Roots of Japan

Japanese Arts & Crafts

Japanese arts & crafts are one of the most popular souvenirs bought by foreign visitors. And because they don’t take up too much space, they’re also a popular choice among Japanese as a gift for friends or acquaintances living abroad or visiting Japan.

Today let's focus on three kinds of Japanese arts & crafts - “Sensu”, “Furoshiki” and “Wagasa”.

Sensu - Japanese foldable fan
A hand-held device designed to induce airflow. Called “Ōgi” in ancient times, it was a folding fan used in ceremonies and entertainment. It is believed the word “Ōgi” is derived from the words “afugu” / “aogu ”, meaning something which creates wind. They are generally designed for right-handed users; however left-handed fans are also sold.

It can be easily opened by sliding the frame of the fan with the thumb of the right hand. Many people love to use it to cool down when they go out in summer as it's easy to carry around folded up. Most open at an angle of 120 degrees. This open shape is called “Suehirogari” meaning “spread out like an open fan” and is considered auspicious, indicating good fortune and blessings will spread out like an unfolded fan.

These days many are overlaid with paper or cloth but there are also some made with flatly shaved and pleated “Koboku” or fragrant wood, such as sandalwood. Sandalwood is used as incense but it smells great even when it's not burning.
Fanning also help ease the heat of summer! And even if the fan breaks we can reuse it as fragrant wood, killing two birds with one stone!

In addition to “Sensu”, another device used to create airflow is the “Uchiwa”. Records show that “Uchiwa” was already being used in ancient China and Egypt but “Ōgi”, pleated with thin wood or paper, was invented in Japan. The first “Ōgi” to appear was called “Hiōgi”. Made from thin overlapping slats of Hinoki (Japanese cypress), it measured about 30cm in length and 2 - 3 cm in width. Examples have been found that date back as far as the Nara period (710 - 794).

However, its intended use wasn't to “create wind” but to write on like a “notepad”. Later, a folded paper fan with 5 or 6 ribs called “Kawahori-ōgi” made an appearance in the middle of the Heian period. This “Kawahori-ōgi” is the original form of the “Sensu” commonly seen now. Now that you've come to Japan, would you like to try making your own personal “Sensu”? In places like Kyoto, you can experience “Sensu” painting, where you create your own one-of-a-kind fan! If that sounds like something you'd be interested in, by all means give it a try!

Furoshiki - Japanese Wrapping Cloth
A piece of cloth used to wrap things, that dates back to the Nara period (710 - 794). “Furoshiki” that were once used to wrap up costumes used in Bugaku, a Japanese Imperial court dance, still exist today. By the Heian period (794 - 1185) it came to be called “Hiratsutsumi” or flat folded bundle. The common people would wrap their clothing in this and carry it on their heads. So, how did it come to be called “Furoshiki”? There are various theories, but the characters in the name suggests it came from the words “bath” (furo) and “to spread” (shiki).

But why would they spread out a cloth when taking a bath?

That's because in the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573), baths were more like steam rooms. “Sunoko”, or a slatted floor, covered the floor but it was too hot to sit directly on it, so they would spread a cloth over it.In the Edo period (1603 - 1868) the common people also began using “Sentō”, or public baths. “Furoshiki” was used to wrap the clothes they removed at the Sentō and also to stand on as they got changed. Around this time, “Furoshiki” became the common way to carry goods.

So, how is it used today?
While you can still wrap clothes with it like in the Edo period, it's also a beautiful way to wrap bottles of sake or wine. For the most part, we don't mind if you think of it as wrapping paper. Also, depending on the way it's tied, it would do very well as a bag! Some also use it as a scarf. Perhaps they could also be used as bookshelf curtains? The possibilities are endless with “Furoshiki”.

Wagasa - Japanese umbrella
Umbrellas were first introduced to Japan in the year 552. They were imported into Japan by envoys of the King of Baekje, an ancient Korean kingdom. Varieties of “Wagasa” include “Bangasa”, which is simple and sturdy, “Tsumaoregaza”, lightweight with a handheld collapsible canopy and “Janomegasa”, slender and lightweight. They are all rain umbrellas but if you hang them upside down like modern-day umbrellas, water will accumulate at the head and it will cause damage to the “Wagasa”.

They were commonly stored by hanging them from the ceiling or the eaves of the house. While excellent at staying waterproof, Wagasa uses “Washi” or Japanese paper, that is susceptible to damage by moths, humidity and heavy rain. Also, as they are made from natural materials (bamboo, wood etc) they ended up becoming very heavy. Because of that, they would be opened facing downwards to avoid putting too much burden on them, and then turned upwards.

Later on in the Meiji period (1868 -1912), the use of “Yougasa”, or “Western-style” umbrellas became widespread and “Wagasa” eventually vanished. These days you might see them offered for rent at tourist spots but it's very rare to see them being used as rain umbrellas. However, in rural areas you can still find “Wagasa” manufacturers and they are handing down traditional techniques to the present. A “Wagasa” can be a great idea for interior decoration but there are also modern-style “Wagasa”.

They feature many colors, ribs and are strongly built. In contrast to the usual 8 ribs, they have 16 or 24! They won’t turn inside out in strong winds and can bear up under driving rain. It's so sturdy that once you've used it, you won’t want to use anything else! Check one out if you've been thinking it's about time to replace your old one!

So, what do you think?

The charm of Japanese arts & crafts is in the “Fuzei”, or aesthetic sense, that has been developed throughout the history of Japan. When you buy Japanese arts & crafts as a souvenir and then use them overseas, your outfit will overflow with elegance and exoticism. For those of you who say - “I've heard about it before...”
“I'd like one but I'm not sure...”
How about making Japanese arts & crafts a part of your life?

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.