Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. Here is one of many that I have met along the way!
It’s a long journey to Tottori Prefecture from Tokyo. My assistant Hamish and I are well into our alcoholic beverages by the time the bullet train pulls into Okayama Station. From there we will sleep the night and the next morning drive nearly three hours through mountain ranges to the opposite coast, where our destination awaits.
Tottori Prefecture definitely gets an award for Most Off The Beaten Track’ in Japan. It’s one of the least populated prefectures in Japan with only 500,000 residents. It also gets the fewest tourists out of any prefecture, and it isn’t surprising; it’s really hard to get to. Nevertheless, Tottori has a ton of history and tradition, and it’s still relatively unmarred by kitschy tourist infrastructure. This is genuine, country-style Japan and it’s a breath of fresh air after the tourist-laden Kyoto.
The streets are deserted as we pull up to the last remaining umbrella workshop in Yodoe, Tottori, yet the workshop is already humming with activity. The owner/chief artisan Yamamoto-san is a diminutive lady who greets Hamish and I with a measured gaze. By the look of her she isn’t one for idle chit chat, but her pride is evident as she explains the history of umbrella making in this area.
Once upon a time the tiny town of Yodoe rivalled cultural centers such as Kyoto and Kanazawa as the premier Wagasa (Japanese Umbrella) production hub in Japan. At its peak, 500,000 umbrellas were made in one year alone, the workload shared amongst 71 separate workshops, each with their own team of artisans. The beaches nearby would be lined with thousands of wagasa stuck in the sand to dry. Come the importation of cheap western style umbrellas in the 20th Century and the industry withered to the point of extinction. In 1984 the last remaining artisan retired and closed down his workshop, and for a while the tradition of Yodoe Wagasa died out.
Enter Yamamoto-san. She and a group of other artisans got together and built the only currently operating umbrella workshop in Yodoe, effectively saving the craft from extinction. Now, they labor away to fill the mountainous volume of orders from people all over Japan who have rediscovered the attraction of a handmade Japanese umbrella.
There are four main wagasa producing areas in Japan – Kyoto, Kanazawa, Gifu and Yodoe. Out of all of these, the Emperor of Japan prefers Yodoe made umbrellas for his important shrine visits. The reason is simple – the robustness of the naturally occurring bamboo lends sturdiness to the umbrellas, and the intricacy of the woven silk patterns on the inside of the umbrella surpasses all other rivals.
All aspects of wagasa production are handled in this workshop – from the culling of the bamboo from the grove right outside Yamamoto-san’s house, to the blending of the oil that is dabbed into the paper to make it waterproof. As I watch, four separate craftsmen go about their tasks with studied efficiency. In one section a grizzled old man handles all aspects of preparing bamboo and chopping them down into precisely shaped parts. An assortment of ancient bamboo-cutting machines surround him, each for a unique purpose. I asked him where they came from and he points at one and said “We found that discarded on the beach, so we picked it up and repaired it”. Remnants of a once booming industry, put to use once again.
Throughout the rest of the workshop artisans busy themselves wordlessly with tasks. A lady in one corner starts the mind bogglingly complex undertaking of putting together the umbrella frame out of hundreds of tiny bamboo spindles. With assured mastery she threads her needle in and out of the central node, weaving together the umbrella frame right before my very eyes. It’s a task she makes look easy with her deft movements, but I’m sure if I tried to do it I wouldn’t finish one in a week.
Yamamoto-san occupies another section of the workshop, papering a frame with bolts of thick washi paper. Next she moves on to weaving the complex decorative pattern on the underside of the umbrellas, wielding a needle and colored silk as she constructs the pattern completely from memory. Apart from the distant chatter of the radio and the occasional clank of the bamboo cutting machine, all is silent in concentration.
The last part of the day sees us visit the bamboo grove where the materials for the umbrellas are gathered. I’m surprised to see that it’s not a plot of land where bamboo is specifically cultivated for industry. It’s wild bamboo that form the core of these exquisite umbrellas. On the long road back to Okayama the significance of this impressed me. In the lonely town of Yodoe, in the oft-forgotten prefecture of Tottori, there are a group of artisans who don’t rely on outside infrastructure; they harvest their own materials and create their own tools, and they make the finest umbrellas in all Japan.