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Japanese Tattoos: A misunderstood body motif

Japanese tattoos or irezumi, literally translating to ‘inserting ink’, have developed their own distinct style created over centuries. The history of body modification in Japan is long and vibrant, dating right back to the Jomon Period but is one of the most misunderstood forms of art in Japan. Let’s take a look at the history of Japanese tattoos and why they have become so misunderstood in Japanese culture.

Method of tattooing

Traditional Japanese tattoos are often created by hand using wooden handles and metal needles attached with silk and thread. This traditional method of tattooing also requires a special ink called Nara ink. The process is often painful and time-consuming and has only been mastered by a limited number of specialists. Traditional Japanese tattoos do not use stencils or outlines for the design, instead it is all done freehand by the artist. In Japan, tattoo artists are referred to as Horishi and usually have one or more apprentices working for them for a long period of time. Although there is a stigma when it comes to Japanese tattoos, Japanese tattoo artists are amongst the most sought-after in the world because of their precision and aesthetics.

Becoming an artist

Just like in many fields across the world, Japanese tattoo artists start off as apprentices. Each apprentice will have to complete several years of formation with a tattoo artist master. During that time they traditionally live in the master’s house, clean and prepare the equipment and observe and practice Japanese tattoos on their own skin. Only when their teacher has judged that they have mastered all the right skills will the apprentice become a tattoo artist and begin to work with clients. Sometimes, the apprentice will also take the name of the master that trained him or will be given a tattoo name by their master upon learning the methods of Japanese tattoos.

An ancient past

The tradition of Japanese tattoos can be traced back 10,000 years. The indigenous people of the northernmost island of Hokkaido, the Ainu, have been using tattoos as a part of religious and social traditions for years. Women of the Ainu people would receive their first tattoo as early as 12 years old with more Japanese tattoos to follow through the years. By the age of 16, women’s tattoos were usually completed, signifying that they were ready for marriage. While Ainu long remained outside of Japan’s main society, Japanese people would also traditionally get tattoos. As part of Japanese religion and traditions, fishermen, hunters and craftsmen would get tattooed to be protected against evil spirits.
Historians think that Japanese tattoos began to be used as a punishment as early as 500 AD, roughly coinciding with the organisation of the Shinto religion and the arrival of Buddhism. From then on, Japanese tattoos would become a taboo and a sign of society’s outcasts.

Most common motifs

In terms of tattoo subject matter, Japanese tattoos often showcase the culture’s reverence for nature – namely, animals and flowers. Additionally, much like the ukiyo-e prints, a type of Japanese art movement that inspired Japanese tattoos, figures and portraits are also frequently featured in traditional tattoos.
Many Japanese tattoos feature animals associated with strength, courage and protection, like lions, tigers and dragons. Koi fish are historically popular subjects too as they represent luck, success and good fortune. Unsurprisingly, Sakura or cherry blossom remains the most popular floral motif found in Japanese tattoos. Lotus, peonies and chrysanthemums are also favoured for their beauty and prevalence in Japan and are often depicted in Japanese tattoos. Both realistic and mythological figures are often featured in Japanese tattoos. Portraits of people rooted in realism portrayed in the designs include warriors and geishas while folkloric figures include tengu, ghosts, and oni, demon or troll-like creatures.
At Atelier Japan, we understand the importance of preserving and sharing traditional Japanese craft and culture. Our makers have stood the test of time, prevailing amongst huge global disturbances and remaining unwilling to go backwards. We champion this and aim to bring traditional Japanese craft collections directly to you from our makers. Explore the Atelier Japan collections to browse our intricate and traditional Japanese fans, tea, pottery, jewellery and silverware and add something special to your home.

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Japanese Dolls: A bespoke craft

Japanese dolls are an incredibly unique area of Japanese crafts. There are many types of traditional dolls, but together they are most commonly known as ningyō which can be translated to mean ‘human shape’. Japanese dolls are all individually designed to represent different things; some represent children and babies whereas others are crafted to represent things such as the imperial court, warriors and heroes. Much like Japanese mythology and symbolism, many Japanese dolls are also crafted to represent fairy-tale characters, Gods and also people from the daily life of Japanese cities. Let’s take a look at the dolls’ intricate history and what makes them so significant.

