There are 230 officially recognized traditional crafts and hundreds more that aren’t. From lacquerware to porcelains to textiles, interest in these traditional crafts increase as the number of tourists rise.
Of these crafts that represent the beauty and craftsmanship of Japan, let’s take a closer look at a few from the Kyūshū region: Hakata-ori, Imari/Arita-yaki, Nagasaki Bekko, Beppu bamboo working, Miyakonojō Longbow, and Satsuma-yaki pottery.
About Japanese Traditional Crafts
“Traditional crafts” is a general term referring to skills or products that have been passed down and loved through the ages in a particular region.
When a craft meets a certain a number of criteria, such as being an everyday household item or being predominantly hand-made, the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry may officially recognize it as a traditional craft. As of November 2018, there are 232 officially recognized traditional crafts.
Traditional Crafts in Kyūshū
View of Nagasaki’s Kujūku Islands
There are currently 21 traditional crafts from Kyūshū of various types, including pottery, textiles, and gold work. The rich, abundant natural resources and the distance from the main island of Honshū led the traditional crafts of Kyūshū to develop separately and distinctly. Much of the culture and techniques here have been heavily influenced by its history, especially in Nagasaki, which was the only port where foreign trade was allowed during the Sakoku(Isolationist) period.
Hakata-ori Textiles – Fukuoka Prefecture
Hakata-ori is a traditional textile craft that originates in the Hakata region of Fukuoka prefecture.
Colorful Hakata-ori textiles
The history of Hakata-ori
Its history traces back to the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333 AD) when a Hakata merchant, Mitsuda Yazaemon, traveled to China during the Song Dynasty to learn the country's culture and techniques. He studied textile-making, gold leaf, and other techniques for six years before returning to Hakata.
After returning to Hakata, Yazaemon mixed gold and silver with thread to create an extravagant fabric in the karaori (Chinese weave) style. This technique would be passed on through his family for generations. Around the time the base for Hakata-ori was nearing completion, Yazaemon’s descendant, Mitsuda Hikosaburo, went to Ming dynasty China to learn more about textile weaving.
Upon his return to Japan, Hikosaburo, along with some friends, made improvements to the techniques he learned, and created the Hakata-ori style that would continue for centuries. In other words, the Hakata-ori style came to be because of the Mitsuda family.
The durable fabric was loved even by the shogunate
The vivid coloring and durable fabric was widely acclaimed, and in the Edo period(1603 - 1868) Kenjo Hakata-ori was created as offerings to the shogunate. The high quality fabric was then passed down throughout generations, and is now recognized as one of Japan's most famous textiles.
At the time, common people were not permitted to wear Hakata-ori because of the regulations in place concerning the history of the offering to the shogunate. However, as the Kuroda family of the Fukuoka domain gained power and the times moved towards the end of shogunate rule, the regulations lessened and Hakata-ori become much more common. It became a traditional craft that Hakata can take pride in, and that everyone can enjoy regardless of social statuses.
The techniques and characteristics of Hakata-ori
The bright colors are one of its charms
A characteristic of Hakata-ori is that it uses many warps. Warps are the vertical threads that are woven in through the fabric.
By using more vertical threads and weaving them carefully, a 3D quality is created in the fabric. The additional threads also add strength and durability to the fabric. The durability made it a popular obi(belt/sash) choice for warriors in past centuries. Today, it is often used by sumo wrestlers for their mawashi belts.
Another characteristic of the Hakata-ori is its vivid colors. Colorful raw silk threads, lacquer-coated threads, and gold and silver foil are woven together to create the splendid designs.
Imari/Arita-yaki Porcelain – Saga Prefecture
Imari-yaki is famous for its brilliant colors
The history of Imari/Arita-yaki
Porcelain Hina dolls at the Arita Ceramic Hina Festival
The Imari-yaki and Arita-yaki are traditional porcelain crafts that originated in the town of Arita in the western region of Saga prefecture.
