Prominent Craftsmanship in the Spirit of the Ancient Capital
Starting from the end of the 6th century, the capital of Japan was located in Nara for almost 200 years. The Heijyo-kyo Capital and what has come to be called the Nara period (710-794) is especially noteworthy in Japanese history. It was a period of intense cultural development resulting in some magnificent artistic and architectural achievements.
Heijo-kyo was the first capital of Japan with a unified legal system. During this period, Japan was established as a state with a universal code of laws and a strong cultural foundation. Through exchange with the countries of greater East Asia and beyond, many foreign cultures and civilizations were introduced to Japan. Japan was the eastern end of the Silk Road and Nara was its capital where all these cultural influences from around the world arrived. Indeed, in those days Nara was quite a large scale “international” capital with over 1 million people (today Nara City has about 370,000 people). The year 2010 marks the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Nara’s Heijo-kyo Capital.
Naturally, throughout its history, a variety of industries and business have prospered in Nara. Skilled craftsmen competed with each other to get the royalty or trust of nobles or the imperial family. Shoso-in, the main storehouse of Todai-ji Temple, hosts countless of valuable ancient properties brought over from the Eurasian continent via China. This is evidence that proves how sophisticated and prominent the skills of craftsmen in those days were.
Nara has upheld the valuable tradition of Japanese crafts for generations.Akahada-yaki ceramics, lacquer wares, Itto-bori carvings, calligraphy ink and brush production, deer horn crafts, linen textiles and roof tiles, for example, were all born from the lives of people and each piece can tell you something of the history of Nara as you hold it in your hand.
Museums to Discover More of Nara’s Traditional Crafts
Nara City Tourist Center
This is the main center for Nara tourist information which has a gallery where visitors can see Nara’s traditional crafts and specialty souvenirs.
On the north side of Sanjo, west of Yasuragi-no-michi; map A, C-2, pg 6, Open: 9:00-21:00, closed end & beginning of the year; Tel: 0742-22-3900; http://narashikanko.jp/
Nara Crafts Museum
A wide range of traditional Nara crafts are displayed here including works by living national treasures (lacquer ware, Itto-bori carvings, Akahada-yaki ceramics, calligraphy ink & brushes, deer horn crafts, etc.). There is a museum shop.
On the north side of Narayama Odori, west of Shimomikado; map A, C-2, pg 6, Open: 10:00-21:00 (entry until 20:30), closed Mon. & Dec. 26-Jan. 5; Tel: 0742-27-0033; www.eonet.ne.jp/~naramachi/
Kite Mite Nara Shop
A variety of traditional crafts and unique souvenirs of Nara are displayed and sold. Prices range from reasonable to expensive. Akahada-yaki ceramics, calligraphy brushes & ink, Itto-bori carvings, uchiwa fans as well as Yamato-cha tea leaf, somen noodles and other specialties. Visitors can learn more of the 1,300 year-old history of Nara’s crafts and industries here.
In the Nara Prefecture Commerce and Tourism Bureau Bldg.; map A, B-3, pg 6; Open: 10:00-18:00; Tel: 0742-26-8828; www.pref.nara.jp/syoko/kaikan/
Akahada is the name of the area in Nara where pottery kilns have been located for hundreds of years, serving temples, shrines and the imperial court. The origin of Akahada-yaki ceramics is not clearly known but it is said to have been recognized as an important kiln in the Momoyama period (1568-1600), when a local samurai general, Hidenaga Toyotomi (1540-1591) invited a skilful potter to the Akahada area to produce Hidenaga’s tea ceremony bowls and tools.
In the early Edo period (1600-1868), one of the masters of the Japanese tea ceremony school, Enshu Kobori (1579-1647), was a great fan of Akahada-yaki and gave it his official patronage.
Typical Akahada-yaki ceramics have a thick round shape with a faintly reddish and white color produced by the unique chemicals used for the glaze. It has a silky touch and many Akahada-yaki ceramics are embossed with a rustic scene of people or deer. These are called Nara-e (pictures of Nara).
In Naramachi, there is a small Akahada-yaki ceramic studio called Naya Kobo. Located in a classic machiya style building, many kinds of Akahada-yaki ceramics are displayed, from traditional to contemporary. All the ceramics here are made by Mr. Takaaki Takeda, who has been active in the world of Akahada-yaki for about 20 years. After studying Akahada-yaki ceramics under a master-teacher for 12 years, he became independent and started his own studio in the Akahada area. Some years later, he decided to situate his studio in the historical Naramachi area in order to display his work and let local people and tourists alike see the beauty of Akahada-yaki. Visitors to Naya Kobo can see not only classic Akahada-yaki, but also Mr. Takeda’s contemporary creations.
One excellent example of this is the Toka-ki original design candle lantern. On a large Akahada-yaki ball (at least 20cm in diameter), he cuts in cherry blossom or bamboo patterns on the thin surface. Inside, the ball is hollow and a candle can be placed there. The result is that as the flame of the candle flickers, the light coming through the patterns casts elegant shadows on surrounding walls. The effect creates a romantic mood without electricity, as the candle light flickers, the shadows move.