A handcrafted history

The oldest known Japanese dolls originate back to the Jōmon period, a time in Japan that dates to 14,000 to 300 BC. During this period, Dogū or small humanoid and animal figurines, were being crafted to represent gods and be used in rituals. This is thought to be the start of traditional Japanese doll craft. As Japan entered the Kofun Period around 300-600 AD, the Haniwa, small terracotta figures that were made for ritual use and buried with the dead, were also being crafted. They were seen as grave offerings and were made in the shape of people, animals and objects. By the 11th Century, the Heian Period was known for several types of Japanese dolls that were mainly used for playing, rituals and as protection from bad spirits. It was commonly thought that dolls could trap bad spirits and be used as protection by the person who carries the doll. 
Moving towards the 14th Century, dolls began to become more sophisticated and new materials were being tried and tested. Okiagari-koboshi, or ‘roly-poly toys’ were made from papier-mâché and were seen as a symbol of perseverance, resilience and good luck. It is believed that the first professional dollmakers were originally temple sculptors who used their pre-existing skills and knowledge to make painted wooden Japanese dolls. 
Japanese dolls were then crafted using carved wood or a wood composition and were then lacquered using ground oyster shell and glue before being finished with textiles. As Japan entered the Edo period, it became more closed to trading which meant Japanese dolls were being made and developed for a market of wealthy individuals who would pay for the most beautiful doll sets to be used as a display in their homes or as valuable gifts. This competitive trade was eventually regulated by the government which meant that artisans who crafted Japanese dolls could be arrested and banished for breaking the laws on materials and height.

Culture of the doll

Ever since ancient times, dolls have been a part of traditional Japanese culture. Japanese dolls represent an item of respect as a child’s plaything or an object that brings delight. The outer appearance of Japanese dolls has constantly changed over the years but the love for this piece of Japanese culture has remained steady throughout.
In Japan, there are two main doll festivals that are celebrated. The first is known as Hinamatsuri, the Dolls’ Festival or Girls Day, which is celebrated annually on the 3rd of March. The second is known as Tango No Sekku, or Boy’s Day, which is celebrated annually on the 5th May. Even to this day, Japanese Dolls are not only considered objects of decoration or entertainment but as living creatures also. An expression of such ritualistic behaviour is found in the ceremonies of Doll Burial. If a doll’s owner must reluctantly throw it away, he takes it to a temple where old and new Japanese dolls, both expensive and ordinary ones, are piled together and burnt to ashes once the owner has expressed their gratitude and said farewell.
One type of Japanese doll that proves to be quite popular is the Daruma. Traditionally, this doll is seated in a meditation pose with large eyes and a big beard usually painted in a vibrant red. When it comes to Japanese dolls, the Daruma is believed to symbolise perseverance. With its wobbly appearance and heavy base, the Daruma stays stable and upright symbolising the idea that even if you fall, it is important to try again. Initially, Daruma’s eyes are not drawn on by the maker. this is so that when the owner of the Japanese doll wishes for something or decides to pursue a new aim, they may draw in a left eye. If the aim is then achieved or the dream is realised, the right eye is also drawn. Aside from the Daruma, there are many other types of Japanese dolls all of which have unique characteristics and meanings to explore.
Searching for your own piece of Japanese doll culture? At Atelier Japan, we have our very own handcrafted collection of Japanese dolls, Darumas and ornaments made by some of Japan’s finest artisans. Visit the Atelier Japan collections to explore our Japanese dolls and purchase your own piece of Japanese culture for your home.

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Japanese Inlay: A delicate design

Inlay is an ancient Japanese craft that has been around for many years. Traditionally, Japanese inlay is the craft of embedding both gold and silver into a base material to create an intricate and unique design. There are many types of inlay, depending on which base material is selected for the construction. Japan has a rich history of inlay and handcrafted metals that dates back centuries, with many of them still commonly practised today in cities such as Kyoto. Let’s take a look at some of the traditional techniques behind the intricate craft of inlay.
Inlay covers a range of techniques in sculpture and the decorative arts for inserting pieces of contrasting, often coloured materials, into depressions in a base object to form ornaments with unique design and characteristics. A great range of materials are used for both the base and the inlays that are inserted. The most common are metal and wood and tend to be inlaid with pieces of colour wood, precious metals and even diamonds using various matrices including clear coats and varnishes.


In a wood matrix, inlays commonly use wood veneers, but it isn’t uncommon for other materials such as shells, mother-of-pearl, horn and ivory to also be used. ‘Zogan’ is a Japanese traditional inlay decorative technique where a delicate motif is carved on a wooden surface before pieces that have been cut out from shells or different coloured wood are placed into the carved surface. Products made with natural materials are designed to bring a sense of nature and relaxation when using them or having them in your home, one of the great charms of traditional wooden inlay products. 
Once referred to as Mokuga during the Nara period, Moku-zogan is a decorative technique where wood is hand-cut into pieces of varied shapes and delicately filled with auspicious silver and gold metals. 
As we know, wooden materials come in various colours according to the type of wood and the environment in which they grow. Traditional Japanese inlay craftsmen need to have sensibility and technique to be able to cut the wood into particular pieces and assemble them based on their beautiful and natural colour shades. Due to different woods having different grain patterns and colour shades, each inlay product gives different impressions and textures, even though it has the same design. Such different impressions bring to life the motifs, such as flowers, trees and animals which are often affiliated with Japanese craft.


