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Japanese Craft: An ancient history

Japanese craft has a long and traditional history throughout Japan. Included in Japanese craft are handicraft, a sometimes more precisely expressed as artisanal handmade craft style, that includes a wide variety of useful and decorative objects all of which are made completely by hand using simple tools. As well as traditional Japanese craft many modern craft pieces are now produced by independent studio artists, working with traditional craft materials and or processes to protect the nature of traditional crafts. Let’s take a look at what makes Japanese craft so unique.

Types of Craft

According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Japanese craft can be divided into eight auspicious categories: pottery, textiles, lacquerware, metalwork, dollmaking, bamboo and woodwork, papermaking and miscellaneous. These categories of craft can then be further divided into a number of more specific subcategories. The Japan Kōgei Association agrees with the distinct definitions set for Japanese craft and the many variations are protected by the government. In order for an object to be officially recognised as traditional Japanese craft, it must meet all five of the following requirements:

  • The item must be practical enough for regular use.
  • The item must predominantly be handmade.
  • The item must be crafted using traditional techniques.
  • The item must be crafted using traditional materials.
  • The item must be crafted at its place of origin.

Each individual craft requires a set of specialised skills, and those who work in crafts are eligible, either individually or part as a group, for inclusion in the list of Living National Treasures of Japan. Although Japanese craft serves a functional or utilitarian purpose, they are often handled and exhibited in a similar way to visual art objects.

History of the Craft

Japanese craft dates back since centuries to when humans settled on Japan’s islands. Handicrafters used natural, indigenous materials, a tradition which continues to be emphasised today. Traditionally, objects were created to be used and not just to be displayed and therefore the border between what was Japanese craft and what was Japanese art was not always very clear. Japanese craft had close ties to folk art, but developed into fine art as well as becoming part of the concept of wabi-sabi aesthetics. As time developed, crafts became increasingly sophisticated in their design and execution with craftsmen and women becoming artisans with increasing sophistication.
By the end of the Edo period and the advent of the modern Meiji era, industrial production was introduced. This lead to Western craft objects and styles being copied and they began to replace the traditional Japanese types. Traditional Japanese craft began to wane, and disappeared in many areas, as tastes and production methods changed. Specific crafts that had been practised for centuries were increasingly under threat, while others that were more recent developments, introduced from the West, saw a rise.
Although Japanese craft was is seen as a National Treasure under the protection of the imperial government, it took some time for their intangible cultural value to be fully recognised. In order to further protect traditional Japanese craft and art, in 1890, the government instituted the Guild of Imperial Household Artists, who were specially appointed to create works of art for the Tokyo Imperial Palace. These artists were considered amongst the most famous and prestigious and worked in areas such as painting, ceramics and lacquerware.
The Second World War left Japan devastated and as a result, Japanese craft suffered. The government decided to introduce a new program known as Living National Treasure, to recognise and protect the craftspeople of the fine and folk art skill set. Inclusion in this list came with financial support for the training of new generations of artisans so that the traditional art forms could continue. Although the government has taken steps, private sector artisans continue to face challenges trying to stay true to traditional Japanese craft whilst at the same time reinterpreting old forms and creating new ideas in order to survive and remain relevant to consumers.
Despite modernisation and westernisation, a number of Japanese craft and art forms do still exist, partly due to their close connection to certain Japanese traditions such as tea ceremonies and martial arts. Many exhibitions and displays take place every year to exhibit a number of both modern and traditional kōgei artists in an effort to introduce Japanese craft to an international audience.
At Atelier Japan, our makers powerfully encapsulate ancient and artisanal Japanese craft that has been articulated for the modern audience. All of our products are intricately made by hand to create authentic Japanese products for you to enjoy in the comfort of your home. Visit our website and browse our bespoke range of teas, fans, jewellery and pottery.

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Japanese Lacquerware: Intricate ancient craft

Japanese lacquerware is a Japanese craft used within a wide range of fine and decorative arts. Japanese lacquerware is crafted from a deep and shiny lustre of black or red, and is sometimes adorned with a gold leaf or mother-of-pearl inlay. Japanese lacquerware was introduced to the West during the 16th century but only began to spread more widely in the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company, immediately enthralled royalty and nobility to Japanese lacquerware. Let’s take a look at the history and intricate processes that are carried out to achieve exquisite and unique lacquerware products.

A step back in time

Japanese lacquerware uses a unique substance called urushi which has been used to produce holy ceremonial ornaments, works of art and utilitarian objects for thousands of years. The oldest urushi lacquered ornaments discovered in Japan date back to around 7000 BC, during the Jōmon period, and they remain the world’s oldest urushi lacquer objects to date. Japanese lacquerware technology is believed to have been invented by the Jōmon as they learned to refine urushi, a process which took several months. This process also began to see the use of iron oxide and cinnabar, the products used for creating the distinctive red Japanese lacquerware. Lacquerware was traditionally used in pottery, different types of wooden items and, in some cases, burial clothes for the dead were also lacquered. Since so many lacquered objects have been discovered, that are said to have been from the early Jōmon period, it is indicated that Japanese lacquerware was clearly a highly established part of Jōmon culture.
Many experts are divided on whether Jōmon lacquerware was derived from Chinese techniques or invented independently as many traditional crafts and industrial arts produced throughout Japanese history were initially influenced by China. As Japan entered the Edo period, they saw an increase in the growth and use of lacquer trees and the development of the techniques used. By the 18th century, coloured lacquers came into wider use to craft more unique and bespoke Japanese lacquerware. In recent decades, there has been an effort made by the Japanese government to preserve the art of making Japanese lacquerware.

