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Japanese Artisans: Koinobori in Gujo Hachiman

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. Since the beginning of 2017, Zeiss has partnered with me to produce a series of videos, photos and text for their newly updated Lenspire blog. Now with this year coming to a close, I’ve decided to post the start of the series on my blog to show you folks where it all started. Please visit the original piece here where there are many more links to nearly a whole year’s worth of master artisans. Anyway, here’s the article below, enjoy!

The Carp Streamers of Gujo Hachiman from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

Carp Swimming up a Winter Stream

As I write this I am sitting in a trendy cafe in Gujo Hachiman watching the snow pile down outside in swirling flurries. My hands and toes have been frozen two days of standing in a river taking photos and video but as usual with these shoots I’ve been having the time of my life.

The town of Gujo Hachiman might be one of the greatest undiscovered treasures in a whole prefecture of undiscovered treasures. It’s a small mountain town of merely 43,000 situated over the confluence of three crystalline rivers, with beautifully preserved townhouses, picturesque bridges, temples and shrines. Its traditional veneer added to a lively mix of trendy cafes and bars makes this small town impossibly charming in a rustic way that Kyoto can no longer match. Oh, and did I mention there’s a castle on a hill?

Culturally, the town boasts riches. Amongst many other traditions, every winter, on the coldest day of the year, there is a rite unique to Gujo Hachiman that unfolds in the pristine rivers flowing through the small town. This rite is called Koinobori no Kanzarashi, and it involves the washing and cleaning of freshly dyed carp streamers in freezing waters overnight. Gujo Hachiman is the only place in the world that you can see this custom in practice.First, a little background – let me take you inside the workshop of Watanabe Shokichi, the 14th generation owner of the Gujo Honzome Indigo Dyeing workshop, a place that has been in business since around the year 1570 (more than 400 years ago, for anyone counting). Indigo dyeing is a treasured practice in Japan, as due to its commonly occurring natural ingredients and its hardiness it is one of the oldest traditional methods of coloring textiles around. Needless to say, everything made in this workshop is hand-dyed, either by Shokichi himself, or by his younger brother or son. They make everything from handkerchiefs to shirts, totebags and more, and visitors to Gujo Hachiman or surrounding towns will be able find his works in museums or stores (for exceptionally reasonable prices).

Amongst the other things made at Watanabe-sensei’s workshop are koinobori – or Carp Streamers. Koinobori are an important decoration in Japanese culture; basically a colorful carp-shaped windsock, they are flown outside en masse on the Japanese national holiday of Children’s Day. The streamers themselves take a variety of designs and range wildly in quality, but few match the impressiveness of the ones made in Watanabe-sensei’s workshop. Dyes and techniques perfected over 400 years of craftsmanship help make the streamers more vibrant and vivid colors than their mass produced counterparts. The process is relatively straightforward (if you’re a master); starting with a blank canvas, the outline of the carp is drawn on with a special paste made out of soybeans. Once the paste has set, the colors are brushed on with deft strokes, carefully so as not to let the dye clump or blotch unevenly.

The real trick though, comes from the 400 year-old practice of kanzarashi, ie soaking the carp in the freezing rivers overnight. This custom is useful in several ways; it is said to fix the vibrancy of the colors, and the extreme cold is purported to have a bleaching effect on the undyed portions of the fabric, making the colors pop even more. Every winter, on the coldest day of the year, the Watanabes and volunteers from the town take the prepared carp streamers down to the Yoshida River and anchor them in the fast-flowing water using cinderblocks, turning them over every couple of hours. There is a festive, momentous feel to these proceedings – Gujo Hachiman is lovely, but doesn’t rake in massive amounts of tourists like other popular spots. Few other people are standing by watching as the work goes on. The people of Gujo continue doing this simply for the love and respect they have for their traditions.

As the day winds down and and golden hour approaches, the carp floating in the stream are lit up by worklights. The winter chill becomes more biting yet the snowy scenery starts to take on a magical, surreal aspect. The carp appear ever more vivid bobbing here and there in the river. As if on cue, a score or so of local photographers have appeared out of nowhere, and I can see why; it’s pretty hard to beat this view. One of the volunteers has produced a bamboo flute from somewhere and is playing a haunting tune over the dull roar of the terraced waterfall. It’s the kind of insanely picturesque scene that photographers dream of.

The next day broke with snow flurrying down from an overcast sky. Despite this, the crowd of spectators has doubled in anticipation o the day’s proceedings. Having been left overnight in the freezing river, the carp are ready to be cleaned and harvested. The soybean paste that was used to mark the lines of the carp has hardened from exposure to the cold water and is now meticulously scraped off, exposing the crisp white fabric underneath. The flakes of paste are then brushed off into the water with precise strokes, every care taken not to smear it onto the textile. The finished product is stunningly vibrant, delineated by crisp white lines and lustrous colors. One by one the carp are lifted out of the water where they are cut from their frames and taken to dry.

And just like that, the ritual of kanzarashi is over, and you’ll have to wait until next winter before you can see it again. The date of the next one is not set until late in the year, so you’ll need to remember to look it up once winter rolls around again, but it’s worth it. The sight of beautifully painted carp floating in a snowy river is literally one you cannot see anywhere else in Japan – the small town of Gujo Hachiman is the only place that is keeping this tradition alive.

As I wrap up this blog post, the snow outside has continued to fall. It’s a long lonely drive back from Gujo Hachiman to Nagoya where I’ll take the bullet train back to Tokyo, but I know I will come back to this little town nestled in the mountains because it’s just so cool. Plus, I hear there’s a festival where the locals dance in the streets for three days straight. How can I miss that?