has gained popularity in some parts of the world. New major techniques to win at kendama are being developed, and even world competitions are being held!
Denden-Daiko toys were created long ago to soothe babies. By turning the rod side to side, the balls attached to the strings swing back and forth, hitting the drum and creating noise. The "mitsu-domoe," or three commas painted on the drum, is a mark that is believed to ward off evil.
The picture is of a Denden-Daiko purchased ten years ago from a store called "Nakajimaya Taikoten" in Yamagata Prefecture, a "wadaiko" (Japanese drum) store that has been in business since 1832. The strings had broken off, but have since been repaired. One beauty of traditional craftsmanship is that items are easily repairable and can be used continuously, allowing them to be passed down for generations, from parent to child, and from child to grandchild.
There are many traditional Japanese crafts intended for children, such as the many types of "koma" (spinning tops), "daruma-otoshi" where players take a small wooden mallet and try to knock out the lower layers without toppling the tower of blocks, and "yajirobe," which will not fall over no matter how hard they are pushed to the side. It is great fun seeing and playing with these traditional crafts when visiting Japan.
Woodworks / Bamboo Works
Lacquerware is crafted by taking items that have been made out of wood and then applying sap from the lacquer tree, or "urushi." The lacquer is sturdy, difficult to peel off, waterproof, prevents decay, and is rather resistant to heat and electricity, making it extremely practical.
Many types of lacquerware, such as the "Wajima-Nuri" (Wajima lacquerware) shown in the picture, are decorated by applying silver, gold, mother-of-pearl, and other precious materials to the layers of lacquer.
Bamboo tends to prefer warm and humid climates, and there are said to be around 600 different types of bamboo in Japan. However, among these, only several types can be used to make traditional crafts, including black bamboo, Henon bamboo, and Japanese timber bamboo, which we will describe below. It has antibacterial properties and is also strong and flexible enough that it was used for bamboo-reinforced concrete instead of steel when there was a shortage of iron.
The bamboo work shown in the picture is "Suruga-Takesensuji-Zaiku" (Bamboo latticeware) from Shizuoka, which is a traditional Japanese craft as designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and is most known for making intricate insect cages. Additionally, Nara's "Takayama-Chasen" (Takayama tea whisk) are also famous, for they are made from the strong fibers of Henon bamboo, black bamboo, and soot-colored bamboo. These fibers are split into around 80 - 200 fine bristles to make these tea whisks. The ”Edo-Wazao" (Edo fishing rod) is a great example of high-quality fishing tools that came out of Edo (present-day Tokyo) during the Kyoho era (1716 - 1736) of the Edo period.
There are various other durable and easy-to-use traditional bamboo crafts across the country, including the "Katsuyama-Take-Zaiku" (Katsuyama bamboo craft) from Okayama, "Osaka-Kongo-Sudare" (Osaka-Kongo bamboo blinds) from Osaka, "Beppu-Take-Zaiku" (Beppu bamboo craft) from Oita, and the "Miyakonojo-Daikyu" (Miyakonojo bow) from Miyazaki.
Furthermore, there are many different uses for bamboo, including the skeletons of folding and round fans, as well as lanterns, as will be described below.
Japan, which stretches from north to south, varies in climate and is rich with different types of woods, from conifers to broadleaves. Because of this, there exist many traditional woodwork crafts that utilize the special characteristics of the different trees across the country. The ”Odate-Mage-Wappa" (Odate wooden lunch box) from Akita takes advantage of the characteristics of the Akita cedar and involves immersing the cedar planks in hot water and softening them in order to be able to bend them to the desired shape. The "Oku-Aizu-Amikumi-Zaiku" (Oku-Aizu basketry) from Fukushima uses natural vines such as "hiroro" and "matatabi." There is also "Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku" (Hakone marquetry) from Kanagawa, which uses the natural coloring of over fifty types of trees. There are so many other traditional crafts still produced today that it is impossible to introduce them all!
Washi Paper / Origami
It is said that the "tamezuki" technique of papermaking came to Japan from China prior to the Asuka period (592 - 710). By the Nara period (710 - 794), it was already being produced all over the country, with a wide variety of washi with different characteristics in production. There are nine types of washi that are designated as traditional Japanese crafts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and there are still many other types of washi being produced all over the country today.
Origami has a long history that is said to have started around 1700, when the prototypes of modern-day origami cranes and boats were made with colored washi paper. Although nowadays it is uncommon to make origami with colored washi, there are still folding methods from the olden days that are still used, as well as new techniques that are constantly being created, bringing out the various types of charm that origami can offer.
