Wagasa Maker in Kyoto Shares More Than 300 Years of Tradition
Wagasa are traditional Japanese umbrellas made of washi paper attached to a bamboo frame and treated to ensure it is waterproof. We visited a venerable wagasa maker in Kyoto, which has been creating wagasa for more than 300 years, to learn about the history and characteristics of this traditional Japanese item.
There are various theories as to the origin of wagasa, but it is more or less accepted that their predecessor was the so-called kinugasa, which was brought to Japan from the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century as a type of Buddhist ritual utensil together with Buddhist statues and sutras. At that time, the term “kinugasa” referred to an umbrella or a type of cover, or, in other words, a canopy, which was placed over the head of Buddhist statues. It was not until much later, in the 12th century, that common people began to use umbrellas. Until then, umbrellas were usually held by attendants as they accompanied members of the aristocracy, high priests, and other persons of noble rank.
Nowadays, wagasa are a practical item used to keep away the rain or to provide a shield from the sun, especially when wearing a kimono. Wagasa are also a familiar presence at weddings and other celebratory occasions when kimonos are worn, and they are used by high-ranking Buddhist and Shinto priests at temples and shrines for ceremonies and traditional festivals. Recently, wagasa have found innovative applications, both in Japan and abroad, as interior decoration items, etc.
Tsujikura, the wagasa maker featured in this article, was established in 1690 in Kyoto. Apparently it is the oldest existing wagasa maker in Japan. Ever since its establishment, Tsujikura has consistently used only domestically produced washi, bamboo, and vegetable oils as primary materials. Furthermore, the entire manufacturing process is done by hand. In the past, there was division of labor, but today a single craftsman is in charge of the entire assembly process. The appeal of the Tsujikura brand of umbrellas is their exquisite beauty backed by craftsmanship and tradition. Seven dedicated craftsmen strictly adhere to the traditional methods handed down through the generations. As the saying goes, “Open it and it is an umbrella; close it and it is a bamboo cane,” the wagasa must be crafted to transform back just like a single bamboo cane when closed. The Tsujikura umbrellas are born from this refined handiwork that makes it possible to take a bamboo cane, split it into 40 to 50 pieces and form the frame in such a way that the order of the pieces does not change. As a result, when closed, the Tsujikura wagasa are slender, neat, and beautiful, and when opened, they create a rich and elegantly designed space enclosed by washi paper and bamboo and filled with the ambience of the four seasons of Japan.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for 1,000 years, and as a result it developed culturally as well, providing a conducive environment for the birth of numerous highly skilled traditional crafts. Wagasa was one of them. While remaining a practical item, Kyoto wagasa was refined by the sophisticated spirit of the ancient capital, and evolved into an elegant and perfectly crafted object that can rightfully be called work of art.
“I would like to pass on the beauty of wagasa to the future generations while preserving the traditions and culture," says Kinoshita Motohiro, the head of Tsujikura, Kyoto. In Kyoto, in the so-called hanamachi* districts, many geiko and maiko** still live and work. In fact, they continue to use wagasa as a daily commodity. “The sight of geiko or maiko holding wagasa as they walk down the charming streets of Kyoto is one of the scenes that symbolize the ancient capital’s unique allure. I hope that visitors to Kyoto will be able to savor the city’s unchanged atmosphere of ages past.”
* Hanamachi (also read as kagai, lit. “flower town”) is a district of restaurants where customers can be entertained by geiko and maiko. In Kyoto, there are five famous hanamachi districts, collectively known as Gokagai.
** Geiko and maiko are professional entertainers who live and work in a hanamachi district. Their role is to enliven banquets by performing traditional dances and playing Japanese instruments. Maiko are geiko apprentices. Geiko and maiko dress quite differently and have distinctive hairstyles. Maiko wear kimonos with long furisode sleeves. Geiko wear wigs, while maiko style their own hair into elaborate arrangements.