Millions of tourists come to Japan with shopping high on their agenda. Whether you’re into traditional crafts, high fashion, or anime action figures, it’s easy to exceed your luggage limits with items almost impossible to buy back home.
Beyond the flashy malls and touristy shopping districts are communities of craft makers who have preserved the ways of their forefathers, carrying on the time-honoured traditions. Tracking them down can be an adventure in itself.
When I was invited to meet some of Japan’s premier craft makers and designers, I was able to get a tiny taste of the nation’s handmade artisan treasures.
If like me, your Japanese skills don’t extend past first grade level, you’ll need to enlist the help of a local guide who can lead you to troves of art found only in unmarked galleries, factory showrooms and places where one-off pieces are purchased direct from the creators themselves.
Talking to the craft makers I met on this trip, I was struck by how religiously many stuck to historical processes, some even refusing to work with computers and modern machinery. In Japan, small manufacturing businesses often run in the same family for generations, and breaking with tradition is rarely met with approval.
Sapporo’s Hidden Artisan Treasure Trove
One of my first stops was the Kanata art shop in the bustling far-northern city of Sapporo. Sporting an elegant, minimalist interior design, the shop houses a small collection of homewares, furniture and art pieces, each one personally selected by curator Chiemi Hiratsuka from the workshops of Hokkaido’s finest woodworkers, potters, metalworkers, weavers and sculptors.
The handmade pieces are a mixture of traditional and contemporary styles. Among the most striking are the feather-light yet sturdy drinking cups carved from kami (Japanese paper wood), a vintage-style clock with a face made from amazingly soft, supple deerskin leather and a series of hand-brushed ceramic plates.
But it’s how Kanata’s customers discover these gallery-worthy works that fascinates me. To find the entrance my guide and I make our way six storeys up an utterly ordinary, unmarked commercial building, where the shop is tucked away in a small, converted corner office. There are no signs to point the way, and to all but those in the know, Kanata is all but invisible. There is an online store, but not all products are available and going into the store is all part of the experience. When I quiz Chiemi on how her customers find her, she simply says, “they just know”.
Chiemi is a designer herself and well-respected in certain art circles, and most of her customers are keen collectors who track her down through their connections. Of course, anyone is welcome to find a local guide who can take them to this extraordinary hidden treasure trove.
Himeji – Leatherwork Capital of Japan
From Sapporo, I take a two hour flight to Kobe, followed by an hour’s bus ride to the ancient town of Himeji, renowned for its 17th century samurai castle, one of the finest in Japan. I’m here to discover a slice of Himeji’s heritage even more ancient that its famous castle – the city’s 1000 year old leatherwork tradition. Once upon a time, Himeji’s master tanners and leatherworkers would fashion armour for the samurais, and craft saddles and harnesses for their horses.
I’m surprised to discover that Himeji is one of the few places able to produce natural white leather. The most commonly available white leather is usually the result of bleaching or dying, but Himeji’s tanners discovered that soaking cattle hides in the local Ichikawa River could produce organic leather in pure whites and creams, thanks to the Ichikawa’s unique mineral properties and natural softness.
Today news of Himeji’s mythical white leather has captured the attention of a few big players in the haute couture studios of Europe. One leathermaker in particular, Masamichi Ogaki, even had a contingent of French designers fly out and inspect his work.
Ogaki heads up the fifth generation of his family business, the Daisho Leather Company. As I tour the surprisingly compact Daisho Factory, Ogaki talks enthusiastically about how he flew to France to show off his wares at Paris Fashion Week. Now, he supplies his top quality leather goods to the likes of Hermes.
Should you find yourself in Himeji, drop into the Daisho outlet store and pick up an exquisite deerskin purse, an elegantly supple handbag or a sturdy wild boar skin belt (a product fairly unique to Himeji). The shop also runs hour-long leatherworking classes for beginners. Even without Japanese, I find the workshop easy enough to follow, although my first attempt at making a leather coin purse is a little on the crooked side.
Fashion Meets Family Tradition in Kyoto
In the commercial shopping precincts of Kyoto, things are far more tourist-accessible. Yet businesses here share the same belief of inherited values as their more isolated counterparts.
Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu, in the upscale shopping precinct of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, is far from a secret. When I arrive at the store, plenty of customers are milling about the two-storey showroom admiring the wide range of canvas bags on display, all brightly coloured, with old-fashioned buttons and chunky stitching. Loved by locals, and sought-out by tourists, Ichizawa is one of the most famous boutiques in Kyoto. The company has been making its distinctive canvas bags by hand since 1905, and while it has moved away from making sturdy tool bags to more fashionable totes and shoulder bags, the production process has changed little.
Owner Shinzaburo Ichizawa says unlike something mass-produced, a handcrafted item is special because of the place it was made, and the people who made it. To preserve the intrinsic value of such an item, its sale should be a direct transaction between customer and creator.
Ichizawa doesn’t sell its products online or distribute them to department stores. The only place in the world you can buy an Ichizawa bag is here.
The factory is small, with maybe 40 people working at one time. There are no computers in sight. Everything is cut from hand-drawn patterns. The staff use ancient manual sewing machines. A couple of their vintage Singers have been thudding away for over 70 years. Ichizawa adheres to the traditional idea of the craftsman as artist. The makers are also the designers, and no bag is the same. Ichizawa bags are often handed down for generations. For overseas buyers, it’s a one-of-kind souvenir of Kyoto that also happens to be extremely fashionable.
With some background on each region’s most renowned traditional crafts, and a little (OK, quite a lot) of inside knowledge, I was able to track down amazing pieces of art, and even experience the great privilege of meeting their makers.
By turning shopping in Japan into a cross-country adventure, I came home with a few special somethings – one-off treasures that would never see the inside of a chain store.
Kanata Art Shop is located at 5 Chome Odorinishi in Chuo-ku Ward in downtown Sapporo, just a five-minute walk from Odori station. It’s located on the 6th floor of the Daigo building.
SCOUTING TIP: The Daigo building is the oldest commercial building in downtown Sapporo, recognisable by its Art Deco granite façade.
Takagi Leather Town is the outlet store of the Daisho Leather Co (they also run beginners leathermaking workshops here). You can find it at 1180-1 Haneda-cho, Himeji City, Hyogo.
Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu is located at 602 Takabatake-cho, Higashiyama-ku in Kyoto. It’s an eight-minute walk from Sanjo station. Google Maps (and most of the guidebooks) know this one.