A country that spent much of its history in isolation, Japan claims unique arts and crafts traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation, with little influence from the outside world.
Travelers interested in learning more about the unique histories and customs associated with Japan’s distinctive arts and crafts can do so by seeking out dedicated Japanese craft villages or cobbling together a DIY itinerary of specialty museums, workshops, festivals, and boutiques that go deep on a single form. From handmade paper to finely crafted swords, here are half a dozen craft scenes to explore on your next trip to Japan:
Arita, Saga prefecture, southwestern Japan
Arita, located in the Saga prefecture and one of the best-known craft villages in Japan, has been producing its signature porcelain since the 17th century. Only a few kilns are in operation today, but there is a 22-shop ceramics mall (Arita Será), plus high-end porcelain galleries (Arita Porcelain Lab, Koransha) and an annual porcelain market and festival (Arita Toukiichi) held every April/May.
The first stop for any porcelain-curious traveler, however, should be the Kyushu Ceramic Museum. Exhibits showcase both traditional and contemporary ceramics made in the Hizen region, including Karatsu, Nabeshima, and Arita wares. The Kakiemon Museum, meanwhile, zeroes in on jars and vases produced in the Kakiemon style, a popular type of overglaze porcelain that was produced in Arita until the late 17th century; it features colorful floral designs laid over a milky-white ceramic body. The museum showcases works by 12th-, 13th-, and 14th-generation masters, as well as pieces by current practitioner Sakaida Kakiemon XV.
For a more hands-on experience, head over to Rokuro-za pottery studio. Following a short demo with local instructors, porcelain newbies can climb behind the potter’s wheel and put their own skills to the test (and have their final creations shipped to them once they’ve been kiln-fired).
Echizen Washi no Sato, Fukui prefecture, central Japan
The Fukui prefecture is famous for its washi, a type of delicate Japanese paper traditionally made from the fibers of gampi trees, mitsumata shrubs, and mulberry bushes. (Nowadays imported materials like hemp, bamboo, and wood pulp are also used.) The Goka region, which consists of five villages known collectively as Echizen Washi no Sato, has been making washi paper since the 6th century; today there are 67 paper mills here, employing both handmade and industrial processing methods. Each studio has its specialty: Ichibei Iwano, a ninth-generation paper maker, still does everything by hand and specializes in hosho, or paper used for woodblock prints for the Japanese art form ukiyo-e; Jiyomon Paper Studio produces paper labels for sake bottles.
For a cursory introduction to the craft, stop by the Paper & Culture Museum in Echizen City, and follow that up with a visit to the nearby Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum, where you can observe live papermaking demos using vintage tools. At Papyrus House, travelers can even make their own paper using seasonally pressed flowers, a process that takes about 20 minutes. (Not crafty? No problem. Papyrus House’s on-site shop, Washidokoro Echizen, sells professionally made paper goods.) Umeda Shop on Washi Street is another worthwhile stop, selling a fantastic selection of both handmade and machine-produced papers and filling custom orders upon request.
It takes three months and the fibers of up to 200 trees to weave a single bashō-fu kimono; an authentic garment, therefore, can fetch up to several million yen, or tens of thousands of dollars.
Kijōka, Okinawa prefecture, northwestern Japan
Bashō-fu, a traditional handwoven cloth once donned by Ryukyu royalty, is made exclusively in Kijōka, a wee village in the Ōgimi district of northern Okinawa. The delicate fibers come from the leaves of the itobasho, a type of wild banana; the harvesting, spinning, natural dyeing, and weaving of the fabric are all done locally. Production has declined in recent years due to both a shortage of itobasho and the ageing out of skilled bashō-fu craftspeople. It takes three months and the fibers of up to 200 trees to weave a single bashō-fu kimono; an authentic garment, therefore, can fetch up to several million yen, or tens of thousands of dollars.
Taira Toshiko, the 98-year-old president of the Kijoka Bashō-fu Preservation Society and one of the folk art’s few remaining practitioners, has worked hard to preserve and revitalize the craft; her daughter-in-law, Mieko Taira, is her appointed successor. Travelers to Okinawa can study the heritage craft at Ōgimi Village Bashō-fu Kaikan, a space purposely built to teach apprentices the art of bashō-fu. Visitors are welcome to observe the production process and may purchase small bashō-fu gifts on site.
