The attractions that draw some 50 million tourists to Kyoto every year—the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the cobblestone streets with old wooden buildings housing shops that sell samurai swords and kimonos, the glimpses of clip-clopping geishas—are exactly what kept me from returning to this ancient capital for a long time after my first visit. I just don’t like dead places, and Kyoto seemed to be moving toward a Venice-style moribundity, superficially alive for tourists but losing its local soul.
But in recent years, I had heard, some of Kyoto’s historic crafts such as bonsai, natural fabric dyeing, paper-making, glassblowing, and silk weaving were thriving in new forms, reinvigorated by people who had entered these fields not merely out of fealty to centuries-old family traditions. These artisans were not content to repackage stale offerings for foreign tastes but were reinventing products and creating new designs that appeal to top fashion designers, artists, interior decorators, and stylists both in Japan and all over the world. Perhaps they could convince me that there is life in Kyoto yet.
KAIKADO, HOSOO, AND JAPAN HANDMADE
“My father didn’t want to take over this business,” says Takahiro Yagi. “But he had no choice.” Yagi is a sixth-generation member of a family of craftsmen who have made Kaikado brand tea leaf caddies since 1875. Before the advent of the tin tea caddy, merchants had to carry leaves in enormous and weighty earthenware or pewter vessels to keep them dry. But with the opening of Japan to the world in 1875, tin imports were allowed, and the Kaikado business was born.
That century-old caddy would not have been much different from one made at Kaikado today. “There are 130 steps involved in making each piece,” Yagi tells me, “and the process today is 99 percent the same as it was 140 years ago.” We walk outside to the adjacent workshop, and on the way Yagi points to the ground and says, “During World War II, the government stopped us from manufacturing. They wanted to confiscate all our tools, but my grandfather buried them.” As we enter the workshop I expect to find a contingent of ancient workmen huddled over those century-old tools. Instead, there are four young women and four young men, almost all of them under 30, soldering, shaping, and sealing the tea caddies. There is one older man, and he immediately gets up from his stool to talk with us.
“I had to do this every night when I was young, after I came home from school,” he says. The speaker is Seiji Yagi, Takahiro’s father. “My parents would tell me that I could only go out and play baseball if I finished my day’s work. I never wanted to do that to my son. It had to be his choice to join the business.”
Takahiro tells me that he initially planned to opt out, and that his father would then have been the last of five generations of Kaikado craftsmen. Takahiro studied English at the university and then went to work for a Kyoto company that made souvenirs for foreigners. Observing visitors’ appetites for Japanese products—even those of mere trinket caliber—he saw an opening for Kaikado. He told his father he wanted to join the family business and expand it into the overseas market. His father thought the idea was absurd. “Foreign people will never buy our stuff,” he said.
The “Kyoto Five” of Japan Handmade became six with the addition of a 15th-generation creator of ceramic vessels for tea ceremonies. They presented their works at shows in Shanghai and Paris, as well as Milan. Hosoo has made one-off custom weaves for American artist Teresita Fernandez, and Kaikado was commissioned by British fashion designer Margaret Howell to create a tea set now sold in her London boutiques. The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto enlisted Yagi and other members of Japan Handmade to create an art installation at the Pace Gallery in New York.
As Takahiro walks me through the manufacturing process of a tea caddy, we pause at the most critical step—adjusting the lid so that it closes by itself, just from the force of gravity. He kneels down and goes to work with a tiny ball-peen hammer. “This tool is 80 years old,” he says. “Even after I had worked here for years, I still had to pass each caddy I finished to my father so that he could tell me to loosen or tighten the lid. It’s incredibly delicate work, and it can only be done by feel.” He adjusts the lid, waits for it to drop, and then taps it gently with his hammer to shape the seal and change the tension. “Now our new craftsmen come to me to tell them whether it needs to be looser or tighter.”
