Crafts through generations
There are many wonders in Japan: temples, gardens, food and sake. But there is one thing that has been always fascinating me: the continuity of craft, the ability of Japanese craftsmen to pass the skills, traditions and spirit of their businesses through generations.
You can see it everywhere. There are plenty of sake breweries managed by the same family for hundreds and hundreds of years. I stayed at a few ryokan, which again were owned and managed by the same family for generations. There are generations of blacksmiths, potters, sweets makers and so on. And it’s really amazing that a lot of these crafts are still around.
The evidence of it was Edo Tokyo Kirari, which took place in January in London. Interestingly, you can see more and more Japanese-related festivals, lectures, art exhibitions, performances and many other events happening in the UK recently. The 2020 Olympics is one of the reasons but it’s also a general surge of interest in Japan. Probably, it’s a generation thing as the current twenty- and thirtysomethings were brought up on anime and manga and more receptive and interested in Japan.
Edo Tokyo Kirari
Edo Tokyo Kirari is a project to introduce amazing Tokyo crafts to a wider audience. The businesses selected for the project and divided into three categories, Food, Life and Fashion, usually count more than 100 years of history. Hence Edo, which is the old name of Tokyo symbolising the continuity of these artisan crafts, the concept of “old meets new”.
The event was organised by the Embassy of Japan and had two parts: official speeches and lectures and the exhibition of the craftsmen and their products. The lectures included two talks from SOAS academics, Dr Jenny Preston and Dr Monika Hinkel as well as a short but funny presentation from Rie Yoshitake from Sake Samurai about sake culture during the Edo period.
Shokunin’s virtues and Edo crafts history
The lectures were about the place and importance of artisans in Japan since the early medieval times until now. For example, images of craftsmen in scrolls and paintings usually symbolised the positive forces of Japanese society, especially during turbulent times in history.
It’s quite interesting that the word “shokunin”, which usually translated as “artisan” or “craftsman” in European languages, has a much wider meaning in Japanese. It’s not just mastering of the craft and technical skills but also a feeling of social responsibility and a kind of obligation to work for the benefit of the society. You can read a bit more about it in Wikipedia.
A lot of crafts were historically concentrated in big cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and of course in Tokyo, which old name was Edo. When Ieyasu Tokugawa finally unified and pacified Japan after 150 years of the Warring States period and made Edo its capital, the city became a real hub of crafts in Japan.
In any case, we all were properly conditioned after the official part and when the doors to the exhibition room opened, everyone strode to the back of the room, where the stall with sake was strategically placed. Toshimaya Honten brewery was represented by its president, Toshiyuki Yoshimura.
Tokyo is not famous for its sake so it was very interesting to try the sake from the capital of Japan. Furthermore, the Toshimaya brewery is one of the oldest in the country tracing its history from 1596, when Toshimaya Juemon opened a sake shop at Kamakura Waterfront in central Edo.
While you can read more about Toshimaya Honten in my recent post here, I will give you a quick rundown of what I saw and tried at the Edo Tokyo Kirari.
Yamamoto Noriten (nori seaweed)
Nori seaweed is one of my favourite snacks. Light, salty and full of umami, they go particularly well with junmai sake. They have so many flavours in addition to the natural taste. Definitely a healthier option compared to crisps or other snacks. More evidence of the healthiness of nori snacks on Yamamoto Noriten website.
Eitaro Sohonpo (traditional Edo sweets)
The Eitaro Sohonpo confectionery shop was founded more than 200 years ago in 1818. Located near iconic Nihonbashi they make traditional Japanese sweets, which reminded me of my childhood (not that I was raised in Edo period Japan, but the taste was very familiar).
The company makes mochi cakes, round kintsuba (sweet bean paste cakes), candies and seasonal products.
Their second brand, Ameya Entaro, is a syrop candy made from special sugar and Nanban sweets. It tasted a bit like honey and was very pleasant.
Established in 1834, Sembikiya is an upmarket fruit shop with its flagship store located near Nihonbashi. The company made amazing fruit jelly, which is so soft and delicate, that you can’t help wanting more. We had a grape jelly and it had two skinned grapes inside, which were really delicious!
The Life category presented seven brands in this category at Edo Tokyo Kirari: knives by Ubukeya, noren (partition curtains) by Nakamura, Edo kiriko (cut glass) by Hanasho, sake glassware by Kimoto Glass Tokyo, kamon (family crest design) by Kyogen, ukiyoe ( woodblock printing) by Takashi Kobo and watches by Seiko.