When calligraphy spread to the common people in the 18th century, brushes became a necessity. Today, the "Kumano-Fude" (Kumano brushes), shown above, are used for calligraphy, painting, and putting on makeup. Kumano-Fude makeup brushes are so popular that Kumano has now become a major production center for them! These high-quality brushes are beloved by professional makeup artists and still used to this day.
Stone lanterns have a long history in Japan. They are said to have been set as nightlights for shrines and temples during the Heian period (794 - 1192), and even today, they are an integral part of beautiful, traditional Japanese gardens. Major production areas include Ibaraki, known for its "Makabe-Ishidoro" (Makabe stone lanterns); Aichi, famous for its "Okazaki-Sekkohin" (Okazaki stonework); Kyoto, with its "Kyo-Ishi-Kogehin" (Kyo stonework); and Tottori, for its "Izumo-Ishidoro" (Izumo stone lanterns).
Woodblock prints are made by rubbing wooden carvings on pieces of paper. Designs are carved into these wooden carvings using tools such as chisels, and the protruding parts are what make the picture when transferred to paper. Applying pressure on the surface with a tool known as a “baren” helps distribute the picture evenly.
Woodblock prints were introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century, but became especially widespread during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) with the popularity of “ukiyo-e.” Ukiyo-e brought about many new techniques such as gradation and “kento,” the latter of which are markings made on the woodblock’s edge to ensure that the paper is placed correctly when transferring the image. The first ukiyo-e prints were generally made with only one color of ink, a type of black, and were called “sumi-zurie.” However, at the beginning of the 1700s, multi-color prints gained popularity, where each color was transferred to paper separately. This meant that precautions were needed to make sure that all the color layers were perfectly on top of each other, which led to the kento technique being perfected in the mid- to late 1700s. This in turn brought about the colorful “nishiki-e,” or multi-color ukiyo-e, which were one of the reasons that ukiyo-e flourished.
One of the most prominent woodblock prints is a “fukei-ga” (landscape picture) called “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido,” which is a scenic print that depicts the scenery of the main road from present-day Nihonbashi in Tokyo (shown above) to Kyoto. In addition to “fukei-ga,” there were also “bijin-ga” (pictures of beautiful women) and sexual prints called “shunga” that expressed the sexualilty of the rather open society at the time.
Bonsai Tree (Bonsai)
Japanese bonsai trees (bonsai) partly originated from ancient Chinese horticulture and have a history that spans over 1,000 years, during which time they were heavily influenced by elements of Zen and Buddhism. The “bon” in “bonsai” means plate or dish, and “sai” means cultivation, so in full, “bonsai” means “a tree growing in a dish.” Their heights are usually kept under one meter tall, and they can be classified according to size as “shohin” (15 - 20 cm), “kifu” (20 - 35 cm), “chuhin” (35 - 60 cm), and “daihin” (60 - 120 cm). There are even bonsai that are currently estimated to be over 800 years old.
The types of trees used for bonsai include “matsu” (or Japanese pine, which include red pine, black pine, and white pine), “momiji” (Japanese maple), “ume” (Japanese plum), “keyaki” (Japanese zelkova), “karin” (Burmese rosewood), “shinpaku” (Chinese juniper), “tosho” (temple juniper), “sakura” (Japanese cherry blossom), and “satsuki” (azalea). If you are unable to buy a bonsai tree in Japan and bring it back to your own country, it is also acceptable to use a domestic tree of your choosing and grow it in a dish. The ultimate bonsai shape is the ideal shape a tree would have in the great outdoors, just in miniature form, making it appear realistic. Bonsai trees do not come from a specific, particular type of smaller seed, so it is actually possible to grow any tree into a bonsai tree.
Tatami is gaining popularity around the world. Many of the crafts shown in this article were developed in Japan using techniques brought over from China, but tatami is completely Japanese and was created in Japan. The oldest known existing tatami is from the Nara period (710 - 784) and is preserved at the Shosoin Repository at Todaiji Temple in Nara.
A type of grass called "igusa" (soft rush) is woven together in layers, and the ends are sealed with a piece of cloth called "tatamiberi" (the two bands seen in the right-hand side of the picture) to create tatami. In the past, the tatamiberi would differ based on social status, but nowadays you can enjoy tatamiberi made up of various different colors. New tatami is a grassy green color, and the smell of the igusa is rather pungent, but the color gradually turns a tanner shade the more the tatami is used. Although usually rectangular, there are different types of tatami with different shapes, such as the square "Ryukyu-Datami" (Ryukyu tatami).