The route to Re:planter, through narrow, nondescript, residential back alleys, confuses both my taxi driver and my GPS. After much rolling down of the window and polite requests to passersby, we finally reach a point where the taxi can go no farther. I get out in front of an apartment house built in a style that is roughly the Japanese equivalent of Stalinist-era architecture, so brutally blocky and bland as to be almost beautiful. The alleyway, though, is decorated with all kinds of big potted plants. Bright green stalks and budding flowers stretch out into the street, making me feel as if I am entering a wild, sacred place. My destination turns out to be an alien-looking greenhouse-workshop cobbled together out of cinder block, wood, and plastic sheeting, with a tiny footprint but a very tall doorway, adjacent to the faceless apartment building.
The wooden door slides open, and Murase Takaaki, a thin man in a long-sleeved maroon shirt and sneakers, greets me politely and beckons me inside. Hanging all around him, creating a kind of obstacle course, are the reasons I’ve come to see Takaaki: glass orbs chained to the ceiling, each containing a micro ecosystem, with a small LED bulb at the top, a wild-looking bonsai at the center, and an array of moss and water at the bottom.
Takaaki calls each glass ball a SpaceColony. “I’m studying how life grows and develops on a very small scale,” he says. “I want to see how we can create these worlds that sustain themselves.” He shows me one of the projects he was working on earlier in the day, a kind of aquarium with tiny fish circling a stand of bright green plant shoots. “I haven’t changed this water since I built this a few weeks ago,” he says. “The plants feed the fish. The LED feeds the plants. And there’s no need for us to do anything for all of this to live and grow.” Takaaki makes his work sound like a science project, but it is also supremely, uniquely beautiful. His pieces can be found in a few select bars and restaurants in Kyoto and elsewhere in the Kansai region, and in Tokyo they are sold at a high-end boutique for hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on their size and intricacy.
He shows me the booty from his latest shopping spree: a shelf full of scraggly potted houseplants that he purchased at a Japanese equivalent of Home Depot—for half price, because they were barely clinging to life. “I rescue them,” he says. A kind of atonement for his bonsai failures as a toddler, I think. “These struggling plants have a more interesting shape, to me, than the perfect ones.”
Takaaki trained as a carpenter and built furniture for five years before starting Re:planter in 2012. He can construct almost anything by hand, and he uses mostly foraged, salvaged, and repurposed materials, riding his bicycle up into the nearby hills to collect moss for his terrariums. In an instance of Kyoto crafts crossover, he uses Kaikado containers to store his dirt and sand. The giant glass orbs in his pieces are lightbulb enclosures from ships or streetlights. Inside them, he grows, arranges, and prunes the plants to look like a self-contained little world.
There is one kind of gardening prevalent in Kyoto, found in perfectly manicured spreads such as temple grounds where no stem is left unclipped or uncontemplated. And then there is the kind of garden just outside Takaaki’s door and inside his space colonies, cultivated patches intentionally allowed to grow wild. Takaaki sometimes opens up his studio to the people on his street so they can catch a glimpse of what he labors over day and night. “When they see my work, they understand what I’m doing,” he says. “Nature is very close in Kyoto.”
The first thing that greets me when I climb a steep flight of stairs to Tezomeya’s workshop is the sharp smell of something distinctly fishy. I turn to my companion, Jon Lukacek, an American who works with Tezomeya’s master dyer and owner, Masaaki Aoki. “It’s sea snail,” Lukacek says. “Tyrian sea snails make a wonderful purple dye.” On one side of the second-floor space is Tezomeya’s retail shop—a few rows of T-shirts and other mostly cotton garments dyed in a variety of subdued yet complicated colors—pastel red, tea green, ash, cherry blossom. On the other side is Aoki’s workshop. As we enter, Aoki stands in front of a whiteboard pondering a chemical formula.
“Remove this one element and you have indigo,” he says, pointing to a symbol on the board. “Leave it and you get red.” As we talk about his work, Aoki assembles his supplies for the day: bayberry tree bark, palm tree nuts, and galls, plant growths formed by insects as places to store nutrients. “Almost all of my materials come from kampo,” he says, using the Japanese word for Chinese medicine. “I buy them from traders who specialize in it.”