To create metal inlay techniques, lines are carved into the surface of the metal and different metals are then inlaid in the delicately carved-out lines, with the differences in the colour and texture of metals creating the design of inlay that is so instantly recognisable. 
The process of creating metal inlay products is very refined and intricate. Tiny grooves are carved into the surface of the metal and then widened out using specialist tools. Gold or silver metal is then inserted into the grooves before being hammered delicately into the edges of the grooves. To complete and execute the inlay to a high standard, craftsmen will burnish the surface with a file or whetstone to smooth the final piece.
There are a variety of metal inlay techniques such as hirazogan or flat inlay, in which flat sheets are inlaid to be the same height with the base surface; takaniku zogan or high mounted inlay, where material is set on a high-relief metal ground; and nunome zogan or texture inlay, in which thin metal leaf is hammered into a carved pattern.
Although inlaying is an ancient and old method of decorating a range of ornaments and jewellery, today, inlay is still ongoing with intricate inlaid products still being produced hundreds of years later in the city of Kyoto, demonstrating the beauty of this traditional art form that is still around today, all handcrafted to perfection, piece by piece. 
At Atelier Japan, we have curated a fine collection of handcrafted metal inlay jewellery and craft. From brooches and bracelets to rings and tie pins, you’ll find a beautiful array of Zinlay products on our website. Browse the Atelier Japan store to discover the entire Zinlay collection and how their family business is bringing this inspiring ancient technique into the modern world.

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Ikebana: The art of flower arranging

Ikebana, translated, means ‘arranging flowers’ or ‘making flowers alive’ and is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Also known as Kadō or ‘the way of flowers’, this Japanese tradition dates back to the 7th century, when floral offerings were made at altars and were later placed in tokonoma, the alcove of a home. Let’s take a look at Ikebana over time, and how it has developed to become the fascinating flower arranging it is known as today.

A beautiful history 

The origins of Ikebana stem back to either the ceremonial practices of the native Shinto religion or to a tradition of floral offerings in Buddhism. The first known written text on Ikebana, called sendensho, was created in the 15th century. The text depicts a set of instructions on how to create arrangements that are appropriate to individual seasons and occasions, as the practice of Ikebana embodies the evolved appreciation and sensitivity to nature that Japanese culture is known for.
Around this time, Ikebana started to become a more popular and became a well known and engaged in activity. The design of Japanese homes during this period reflect this transition, with special recess called tokonoma being used to hold a scroll, precious art object and of course a flower arrangement.
Although Japanese homes consisted of muted colours and flat planes, the tokonoma stood out as the singular piece of colour and decoration. Keeping within Japanese culture, tokonoma displays are rotated regularly with the changing seasons and during festive occasions. Arranging flowers for the home has paved the way for Ikebana and its recognition as a distinct art form.

An artistic influence

Ikebana arrangements are similar to that of artistic sculpture. Considerations of colour, line, form and function guide the construction of work which leads to varied and unexpected pieces that can range widely in terms of size and composition. Whether it’s a single flower or several flowers, plants and branches making up each arrangement, every single Ikebana piece is as bespoke as the last.
Most native flowers, plants and trees are embedded in Japanese culture, each with its own symbolic meaning and associated season. Symbolism and seasonality have always been prioritised in developing Ikebana arrangements. Sometimes, practitioners of Ikebana trim and shape flowers and branches into unique and bespoke shapes and complement them with paint. They also arrange plant limbs to spout in various directions ensuring that the whole end piece is still balanced and contained.
In Ikebana, it is not enough to have beautiful materials if they aren’t used to their full potential to make something even more beautiful. Given skill and practice, one carefully arranged flower can have the same power to awe as an elaborate arrangement.

A variety of vessels

There is an incredibly wide variety of vases and vessels used in the art of Ikebana. They are traditionally considered not only beautiful in form, material and design but are made to suit the use of which they will be put. This means that each flower display can always be placed in the appropriate vessel and probably in one that has been specially designed for that particular sort of flower.
Besides offering variety in the form of vases and vessels in Ikebana, the lower, flat vases, more used in summer than winter, make it possible to arrange plants of bulbous and water growth in natural positions. As for the colour of vases, soft pastel shades and bronze vases are especially popular. To the Japanese, the colour bronze seems most like mother earth and is seen to be suited to complement and enhance the beauty of flowers in Ikebana.

A modern take

In recent decades, chapters for all the major Ikebana schools have grown on a global scale. Over the last few years, the practice of Ikebana has inspired contemporary artists to develop new, original creations.
Today, anyone who practices Ikebana knows well that building relationships is at the core of the practice; the relationships between materials, students and teachers is a highly important element. In Japan today, the word Kadō is the preferred term for Ikebana as it’s believed to accurately capture the spirit of the art as a lifelong path of learning.
At Atelier Japan, our makers carefully craft each piece of our collection to bring you authentic Japanese craft containing designs from the most skilled makers. Visit the Atelier Japan website to discover our unique collection of Japanese teas, silverware, fans, jewellery and of course pottery. Browse our collection of bespoke handcrafted pottery and try your hand at the art of Ikebana.