Swords and Knives
Seki, Gifu prefecture, central Japan
Seki City in central Japan’s Gifu prefecture, about 50 minutes north of Nagoya, is the best-known knife-making town in Japan. Swordsmiths have been crafting razor-edged weapons here since the Kamakura Era (1185–1330). By the 14th and 15th centuries, there were 300 master swordsmiths working in Seki alone; today you’ll find fewer than 250 spread throughout the entire country, although many are still concentrated here. To become a licensed swordsmith, one must apprentice for four to five years, and even then, the government permits masters to craft no more than two longswords per month as a way to regulate quality and craftsmanship. The cost of a hand-forged sword starts at about 400,000 yen (US$3,500); for budget-conscious travelers, display swords with dulled edges can be purchased for around $100.
To immerse yourself in the city’s long history of swordsmanship, head to the Seki Traditional Swordsmith Museum, which houses galleries of both traditional and modern blades, and hosts monthly forging demonstrations. At Uchizome-shiki, a forging ceremony held annually on January 2, you can observe blacksmiths in traditional white uniforms hammering molten steel into swords using centuries-old techniques.
Not surprisingly, the swordsmithing industry trained its sights on more kitchen-friendly cutlery following World War II. These days, each factory has a specialty: Fujitake is best known for kitchen knives; Marusyo Hasegawa crafts handsome scissors. If you’re interested in touring a factory, plan ahead: Local outfitters like Nagoya Private Guided Tours can organize custom tours of cutlery factories, complete with a Japanese translator.
Many Seki-made knives feature beautiful, pattern-welded Damascus steel and hand-polished handles. Expect to pay $180 and up for an investment piece like an all-purpose Santoku kitchen knife from Mcusta. Seki even hosts an annual knife show and cutlery festival in October with highlights like samurai performances, demos in traditional sword forging, and dozens of knife-makers selling unique stock at discounted prices; 2018 marked its 50th anniversary.
Kumano, Hiroshima prefecture, south-central Japan
For nearly two centuries, the mountain town of Kumano, in Japan’s Hiroshima prefecture, has been the country’s top producer of fude, high-quality, handmade brushes. According to the Japan Times, 80 family-run companies in Kumano dominate 80 percent of Japan’s domestic brush production, which totals some 15 million brushes a year. Of the town’s 27,000 inhabitants, it is estimated that 1,500 are traditional brush-makers, or fude-shi. The town takes its worship of brushes so seriously, in fact, that there is a funeral pyre at the 10th-century Sakakiyama Shrine on which old brushes are ritually cremated during Fude no Matsuri, Kumano’s autumn brush festival.
For travelers eager to brush up on their bristles knowledge, there is Fudenosato Kobo, a museum and working design studio that hosts brush-making demos and workshops. The museum is home to a 12-foot-long, 882-pound calligraphy brush, and its gift shop sells 1,500 styles of fude—including paint brushes and makeup brushes made by 32 Kumano-based companies. Prices start as low as a few dollars, so there’s no excuse to not cart home a couple of handmade souvenirs.
Osaka, Osaka prefecture, south-central Japan
Ask any denim fetishist and they’ll tell you that the world’s best selvedge comes from Japan. Five companies in or near Osaka—dubbed the Osaka 5—are credited with the original revival of Japanese denim, starting with fashion designer Shigeharu Tagaki’s founding of Studio D’Artisan in 1979. With this launch, Tagaki aimed to make authentic reproductions of 1960s-era U.S. denim, the quality of which had gone down the tubes since the introduction of mass manufacturing. Tagaki left the company in the mid-’90s, but he’s still credited with setting the gold standard for Japan’s raw denim. (The rest of the Osaka 5 include the influential brands Evisu, Fullcount & Co., Warehouse & Co., and Denime—although that last one was technically born in Kobe.)
Ask any denim fetishist and they’ll tell you that the world’s best selvedge comes from Japan.
Selvedge hounds planning a trip to Japan today will find no shortage of denim shops to unload their yen. In Osaka, you’ll find flagships for Warehouse Co. and Studio D’Artisan, plus Samurai Jeans, a first stop for buyers of classic “15 oz. straight-cut” denim inspired by Levi’s 501s. (Prices start at 23,800 yen—around $200—and climb well into bankruptcy territory for ultra limited-edition cuts.) Village Authentic Clothing Arc is another go-to, offering selvedge from Fullcount, Pherrow’s, and Mister Freedom x Sugar Cane.
To get even closer to the source, hop two hours west to Kurashiki in the Okayama prefecture, where dozens of family-run indigo and dyeing factories still operate. Here you can peruse the Betty Smith Jeans Museum; tour the 80-year-old Takashiro Senkou indigo dyeing textile factory (where, if you book in advance, you can try your own hand at dyeing); or stroll down Kurashiki’s Kojima Jeans Street, a branded shopping corridor packed with premium denim purveyors (Jeanzoo, Momotaro Jeans, Japan Blue).