Matsumori: Tel: 0742-22-2037; map A, C-2, pg 6; see their ad on pg 7. Naya Kobo:Tel: 0742-23-3110; map A, D-3, pg 6. Oshio Gyokusen’s Kiln:Tel: 0742-45-1806; take Nara Kotsu Bus #32 or 38 from Kintetsu Nara Sta. bus terminal and get off at Akahadayama stop (370 yen; about 40 min.). Oshio Shozan’s Kiln:Tel; 0742-45-0408; same access with Oshio Gyokusen’s Kiln.
Itto-bori carving is literally ‘One Chisel Carving’. Itto-bori started in 1137, when carvers decorated the dance stage of Kasuga Grand Shrine’s annual Wakamiya On-matsuri Festival (see pg 9 for event info) with carved wooden dolls. Since then, they have made newly carved decorations for the festival every year. Itto-bori carving is characterized by rather rough and simple lines but also has colorful and precise patterns. Animals, noh or kyogen theatrical characters, hina ningyo dolls (dolls for the Girls’ Day Festival) are typical motifs in the carvings.
Until the mid Edo period, Itto-bori carving was used only for sacred festivals and ceremonies. Later it flourished through the efforts of the late Edo-period craftsman Toen Morikawa (1821-1896) as objects of art available for general public throughout the country.
Seibido: Tel: 0742-43-4183; map B, pg 7. Obayashi Toju-en:Tel: 0742-22-1912; map A, B-3, pg 6. Kobayashi Koju Itto-bori Studio:Tel: 0742-23-4647; map A, B-2, pg 6. Hakuroku-en:Tel: 0742-22-7624; map A, C-2, pg 6. Setani Togen:Tel: 0742-22-5410; map A, B-5, pg 7.
Nara Sarashi and Linen Textiles
One of the industries Nara has been famous for is the production of linen or Nara sarashi. The history of Nara’s linen production is mentioned in Japan’s first historical book, the Kojiki (written in 712). Because of its soft texture and water repellent characteristics, linen was popular as a clothing material for Buddhist monks and Shinto priests in those days. Later, it also became the main material used for the summer clothing of samurai. The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, loved Nara sarashi and gave the local producers exclusive production rights, and this was the beginning of linen becoming a large industry in Nara. Linen was used not only for clothing but also for mosquito nets. Nara occupied more than 90% of the domestic market at that time.
Today, several shops produce interesting Nara linen textile goods that are suitable for modern lifestyles. The soft and light texture of the linen is perfectly adaptable to interior decoration as well as to add some Japanese style to your home.
Ban Inoue: Tel: 0742-27-1010; map A, B-4, pg 6 (in the Yume Shirube Kaze Shirube). Nawrap:Tel: 0742-22-8851; map A, C-2, pg 6. Okai:Tel: 0742-24-7119; map A, B-2, pg 6. Yu Nakagawa:Tel: 0742-22-1322; map A, C-3, pg 6. Yoshida Kaya:Tel: 0742-23-3381; map A, C-3, pg 6.
Calligraphy ink, or sumi in Japanese, was brought to Japan from China in the early 7th century. As Buddhism rapidly spread through Japan, ink was an essential daily tool for shrines and temples to make records or to write down sutra. Ink production was firmly rooted in many places in Japan in those days. In Nara, ink production had a strong connection with Kofuku-ji Temple which had extraordinary power in those days and could afford to buy expensive ingredients for ink production.
A studio called Nitai-bo produced ink in Kofuku-ji Temple. Nitai-bo’s ink was considered as a unique kind because of the different ingredients they used and their production method. In the 15th century, most of the ink was produced from soot obtained from burning pine resin and came to be known as ‘Pine Resin Ink’. Previously, better quality ink had been invented in China but from this time Nitai-bo started to produce it’s own high quality ink. It was produced from soot of vegetable oil (rape seed, sesame, paulownia seed, etc.) and this kind was called Oil Soot Ink. The Oil Soot Ink had darker and deeper black compared to the Pine Soot Ink. It was very expensive and only imperial court nobles could afford it.
Nara’s ink production industry flourished for most of the 17th century. Consequently, Dochin Matsui, the founder of the Kobai-en ink shop, successfully developed mass production of high quality ink and had a strong reputation in the 18th century. Even today, over 90% of domestic calligraphy ink is produced in Nara and the process has barely changed over time.
Ink is produced between winter and spring. The ingredients of ink are just soot, an animal originated glue called nikawa and water. In addition to these simple ingredients, the experienced skills and sense of the ink makers is essential. The entire ink process is done by hand. Kneading ink requires a lot of strength. The ink makers need to use their entire body and get covered in black soot.
For professional calligraphers and ink painters, the depth of the black color or thickness of the ink is very important. Because of its simplicity, the ink delicately reflects the writer’s or painter’s feeling or technique. Kobai-en is Japan’s oldest existing ink shop in operation today. They started to produce ink in the 16th century and offer several hundred different kinds of ink for all purposes, as well as calligraphy and ink painting.
Kobai-en Calligraphy Goods Retail Shop: map A, B-5, pg 7; Tel: 0742-22-2646; see their ad below. Kobai-en: map A, C-2, pg 6; Tel: 0742-23-2965. Boku-un-do: map B, pg 7; Tel: 0742-52-0310; Calligraphy Ink Museum in Ganko Ittetsu Nagaya: open: 10:00-16:30; closed Mon.; 500 yen; Tel: 0742-41-7011. Kinko-en: map A, C-1, pg 6; Tel: 0742-22-3319. Isshin-do: map A, C-2, pg 6; Tel: 0742-23-2381.