An introduction to urushi

Urushi is a natural sap found in the urushi tree with its beauty and lustre being one of the many appeals that urushi has when used for Japanese lacquerware, the extraction which, uses and maximises the natural vitality of the urushi tree. Urushi is one of the most durable natural lacquers available, making it perfect for crafting a range of Japanese lacquerware ornaments that are designed to stand the test of time. Astoundingly, the urushi tree creates this intricate sap to heal itself when it becomes damaged, this quality has many characteristics important to the making of Japanese lacquerware. Starting from its unique drying process caused by humidity, to its great strength after drying, urushi allows for durable and incredibly hard finishes for Japanese lacquerware once dry. Moreover, urushi lacquer is resistant to water, acids, alkali, alcohol and heat as well as having antibacterial effects, making it a truly remarkable substance to craft from.

A valuable asset

Urushi is a highly valuable asset to the Japanese lacquerware industry and takes a lot of time and knowledge to collect. Urushi is tapped by carving the bark of the urushi tree with a horizontal long groove that’s left to produce a clear milky-white sap. Before urushi sap can be collected, it takes at least 10 if not 15 years for a fully developed urushi tree to grow big enough to be tapped. The urushi tree yields around 100 to 200 grams of raw urushi sap in its whole lifetime, making it a very precious and expensive substance which is why Japanese lacquerware is so valuable. Due to its valuable nature, it takes a highly skilled and experienced urushi collector to tap the trees, this is often done from June to October and is a painstaking experience where the collector extracts the Japanese lacquerware sap drop by drop.
The whole extraction process is incredibly natural and relies on a skilled urushi collector to collect the sap entirely by hand. The skill, knowledge and decision making to collect urushi sap is very complex, and since each tree is different, urushi collectors must understand the conditions of each tree. From the angle of the tree trunk to the direction of the sun, many variables have to be taken into account before the sap can be collected to make traditional Japanese lacquerware.
At Atelier Japan, we use only the finest traditional craft techniques. Our makers have stood the test of time and have prevailed among huge global disturbances, remaining unwilling to go backwards. Visit Atelier Japan to explore the products that our makers have taken care and time to craft.

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Maiko: The history of apprentice geisha and their Fan

Maiko, known as apprentice geisha in Kyoto and Western Japan, have a long and bountiful history. The role of a Maiko is to perform songs and dances, and play the shamisen or other traditional Japanese instruments for visitors during ozashiki, a form of geisha gathering. Maiko are usually introduced to the geisha lifestyle around 15 to 20 years old and become a geiko, a qualified geisha, after learning how to dance the traditional dances, play the shamisen and speak Kyō-kotoba, the dialect of Kyoto. Let’s take a look at the unique journey of the well known traditional Japanese geisha and her origins where she will have started as a Maiko.

What makes the Maiko

The translation of Maiko literally means ‘Woman of Dance’, o-shaku (御酌), ‘one who pours (alcohol)’ or Hangyoku (半玉), the ‘Half-Jewel’ as apprentice geisha were paid half of the wage of a full geisha whilst in training and were often found to be serving alcohol during performances. Maiko originated from women who served green tea and dango, a Japanese dumpling made from rice flour, to people who visited the Kitano Tenman-gū or Yasaka Shrine, two of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. Maiko also served tea at the temple teahouses in the temple town, a tradition that dates back over 300 years. Tradition is still evident in modern Maiko. In the mornings, Maiko take authentic lessons to polish their performance skills and at night they go out to work. The evening sees Maiko girls dancing, singing, playing the shamisen and serving visitors at exclusive ochaya, establishments where patrons are entertained by geisha.

A certain look

Characterised in appearance by distinctive Japanese costumes and makeup, the signature Maiko style is instantly recognisable. The white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair of Maiko mirrors the popular image that is held of geisha. During their career, a Maiko will wear different kinds of nihongami, traditional Japanese hairstyles, depending on their rank, formality and occasion. They often decorate their hairstyles with seasonal kanzashi, traditional hair ornaments, and unlike geisha, Maiko use their own hair and not wigs. Typically, at the start of a Maiko’s career, she will wear the traditionally elaborate makeup and dress every day but, as she becomes a trained geisha, after three years of her profession, her elaborate makeup and dress becomes lighter and simpler as she will be known more for her talent and skill rather than her appearance.

