Thursday, October 1, 2009

Japanese Artisans

This is another in my series of blogs about Kyoto. My August trip focused more on culture and people than on places and travel. Here's my mini-guide to the artisans of Kyoto.

First a bit about finding shops in Kyoto. In my quest for a lacquerware shop called Monju in the Gion (Geisha) region of eastern Kyoto, I needed to decode the address Hanami-koji Higashi-iru Minami-gawa, Shijo-dori, Higashiyama-ku.

Kyoto's addresses are purposely confusing. When Kyoto was the capital, addresses were designed to protect the emperor and his extended staff by obscuring the locations of buildings.

Here's a key:
Shi means city
Ku means ward within a city
Gun means municipality within a ward
Cho means town within a municipality
Mura means village
Dori means street
Kado means corner
Agaru means go to North
Sagaru means go to South
Higashi-iru means go to East
Nishi-iru means go to West
Kawa/gawa means river
Omotesando means shopping street

The system works by naming the intersection of two streets and then indicating if the address is north, south, east or west of the intersection. What this means is that a building can have more than one address depending on which intersection is chosen.

The official address to Kyoto Tower is Higashi-Shiokōji 721-1, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 600-8216

However, the informal address to Kyoto Tower, as given on its website is Karasuma-Shichijō-sagaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu which means "south of the intersection of Karasuma and Shichijō streets.

So, the address of the Monju lacquerware shop means go to the corner of Hanamikoji and Shijo streets, then go East and wander around the block bounded by the former path of the Minami river (which now travels underground). I asked the local police station (Koban) and numerous shopkeepers. They had never heard of Monju and I did find an empty store front in a back alley off Shijo-dori. I presume it went out of business. I can recommend Urushi Art Lacquerware, manufacturer and wholesaler of Kyoto-style lacquer ware, which is located south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace at 637 Heinouchi-cho, Takakura Nishiiru, Takeyamachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku.

Other hints about finding your way around Kyoto :

The order of street names can be changed
Shijo dori Higashioji Nishi-iru
Higashioji dori Shijo Nishi-iru

The street names may be aliased
Shijodori Higashioji Nishi-iru
Shijodori Higashiyama Nishi-iru
Higashiyama dori is an alias of Higashioji dori

Compass directions can be combined
Higashi-iru agaru Kawaramachi dori Shijo dori

In fact, many shops are in alleyways or side streets and not on the main streets listed. When looking for an incense shop in Northwest Kyoto, my wife and I went to the general area and then followed the sweet smell of burning Aloeswood up a sidestreet for two blocks to find the shop.

Here are our favorite Japanese artisan shops:

Brooms - Americans may not think of brooms as a work of art. The Japanese weave natural materials into beautiful brooms that last for decades. The most amazing hand woven brooms in Kyoto are available at Naito on the west side of the Sanjo-dori bridge. We bought a broom and carried it back to the US. Carrying a broom around Japan definitely caused a few odd looks.

Fans - The Japanese make remarkable fans, decorated with finely detailed artwork. Although most people in Kyoto use free fans imprinted with advertisements, given away at train stations on the streets, the Geisha/Maiko and those wishing to experience Japanese traditional arts still purchase fans made by artisans. In Kyoto, I found a great fan shop, Miyawaki Baisen-an located at Tominokoji Nishi-iru, Rokkaku-dori, Nakagyo-ku.

Combs - In Japan, a woman's hair is considered one of the most important aspects of her appearance. Japanese women do no generally wear "bling" but they will add a finely crafted comb to their hair. Some of the most beautiful combs are available at Jusanya located at Otabi-cho, Shin-kyogoku Higashi-iru, Shijo-dori, Shimogyo-ku.

Washi paper - Japanese paper made from mulberry bark has great texture and natural character. The paper itself is a often a gift in itself. You'll find great washi paper at Morita Wagami located at Bukko-ji agaru, Higashi-no-toin-dori, Shimogyo-ku.

Chopsticks (Hashi) - Although Americans may think of chopsticks as simple throwaways, finely crafted chopsticks are a distinctive part of Japanense meal at fine restaurants and at home. When we travel, we carry our own folding chopsticks with us (saves trees) and at home we use beautiful handmade tiger bamboo chopsticks from Ichihara Heibei Shoten located at Sakai-machi, Shijo-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku.

Metalwork - Wonderful traditional and modern Japanese metalwork such as sake warming vessels are available at Seika-do located at Nijo-sagaru, Teramachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku. The owner, Mr. Yamanaka speaks English and is a wonderful teacher about Japanese metal artistry.

Ceramics - The Japanese make many styles of ceramics, often specific to the clays of a town or region. My favorite ceramics are the blue and white pottery sold by the shops in southeastern Kyoto near the Kiyomizu temple such as Asahi-do or Rakish-en.

Bamboo - Bamboo is an incredibly versatile material, used for fine Japanese flutes (such as the Shakuhachi I play), baskets for flowercraft (ikebana), and hundreds of household objects. The best store for bamboo craft is Kagoshin located at Shichi-ken-cho, Ohasi-higashi 4-chome, Sanjo-dori, Higashiyama-ku.

I hope you enjoy the journey to find these places at much as I did. Not only is it culturally enriching, it's good for you. I lost 5 pounds walking the streets of Kyoto and exploring its alleyways in search of the finest examples of Japanese traditional arts.


Kristen said...

I love Kyoto as well! When I was in college, a geography professor sent us on an assignment that took us on a trek from Yasaka-jinja at the end of Shijo-dori up to Kiyomizu-dera through a series of back alleys. It was one of the most fascinating walks I have ever taken, full of those interesting shops you mentioned. And it's still one I take now when I have chance to go back there, some 15 years later. Thanks for writing about your trip - I enjoy reading it.

Mallory said...

Thank you! You saved us at least 30 minutes if wandering around Gion searching for this store. Thanks to your post, we can now get on with our evening - short one lacquerware bowl, but happy we haven't lost our sense of direction.

David Calhoun said...

I've been slowly going through the Old Kyoto book and compiling them into a list on Foursquare, which should make it easier for folks.

However, some traditional shops such as this one seem to have gone out of business. :(