Finding the Best in Japanese Crafts By Exploring Yamagata
Each region in Japan has its own high-quality traditions in local Japanese crafts, but in Yamagata there are new opportunities for visitors to experience them.
In a world overflowing with increasingly homogenous products, handmade craft items have a beauty, warmth and uniqueness that mass-production can't quite achieve. For those who value these are qualities, Japan is a great place to be. And if you're interested in traditional Japanese crafts, Yamagata prefecture is a fantastic place to start.
Each region in Japan has its own bevy of local craft traditions. And society at large has tremendous respect for craftsmanship. This, then,is reflected in the premium placed on high-quality handmade products.
Yamagata ticks all the boxes for a healthy, family-friendly post-COVID travel destination. Incredible mountains for hiking and snow sports, fantastic food, what is possibly the world's largest jellyfish museum, friendly people, and wide open spaces. Check, check, check.
It also has great crafts, some of which are unique to Yamagata and have been practiced there for centuries. Moreover, visiting local artisans and craft centers in small towns is a great way to learn about them.
Experiencing Japanese Crafts
Some, like the Miyashi Washi Promotion Center, function a little like museums and are geared specifically toward the public. In a few cases they offer hands-on experiences as well. But if you're looking for access to smaller, more exclusive ateliers, the best thing to do is to book an experience through a local tour operator like The Hidden Japan.
Leveraging their years of networking and relationship-building with local Yamagata artisans and businesses, this tiny tour operator has just launched "Old Side of Yamagata," a series of tours across the cities of Yamagata and Murayama. Their focus is on providing an immersive, hands-on cultural experience unique to the region, including traditional crafts.
"Our goal is for guests to feel that they are experiencing Japan alongside a friend or family member who lives here and is giving them an exclusive inside experience," says CEO Saori Yamashina.
Whether you choose to see it on your own or with local guidance, Yamagata has a wealth of craft experiences on tap. Visitors can get creative, try something new, or simply have a memorable experience. Here are five fantastic workshops to check out.
'Tsumugi' Silk Weaving and Safflower Dyeing at Tomihiro, Yamagata
If you've ever wondered how kimono are made, Tomohiro is one of the best places to visit. It is a 26th generation kimono atelier in Yamagata. A private tour with Hidden Japan gains you access to one of Japan's top three kimono producers and unprecedented insight into a centuries-old folk craft.
At Tomihiro, you'll see how master kimono artisans design and produce kimono from start to finish. You'll begin with the dyeing of silk threads, and see how the fabulous bolts of tsumugi cloth are woven. Watching artisans use the treadle looms to weave the cloth is especially impressive. They make it look so easy, and their hands literally blur as they whip the shuttles back and forth. Meanwhile, their feet are using pedals on the looms as if they're cycling.
As part of a tour, try out the art of benibana-zome. It uses the lustrous natural red dye derived from locally-grown golden safflowers to color silk threads, giving you a taste of textile-making life.
Even better, try weaving your own coaster. Choose two threads from a rainbow assortment of silk yarn and try out the treadle loom for yourself. Coordinating your hands and legs is so much harder than it looks!
Hirashimizu Ceramics at Shichiemongama Pottery, Yamagata
If you like getting messy, you can't go wrong by trying your hand at making pottery. Playing with clay really is so soothing!
A great place for ceramics lovers to check out is the little village of Hirashimizu located on the outskirts of Yamagata City. Using clay sourced directly from the nearby mountain Chitoseyama (literally in their backyard), the ceramics made here have a warm, rustic feel to them.
In Hirashimizu, you can take part in the ceramics workshop offered by The Hidden Japan (as part of their "Old Side of Yamagata" series). It's held at a seventh-generation artisan kiln Shichiemongama, which has produced pottery for over 150 years and counting. Participants are given a large block of clay and personal instruction on how to make your own bowl, plate or mug using a little hand-operated portable wheel.
Who knew making your own kitchenware could be so much fun?
For maximum fun, pair this ceramics workshop with a sake tasting at La Jomon, a nearby sake boutique!
Carved Talismanic Wooden Hawks at Sasano Folk Crafts Museum, Yonezawa
How cute are these little wooden hawks? Called "Otaka Poppo" — literally, "toy hawk" in the Ainu language — this charming children's toy is carved from a single piece of wood. And it has a long history stretching back over a thousand years. With its finely-curled wings and tail, it doubles as an amulet for happiness. Traditionally, many believed that the strength of a hawk would help one's luck flourish.
You can certainly purchase an otaka poppo for yourself, but wouldn't it feel special if you also had a hand in creating your own luck? At the Sasano Folklore Museum in Yonezawa, you can try painting a talismanic hawk to take home. It might sound daunting if you don't usually paint or draw, but this is an activity anyone can participate in and walk away with something lovely and meaningful.
Japanese Paper at Miyama Washi Promotion and Research Center, Shirakata
Paper might seem like a terribly mundane item – after all, it's everywhere. But there's nothing like making your own washi paper to appreciate the sheer labor and craftsmanship behind each handmade sheet. Washi paper is deceptively challenging to make well. But once you try it, it's hard not to fall in love with its soft, flexible texture and creamy coloring.
Used in their correspondence, packaging and official documents, Miyama washi was the designated paper for the powerful Yonezawa clan in Yamagata and produced there for hundreds of years by local households. Their particular washi's paper pulp included panicled hydrangea, an ingredient unique to Yamagata. Sometimes it was also dyed with local safflower, which produces gorgeous pink sheets of paper.
Today, Miyama washi is recognized as an Intangible Cultural Property of Yamagata Prefecture. But now it is produced only at the Miyama Washi Promotion and Research Center. Why not pay a visit to learn about this incredible tradition and try making your own paper? It's sure to change the way you view this everyday material.
Decorating Japanese Chess Pieces at Tengo Shogi Tower, Tendo
If you've ever enjoyed strategy games like chess or checkers, shogi might just be up your alley. Often known as "Japanese chess," shogi is said to have originated in India. It arrived in Japan during the Nara period (710–794).
It's a curious thing to be famous for, but Tendo City is Japan's number one producer of shogi koma (Japanese "chess" pieces). For that reason, the city has a rather vested interest in keeping the game alive throughout Japan!
Although the irregular pentagon-shaped koma look simple, much care and thought goes into making each piece. Each one begins by slicing down a hardwood log that has been dried for a few years. (The drying prevents distortion and cracking at a later date.) Then each piece is painstakingly whittled, engraved, lacquered and polished.
You'd be surprised at how much skill it takes to make beautiful pieces like this. Especially when you have to engrave each kanji in an elegant calligraphic style!
While you might not have a few years to wait for the wood to dry, you can certainly try making your own shogi piece in Tendo City. Visit Tendo Shogi Tower to try your hand at painting one or hand-carving your very own kanji into a large piece.
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Author: JAPAN Forward
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