Japanese Arts & Crafts

Japanese Culture: Japanese Arts & Crafts 芸術

Japan is justly famous for the quality and variety of its arts & crafts.

Kyoto, the center of the Imperial Court from the beginning of the Heian Period to the end of the Edo Period, has been a major production center of traditional Japanese crafts for centuries, with artisans supplying a customer base of the Imperial family, court nobles, samurai, rich abbots and merchants in the city, but each region of Japan can boast its own unique arts and crafts.

Tokyo, which has been Japan's largest city since the 17th century and the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns from 1603-1867 has long been an important market for Japanese arts and crafts and a good place to shop for products from all over Japan.

Japanese shodo.
Japanese calligraphy: "River long, mountain high."
Byobu Folding Screens.
Byobu screens come in a variety of sizes and were made to divide rooms and protect privacy in traditional Japanese interiors as well as a backdrop for other Japanese arts.

Japanese Arts & Crafts A-Z Listing

Bamboo has long been used for making utensils for the tea ceremony and ikebana. Two noted shops in Kyoto are Kagoshin (Tel: 075 771 0209) near Sanjo Bridge and in business since 1862 and Tsujikura (Tel: 075 221 4396) on Shijo Kawaramachi, which dates from 1690 and sells beautiful Japanese paper (washi) lanterns and umbrellas (wagasa).

Byobu folding screens have a long history in Japan and are often used as a backdrop for ikebana (flower arranging) and the tea ceremony (chado).

Calligraphy, imported from China way back in Japanese history is a highly prized art in Japan and both fine examples of calligraphy and the tools needed to produce it can be best purchased from specialist stores in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Ceramics have been produced in Japan longer than anywhere on earth it is believed. There is incredible regional variety of pottery throughout the country such as Arita porcelain and Onta ware in Kyushu, Hagi ware in Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture and the fine ceramics once produced around Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto. Other famous kiln towns and areas in Japan include Tokoname in Aichi known for its maneki neko beckoning cats; Shigaraki in Shiga Prefecture, renowned for its semi-glazed stoneware, especially of tanuki (raccoon dog) figurines; Inbe in Okayama, the home of Bizen pottery; Mashiko in Tochigi and Echizen in Fukui.

Chochin or paper lanterns made from rice paper or washi can be seen at Japanese temples and shrines, festivals and as advertisements on the outside of restaurants. Gifu is a center of both paper lantern and umbrella production and of course, Kyoto.

Dolls have a long history as toys for the sons and daughters of aristocrats and as decorations for the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival in March. Kyoto has long been an important producer of Japanese dolls. Northern Japan is famous for its kokeshi dolls (limbless dolls with a large head and cylindrical torso) and Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture is the center for daruma dolls. Asakusabashi in Tokyo is Japan's traditional doll center with a row of stores near Asakusabashi station. Fukuoka in Kyushu is known for its tradition of exquisite Hakata Dolls.

Hina Festival, Dolls Festival.
The dainty little dolls depict the hierarchy of the Heian Period (794-1192) court life starting with the Emperor and Empress and going down through the ranks.
Folding fan - kyo sensu - from Japan.
Beautiful hand-painted kyo-sensu (Kyoto folding fan)

Folding fans (sensu) are a unique Japanese invention and were and still are much-sought after items. They were often used in traditional Japanese dance or the larger ones by geisha. Kyoto and Tokyo are the best places to find examples of folding fans either in small specialist shops or the large department stores.

Gold leaf work has its center in Kanazawa on the Japan Sea Coast. Kanazawa's gold leaf is known for its fine craftsmanship and is applied to a wide variety of products including ceramics, lacquerware, textiles such as kimono and even household accessories such as chopsticks and mouse mats.

Incense is believed to have arrived in Japan with Buddhism and the tea ceremony from China. Due to the demand from Buddhist temples in the city, Kyoto is a center of incense in Japan production in Japan in both stick and pellet form. Kungyoku-do (Tel: 075 371 0162) near Nishi Honganji Temple in Kyoto is an incense shop dating back to Edo times. Lisn (Tel: 075 353 6466) also in Kyoto near Shijo-Karasuma presents contemporary incense styles. Gion is also other area to find quality Japanese incense.

Kimono production is most associated with Kyoto and its long tradition of geisha performance. Yukata and happi coats are also manufactured in the city which is known for its fine textiles and fabric dyeing.

Kokeshi dolls are most associated with the Tohoku region of japan but are now made all over the country. These hand painted dolls have an enlarged head and no arms or legs. Many designs are traditional but contemporary kokeshi artists produce dolls with a variety of contemporary motifs.

Lacquerware manufacture reaches perfection in Kyoto and beautifully made bowls and trays are associated with the tea ceremony and Japanese cuisine.

Masks are a feature of Japanese theater and festivals and are made across the country. Antique Japanese masks can fetch high prices and can be found in the antique stores in Kyoto's Gion district on Shinmonzen Dori and Furumonzen Dori and also at the monthly antique fairs at Toji Temple on the 21st of the month and at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine on the 25th.
Ornate and fearsome masks are also a feature of Japanese kagura performances such as the hanya mask below.

Hanya kagura mask.
Hanya - Japanese kagura mask.

Tatami mats are an interior feature of traditional Japanese homes, tea houses and temples. Due to their size and bulk tatami are best purchased online.

Ukiyo-e (wood block) prints from the Edo Period can be purchased from specialists shops in Tokyo and on Teramachi Street in Kyoto.

Two useful guides to the traditional stores of Kyoto are Diane Durston's Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns and Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City.

Maneki Neko Video

Japanese Craft Resources

All-Japan Daily Commodity Crafts Exhibition


Books on Japanese Arts & Crafts