Seiko looks like an odd-out here, but the company started as a watch shop in Edo, therefore they technically present craft here. Knives looked interesting but I didn’t get much chance to look at their stand properly.
Kimoto Glass Tokyo
Wow! I loved their glasses. The company president, Seiichi Kimoto, presented glasses basically for each type of sake. They all look beautiful. The Hana glass, made for junmai daiginjo, was particularly impressive. It had a very unusual shape to capture the fruity aroma of junmai daiginjo sake. It was very pleasant to hold and I am sure very nice to drink from. Shame, we couldn’t.
Hanashyo – Edo kiriko (cut glass)
Edo kiriko, or cut glass, is a manufacturing method in which clear colours and delicate patterns are cut into the glass. It started in Edo in 1834 in one glassware store and then spread throughout Edo. The glass is really beautiful and usually very expensive given the efforts put into making a single product.
Hanashyo craftsmen widely use a traditional design but also devise their own patterns. A lot of work is still made by hand.
Kyogen – Kamon (family crest design)
Kamon means a traditional Japanese family crest. In ancient times, kamon represented the identity of a family, separate from the family name. The main difference from a European coat of arms is that kamon wasn’t a sign of nobility and any family could have its own kamon. The concept is very unique to Japan.
Nowadays, kamon is widely used in various designs from company logos to clothes and accessories. Most kamon are designed only with perfect circles and straight lines, which makes the work even more challenging. Probably, the most recognisable kamon for many people is a logo of Mitsubishi, three equally shaped diamonds.
It was fascinating to watch Shoryu Hatoba working on a kamon. He is a 3rd generation monsho-uwa-eshi, a craftsman who paints mon or kamon onto kimonos. Hatoba san is one of the few remaining monshō-uwa-eshi who does not only paint but also design crests. He’s also has a quite cool Instagram, check it out.
The Fashion section comprised a footwear company Yotsuya Sanei, a clothing band Porter Classic, a maker of traditional Japanese cosmetics, Isehan Honten, a producer of braided belts, Ryukobo and a dyer of kimono fabric, Hirose Dyeworks.
Ryukobo – kumihimo (braided belt)
Ryukobo is a make of braided belts for kimono and other garments and accessories. It’s the only atelier in Tokyo, which carries out the whole process from spinning the threads to braiding. Ryukobo opened for business in 1963, but it was preceded by over 130 years of making authentic braids.
Isehan Honten – beni (rouge)
Beni is a traditional Japanese rouge obtained by extracting a red pigment present in small amounts in safflower petals. The Isehan-Honten shop a well-established business with a global presence, which has been selling “beni” rouge, prepared according to a secret formula ever since 1825, has both a shop and a museum not far from Omotesando street.
Seemed like, Isehan-Honten at Edo Tokyo Kirari was probably as popular as the sake stall. They had a nice queue of those who wanted to try out the mysterious Japanese cosmetics. And they liked it!
Yotsuya Sanei – zori (sandals)
Zori are traditional Japanese sandals worn with kimono and tabi socks. Yotsuya Sanei is taking a modern twist on them and some people who were trying them were saying that they are very comfortable. They definitely looked cool!
Porter Classic – Newtonbag backpack
Porter Classic is a Tokyo fashion brand making quite interesting clothes. However, here they were presenting their innovative backpack under Newtonbag brand. Its shoulder strap is made of a new material that distributes pressure in a well-balanced way. It was developed by the Japanese bedding manufacturer Showa Nishikawa, and suitably called “muatsu” (“no pressure”).
We obviously tried a Newtonbag on. It felt quite heavy when you take it but really light on the back. The technology really worked and I wish I could buy one for myself to carry my laptop and other stuff I usually take with me everywhere. I guess you can find some of their backpacks on Rakuten, but they are expensive.
We enjoyed Edo Tokyo Kirari. It was fun and interesting. It’s not that often you can look at things which are made by someone from generations of artisans. I wish it were bigger and for a wider audience. But still, it was a great event!
Let me know what would you buy from Edo Tokyo Kirari? I would definitely buy a junmai daiginjo glass Kimoto Glass Tokyo, pour there nice Toshimaya sake and toast for the artisans who keep hundreds of years of traditions for us.