Aoki walks past the tools of his trade—two household washing machines stained dark blue on the inside, giant steel pots atop commercial kitchen gas burners of the sort used in ramen shops, a scale and a computer on a wooden table—and approaches a large bookshelf. He pulls down a volume. “This is a reprint of a law book called the Engishiki, from 927 A.D.,” he says. “It’s a kind of government rule book that lays out all the regulations for society in the Heian period. Half of it concerns who can wear what colors and styles. The chapters I base my work on lay out the recipes for the 34 permitted colors.” In 10th-century Japan, what you wore showed how you fit into the rigid social hierarchy. Clothes—and their colors—were concerns of the government, not just of garment makers.
“The problem is that this old book only lists the materials used to produce particular colors,” Aoki explains. “There’s no mention of time or technique. So I have to figure out how long to soak and how to extract the color to get what I want.”
“Why go back to the way people dyed things a thousand years ago?” I ask.
“I love the colors that are produced using these ancient methods,” he says. “Pieces that might be many hundreds of years old, their colors are still so bright and alive. It’s impossible to get colors like that with chemical dyes.”
As he talks, Aoki puts three dye elements—insect gall, bayberry tree bark, and areca palm nut—into three large pots of boiling water. He studied medical science and chemistry in college, he explains, then moved to Kyoto to work as an engineer for one of Japan’s largest underwear manufacturers. He had always been interested in clothing and had grown up loving 1970s American hard rock and the aesthetic that went with it. “The foundational material in casual American fashion is cotton,” he says. His fascination with the vibrant colors of ancient clothing inspired him to think about how to incorporate them into the cotton wear that he had grown up with.
A project at the underwear company provided a connection at the Textile Research Institute and the next step in Aoki’s career. He left his corporate job and apprenticed with a dyer in Nara who was doing things the old way. At first, he was struck by how little his teacher understood about science. “He was a master craftsman but knew nothing about the chemistry behind what he was doing,” Aoki says. “But the dyers in the Heian period also knew nothing about chemistry. It was a mysterious sort of endeavor for them.”
Although he thought of himself as a man of science, Aoki began to appreciate other aspects of the dye craft. “If I reduce everything to science, then I miss out on the cultural and historical significance of these colors and these processes,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I disregard science. I keep meticulous records of everything I do so I can understand what ingredients or techniques yield which colors.”
By now the air in the workshop is thick with the raw, musky smell of the galls, the woody odor of bark, and something still lingering from the sea snails. The dyes are ready for the T-shirts, which are off-white and rough in texture. “I get the cotton from a mill in New Mexico,” Aoki says. “It was the most organic, unadulterated product I could find in the world.” He sends the cotton thread to a factory in nearby Miyazu City, where the shirts are woven on an old-style machine called a loop-wheeler, which produces a cylindrical garment that is believed to fit better and last longer than a side-seamed shirt. Companies like Nike have teamed up with Japanese manufacturers to make expensive special-edition sweatshirts on loop-wheeler machines.
Aoki gingerly immerses the shirts in the vats of dye, explaining that this natural process was originally used exclusively for silk. “I think I’m the only person in Kyoto doing this,” he says. “And I’m one of only a few in all of Japan. All the kimono makers and artists here in Kyoto now use chemical dyes. Most have for a long time.” Aoki’s Tezomeya brand, launched 13 years ago, has yet to break into the mainstream either in Japan or abroad, largely because Aoki sells only in his own shop and online. He is more concerned with process than profit.
As he plucks out a deep purple T-shirt, I’m struck by the fact that in this city of craftsmen, the only one keeping alive a technique that was used to dye the kimonos of ancient Japan is using that method to produce some of the most beautifully colored, casual cotton T-shirts I’ve ever seen. “I was drawn to finding something that had been overlooked,” Aoki says. “I want to know how now connects to the past. We lose something profound if we don’t look back.”
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