Related article: ▶ 13 Facts You Probably Didn't Know About Tatami
It is said that daruma came to be during the Edo period (1603 - 1868), and it is believed that the white-eyed daruma that we see today were created around 1800 during the latter part of the Edo period. At the time, daruma were sold with black eyes, but complaints such as "I don't like the eyes" were received from customers, which caused artisans to paint the eyes black only when they received an order to do so, or leaving them white so that the customers could paint them themselves.
Nowadays, people paint in the left eye when they're praying for something such as passing a test, some sort of victory, or for business to prosper, and then paint in the right eye when their prayers have been answered.
Fans: Folding and Rounded
Fans, both folding and rounded, are one of Japan's most famous traditional crafts, made with a bamboo skeleton and affixed with washi.
"Sensu" (folded fans) were already being used by the beginning of the Heian period (ca 800), and the oldest existing sensu is the cypress fan found in the arms of the Thousand-Armed Kannon statue at the Toji Temple in Kyoto, dating back to 877. At the time, sensu using washi were considered luxury items and could only be used by aristocrats; they eventually spread to the general populace during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333).
On the other hand, the prototype for "uchiwa" (rounded fans), called "sashiba/sashiha," is said to have come from China during the Kofun period (approx. 250 - 538), and the uchiwa using bamboo and washi that we are familiar with today were created in the latter part of the Heian period (around 1100). Uchiwa spread to the common people at the beginning of the Edo period (1603 - 1867) and were used for many purposes including cooking, starting fires, and keeping oneself cool. Even now, there are uchiwa being produced all over the country using bamboo and washi but are overshadowed by mass-produced plastic fans, to the point that many Japanese people today are unaware of the original beauty of the fans and the soothing breeze of the pliable bamboo.
Fireworks—a word synonymous with summer in Japan. It is believed that hand-held fireworks were popular in Edo all the way back in the 1600s. "Senko-Hanabi" (sparklers), shown above, translate to "incense fireworks" and were originally given this name because when they were lined up in braziers, they resembled the incense offered at Buddhist altars. The fireworks began being wrapped in washi in the latter half of the Edo period (ca 1760 - 1800), which has continued to this day.
The crackles and sparkles of the fireworks that bloom into small flowers paint the Japanese summer scenery with ephemerality and beauty.
Fireworks festivals, both big and small, are held in Japan every year. (Note: the majority of fireworks festivals in 2020 have been canceled due to COVID-19.) It is said that fireworks festivals originated during the great Kyoho famine of 1733, when festivals were held in Ryogoku, Tokyo for a water deity to pray for the consolation of the dead and liberation from the insect infestation that caused the famine. Fireworks are said to have been set off during these (although other theories certainly exist).
Wadaiko (Japanese Drums)
Wadaiko are indispensable to Japanese festivals. They have quite a long history, said to have been used during the Jomon period (12,000 BCE - 300 CE) as a form of communication. Later, during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333), the taiko were played alongside bamboo flutes called "shinobue" and round metal percussion instruments, forming "Ohayashi-Daiko." During the Warring States period (1467 - 1573), "Jin-Daiko" (war drums) were used to unite militaries, and during the Edo period (1603 - 1868), taiko became an indispensable part of festivals.
There are many different types of wadaiko, but it is said to take around 3 years to create one, making this a traditional craft that requires a lot of time to produce.
Wagasa (Japanese Umbrellas)
The origin of umbrellas in Japan is said to be around the Heian period (794 - 1185), when they were introduced from China along with Buddhism and other things. At the time, they were shaped more like canopies and were not used to shield oneself from the rain, but rather for aristocrats to protect themselves against the sun and evil spirits. It is said that modern-style folding wagasa that protect against rain were created in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 - 1603), and the common people widely began using them from the middle of the Edo period (1716 - 1829). These were not used just for practicality, but also as a fashion statement, bringing about wagasa with a variety of designs.
Similar to other crafts, wagasa are made from natural materials such as washi, bamboo, and wood, and they stick straight out, unlike Western umbrellas, which are arched.
Wagasa are not often seen in Japan nowadays, but their beauty is worth taking a look at.
Lanterns can often be seen at festivals and shrines. The history of lanterns, like wagasa, dates back to the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573), when they were brought over from China. However, folding lanterns similar to the ones seen today were created at the end of the Muromachi period and were used for Buddhist altars. Light, portable lanterns were developed during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 - 1603), and once candles became mass-produced in the middle of the Edo period (1716 - 1829), lanterns, which were previously only used by aristocrats and the upper class, became available for cheaper, making it possible for the common people to use them as well. As a result, this period also brought about many different types of lanterns.
Today, lanterns are produced in various places, including Gifu with their "Gifu-Chochin" (Gifu lanterns), designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and Fukuoka with its "Yame-Chochin" (Yame lanterns).
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.