The history of the two crafts begin in the Edo period, when the raw stone material for making porcelain was discovered by Yi Sam-pyeong. He was order by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to come to Japan because of the Imjin War with Korea. The raw stone material turned into what became Japan's first white porcelain. At the time, thick and sturdy porcelain was used instead of the vivid coloring that Imari and Arita-yaki showcase.
The characteristics of Imari/Arita-yaki
Small Arita-yaki bowls
There is no particular difference between Imari-yaki and Arita-yaki porcelain. The name of Arita-yaki comes from Arita town, in which the porcelain ware is made. Then the finished porcelain was shipped out to the world from Imari port, which led to it also being called Imari-yaki.
The Nabeshima Kiln Bridge in Okawachiyama, Imari
Though it started out as a thick, plain white porcelain, Imari/Arita-yaki is now known as a fine porcelain with bright coloring, especially its reds and indigos.
This colorful ornamental style is called the Kakiemon style after its founder Sakaida Kakiemon. He was a potter in the Edo period, and the first to use overglaze enamel to decorate the porcelain. Its beauty has even influenced Meissen, one of the most famous porcelain manufacturers from Europe.
Arita-yaki/Imari-yaki yunomi teacups
Two qualities of porcelain are said to be its thinness and light weight. Baked at 1,300°C for over 17 hours, Arita-yaki is also extremely hard and durable. Its smooth surface is another defining characteristic of Arita-yaki.
Nagasaki Bekko – Nagasaki Prefecture
The history of Nagasaki Bekko
Nagasaki Bekko is a traditional tortoiseshell craft made in the cities of Nagasaki and Isahaya.
During the Edo period, Japan had a policy of isolationism and trade with foreign countries was forbidden. Bekko is made from the shells of hawksbill sea turtle, but was difficult to obtain in Japan because the sea turtles mainly live near the equator. However, in Nagasaki, where trade was allowed, tortoise shells were imported from Portuguese and Spanish ships and started bekko production. It is one of the unique aspects of Nagasaki culture that was greatly influenced by the city’s history.
In those times, bekko was a highly valued item used for celebrating longevity, making it popular among the wealthy daimyo class. Mostly hairpins and combs had been in circulation, but as Japan opened its ports and foreigners began to settle, a variety of tortoiseshell accessories were produced to meet the demand.
The characteristics of Nagasaki Bekko
Bekko hairpin and comb
A characteristic of Nagasaki Bekko is the precise and polished technique needed to make it. Those skills are needed to make delicate items, like hairpins, and larger pieces, for ships. The history and technique were recognized in 2017, and was officially approved as a traditional craft by the country.
The trading of the hawksbill sea turtle and its products is now prohibited by the Washington Convention to protect the endangered species. This casted a shadow on bekko production, making bekko pieces rarer than ever.
Beppu Bamboo Working – Oita Prefecture
Beppu bamboo working craft
The history of Beppu bamboo working
Beppu Takezaiku, or bamboo working, is a traditional craft made in Beppu city that represents Oita prefecture. Oita has been known as a major resource for madake giant timber bamboo and bamboo grass for centuries. In the Nihon Shoki(Chronicles of Japan), which was completed in the Nara period (AD 710 - 794), it was recorded that high-quality bamboo grass was collected when Emperor Keikō visited Beppu. The bamboo grass was used to make a basket to hold rice bowls, and this is said to be the beginning of Beppu bamboo working.
A specialty item, the Beppu bamboo wind chime
In the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573), baskets production began for peddlers to hold their wares, and the market for Beppu bamboo work expanded greatly.
Entering the Edo period, tourism increased as Oita’s famed ”Beppu Onsen” hot springs became widely recognized. Accordingly, the production of baskets for inns, souvenirs, and daily use increased, and Beppu bamboo works’ position became absolute.
