As the centre of trade between Japan and the Silk Road, Nara was first to receive new ideas from overseas, sending emissaries and inviting some of the best craftsmen from Tang dynasty China and Korea’s Baekje kingdom. Buddhism also spurred innovation, from the cloth for priests’ garments to the calligraphy brushes, paper and inks used for copying Buddhist sutras.
The smooth, handmade paper from the Yoshino area has been prized by calligraphers for its texture and strength for 1,300 years. Tanishima Seishindo makes original gifts such as fans and covered boxes from Yoshino Washi, decorated with seasonal motifs.
The Fukunishi family in Yoshino have been making washi paper for six generations and are the official washi paper suppliers to Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, The Smithsonian and The British Library. Their hand crafted papers are valued by art restorers around the world.
Apparently, the famous 9th-century monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi), who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Nara from China, also brought back the techniques for making calligraphy brushes. Made of a blend of up to ten different types of animal hair, the brushes are known for their flexibility, essential for writing the rounded strokes of Japanese kana characters.
Isshindo is one of Nara’s best known calligraphy shops, but also welcomes the non-professional. In addition to brushes, they have decorative ink stones and writing papers. To see the brush-making process, visit Nara Brush Tanaka, a family of brush makers that preserve the traditional skills.
The traditional ink sticks of Nara, pressed into elaborate designs, have been celebrated by calligraphers since the the Muromachi period, when soot was collected from the ceilings of Kohfukuji Temple. Ink was also used by the vast bureaucracy of the nation’s first capital.
Nara still produces 90% of the ink in Japan. Kobaien in Naramachi is one of the oldest brands, using the same techniques since 1577. The author Natsume Soseki once summed up the relationship between Nara and sumi in a haiku, which roughly translates as: “A whiff of sumi / In the old city of Nara / at Kobaien."
Ittobori means “one knife carving”. Skilled carvers use just a chisel to make wooden dolls and figures with satisfying facets and edges. The figures originated in the Kamakura period, for use in festivals at Kasugataisha shrine. Traditional themes include Noh figures and animals. You can find pieces with a modern twist at Nippon Ichi.
During the Nara period, finely woven hemp cloth or narazarashi, was mainly used for monks’ robes and as an under layer for soldiers’ armour. Smooth and absorbent but breathable, it is the perfect fabric to keep cool in humid Japanese summers.
In the early Edo period, production boomed and Nara became busy with fabric mills like Yu Nakagawa, which has just celebrated 300 years in business. At their Naramachi store, you can see the old spinning wheels and looms and even try making some fabric (prior reservation required).
This distinctive pottery gets its name and colour from the iron-rich red clay of Mt. Akahada near Gojo. Documented since 1573, the style is a key folk art of the area. The style is simple, with cream glaze over red slip, hand painted with Nara motifs. Used in traditional tea ceremonies and fashionable restaurants, you can buy pieces at most souvenir shops and the Nara Craft Museum.
The Gassan family of sword makers started making swords 800 years ago for the monks who practiced Shugendo mountain asceticism, who needed them for protection from wild animals (and possibly bandits).
The family started in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan but moved to Sakurai in Nara. The current master, Sadatoshi Gassan creates a distinctive “ayasugi” pattern on the steel, which gives the blades a fine texture, like woodgrain.
Tea whisks or chasen, made of a single piece of bamboo finely cut into a whisk, are essential to create light, frothy matcha tea. The bamboo forests of Takayama have been supplying Japan with tea whisks for over 500 years, and the area has several traditional workshops open to the public.
Mr. Tanimura is a 20th generation chasen (tea whisk) maker, supplying tea masters across Japan and the world with his handmade whisks. At his studio, he welcomes visitors who want to know more about chasen and offers workshops in English with advance notice.
Traditional Crafts on Display
At the Nara Craft Museum you can learn about the traditional crafts that have been perfected in the region, many dating back to the Nara period. After listening to the clear explanations of superior examples of each craft, you can visit the museum shop which stocks pieces by local craftspeople who are experts in their fields.