The Maiko fan

The history of the Japanese hand fan is a beautiful and cultural piece of the past. Used as a way to keep cool, for decorative purposes or in this case entertainment, the hand fan has changed vastly in terms of purpose however the unique style and craft has continued to stay the same. Geisha of all types often use hand fans for performance or as an accessory, especially Maiko. Maiko fans are used in the famous fan dances that apprentice geisha are trained to perform and execute with true elegance. Geisha and Maiko also use fans as a way of expressing themselves and they are critical elements in their dances. More so in previous years, the fan was used to cover a geisha’s face in an act of purposeful shyness, while using the eyes emotively to portray a sense of mystery and enticement. Fans could be held in many ways to show different feelings.

Kamogawa Odori

More than any other place in Japan, Kyoto is known for geisha and Maiko. Though visiting a traditional tea house is very difficult without invitation, geisha and Maiko from Kyoto’s traditional geisha districts put on public dance displays every spring and summer, giving visitors an excellent chance to witness the skill and grace of Kyoto’s best performing artists. The Kamogawa Odori Dance or The Kamo River Dance is performed in May by the Pontocho geisha and shares its long tradition with the Miyaki Odori Dance, both of which date back to the Kyoto Exposition in 1872. The Kamogawa Odori is unique in its extensive use of fans during the dancing, where geisha and Maiko weave around the stage in swirling patterns, twirling fans in one hand and flower bouquets in the other.
Geisha and Maiko use only the best quality traditional products for dressing and entertaining including their kimono, shoes, and of course fans, keeping craftsmen in work and preserving their knowledge and history for years to come. At Atelier Japan, we have an exclusive range of traditional Maiko fans that have never before been sold outside of Japan, explore our unique range of handcrafted fans and purchase your own piece of authentic Japanese culture.

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Marukyu Koyamaen Matcha: Award-winning matcha

Over the last few years, matcha has recently become a highly established ingredient in the modern Western culinary and beverage world and is now well known globally due to its powerful health benefits. However, this unique blend dates back nearly a thousand years to a time when dynasties ruled China and Shogun clans ruled Japan. Let’s take a look at the beautiful history of matcha and how Atelier Japan’s own Marukyu Koyamaen made its mark in the Japanese tea trade.

Varieties of Tea

When it comes to tea, there are three main categories. Completely oxidized and fermented teas such as black teas, half-oxidized teas known as oolong teas and, most commonly, non-oxidized teas that are green, such as matcha. Most Japanese teas are of the green variety and a lot of effort goes into maintaining the beautiful green colour of the fresh leaf together with all of its health-preserving properties.
In Japan, there are two different methods of tea cultivation, both of which give contrasting results. One method is to let the tea bushes grow and bud without any shade from the sun. This method was originally introduced from China for the growing of leaf tea and is used to produce the most common tea in Japan known as Sencha. The other method of cultivation is to shade the tea bushes completely. This method was originally developed in Japan for the production of finely powdered tea, such as matcha, but later extended to the production of the high-quality Japanese leaf tea known as Gyokuro.

History of Marukyu Koyamaen

In the Genroku period (1688-1704), a man by the name of Kyujiro Koyama began to cultivate and manufacture matcha and tea in the village of Uji and Ogura in Kyoto. His work was the beginning of what was to become the renowned Marukyu Koyamaen. Over the last 400 years, Koyamaen have devoted themselves to producing the highest quality tea generation after generation.
During the following generations, the quality of tea was raised through improvements in all aspects of the cultivation, treatment and production, thus establishing the tradition of Ujicha. The fourth generation of Koyamaen began marketing the matcha and tea, and by the eighth generation, Motojiro, the market had been extended to the whole country. A standard of high quality, consistent from cultivation to the final product, was achieved, and the tea was highly esteemed. It is well known that Marukyu Koyamaen stands for the highest quality standard of tea as well as being one of the oldest established tea manufacturers in Uji; today, they supply their high-quality tea to many prestigious temples, shrines, and tea ceremony houses.

Authentic Flavour and Appraisal

For generations, Marukyu Koyamaen matcha and teas have been carefully inspected and produced by succeeding directors. Through repeated training, honing of skills and techniques, their knowledge of how to produce the finest teas and maintain their quality has been constantly improving. Whilst preserving tradition, Koyamaen promote technologically innovative production techniques. In recent years, Koyamaen have been focusing on developing new products such as their patented Mizutate Ousu in which matcha tea can be made with cold water. Marukyu Koyamaen now ranks among the foremost producers of fine teas in Japan.
Every year, as part of their efforts to improve the quality and consistency of their teas from the growing stage to the final processing, Marukyu Koyamaen submit their tea and matcha for appraisal in competitions. So far, Marukyu Koyamaen has come first in Japan’s National Tea competition twenty one times, first in Kansai’s Regional Tea Competition nine times and first in Japan’s National Tea Tasting Competition twice.
Want to experience the inspiring flavour award-winning, authentic matcha? Marukuyu Koyamaen’s matcha is one of the finest blends that the world had to offer. With its smooth taste and natural flavour, their matcha blend is truly one of a kind. Visit their full collection to discover more award-winning Japanese matcha for a transportive experience like no other.

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Selected Matcha Green Tea by The Ura Senke SHOKANOMUKASHI