Part of the bamboo working process
Bamboo declined as plastic products entered the market, but it has survived because of the acknowledged high quality and skill needed for the production. In 1967, Shōno Shōunsai became the first bamboo craftsman to be chosen as a Living National Treasure. Afterward, Beppu bamboo working was officially approved as a traditional craft by the country.
The characteristics of Beppu bamboo working
Different weaving styles in a Beppu bamboo work
The most important characteristic of Beppu bamboo working is the many different ways to weave the bamboo. There are eight basic styles which can be mixed and matched to create a bamboo work: square plaiting, hexagonal plaiting, octagonal plaiting, twill plaiting, mat plaiting, pine needle plaiting, chrysanthemum base plaiting, and circular plaiting.
There are over 200 combinations of these styles. Each weaving style serves a different purpose in making traditional items, like flower, rice baskets, and everyday baskets and bags.
Miyakonojō Longbow – Miyazaki Prefecture
Beautiful longbows (stock photo)
The history of the Miyakonojō Longbow
The Miyakonojō longbow is a bamboo work that represents Miyazaki prefecture and the entire Kyūshū region. Like Ōita prefecture, Miyazaki has long been a major source of bamboo, but there are no records of the longbow’s origin, so the start of its production is unknown.
There are, however, records of the longbow in a book called the ”Shōnai Chirishi” (Shōnai Geographical History) that was assembled during the Edo period.
The technique was passed down continuously for many generations, and today almost all the longbows used in Japan are made in Miyakonojō. This history has had an effect on the culture here as well. Every year, the Miyakonojō Bow Festival National Archery competition is held in the city. The region is well-noted for its role in the development of Japanese Archery.
Characteristics of the Miyakonojō Longbow
The main characteristic of the Miyakonojō longbow is its length at over 2 meters. The stability of the bow gives it both great distance and accuracy. The deer hide used at the grip and the beautiful curve of the limbs are part of what makes this elegant craft known all over Japan.
Satsuma-yaki Pottery – Kagoshima Prefecture
The history of Satsuma-yaki pottery
The Satsuma-yaki pottery ware of Kagoshima prefecture is well-known throughout Japan. Its history begins when Shimazu Yoshihiro, the head of the Satsuma clan, brought potters from Korea with him after Japan invaded Korea in the late 16th century. The pottery, Satsuma-yaki, was made by the Korean potters, and therefore, was heavily influenced by Korean culture.
Characteristics of Satsuma-yaki pottery
Kuromon Satsuma-yaki teapot
Satsuma-yaki can be largely divided into two types, black(Kuromon) and white(Shiromon).
A characteristic of the white Satsuma-yaki is the little cracks all over the surface. A transparent overglaze is used, which creates distinct colors, and many decorations and ornaments are made in this style.
On the other hand, black Satsuma-yaki is used mainly for sake bottles and teapots. It has long been popular among the common people and even used to drink shōchū.
Satsuma-yaki climbing kiln
Originally, there had been six major distinctly-styled kilns: the Tateno school, Ryumonji school, Naeshirogawa school, Nishikida school, Hirasa school, and Tanegashima school. Now, only three schools remain: the Tateno and Naeshirogawa schools, which make Shiromon Satsuma-yaki, and the Ryumonji school, which makes Kuromon Satsuma-yaki.
The Charming Traditional Crafts of Kyūshū
That was six of the 21 traditional crafts registered in the Kyushu region. First, there was one of the top three textiles in Japan ”Hakata-ori, ” then, the ”Imari/Arita-yaki”, which even influenced a major European manufacturer, the ”Nagasaki Bekkō” craft made with precision and polished skills, the ”Beppu bamboo working”, which started in the Nara period, the ”Miyakonojō longbow” used all over the country, and the ”Satsuma-yaki” with its Korean roots. Each of these traditional crafts has a strong historical background unique to Kyushu, and continue their tradition today.
Any of them is sure to make an incredible souvenir from a trip to Kyushu.