Photojournalism, Portrait

Japanese Handicrafts: Kinu Ito – Silk Strings

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

It goes without saying that the strings of musical instruments are an important factor in the quality of sound they produce. Before modern advancements, Western instruments used animal gut for their stringed instruments whereas traditionally Japanese instruments such as the shamisen were strung with pure silk. With the recent advent of nylon strings there are very few workshops left in Japan that produce silk strings, and only one town where the silk is also locally harvested. The small town of Ooto, Shiga prefecture, is a window into this fascinating process.

According to Mieko Tsukuda, at one time 70 to 80% of the houses in Ooto, Shiga, were silk farming workshops. Now there is only her workshop left, a small building nestled amongst rice fields and old farmhouses. ‘The other places lacked heirs to carry on the business, and eventually closed’, she says. As for Mieko, she’s the fourth generation heir to the Tsukuda workshop. At 67, she is a lively and gregarious presence, however her legs are starting to feel the strain, sidelining her from most silk harvesting work. ‘We really ought to find a new heir for the job soon,’ she says.

The small town of Ooto was known as a silk making area from as far back as the Heian era (794-1185), having been blessed with pure fresh meltwater from Mt. Shizugatake nearby. The water, which is collected at the base of the mountain and delivered to the workshop specially by truck, is said to be the reason why Ooto silk has such a pure shiny white lustre, as well being soft yet tensile – a must for musical instruments. 

The workshop is staffed by six women, four of whom sit at zaguriki, a special station filled with apparatus for retrieving the silk. The process gives off a distinct odor, which suffuses the entire facility. Twenty five cocoons at a time are submerged in water heated to 75 degrees celsius to soften the silk – and then the workers have to find the end of the string in order to unravel it. It’s a mind bogglingly delicate task that involves using a special brush made out of dried rice stalks to tease apart the threads until the loose end is found. The twenty five threads are combined and spun together to form a single genshi, or base thread, which is fed onto a spinning contraption for storage. This work is only performed in June through July, once the silkworms have spun their spring cocoons, and the yield for the season is around eighty kilograms of pure silk. 99% of this product is sent down the road to Hashimoto Marusan, one of the only silk string makers in Japan.

Located just a few kilometers away, the Hashimoto Marusan factory was founded in Meiji 41 and has been making strings for musical instruments ever since. ‘Silk strings are a special property of Japanese instruments, but recently we’ve gotten a lot of recognition in China. Our strings are suitable for their harps, and so our international client base has grown since 2000’, says Mr. Hashimoto, the 5th generation president of the company. 

The silk base threads from Tsukuda are brought into the Hashimoto factory, where they go through roughly 19 processes in order to be transformed into strings. The bundles are firstly cut to length and then weighed to make sure precisely the right amount of silk goes into each string. The threads are then spun together while being liberally doused with water, helping them stretch without snapping. After dyeing the string yellow with a natural pigment derived from ginseng, the strings are boiled in a pot of rice mochi to increase their tensile strength. 

In order to ensure the strings dry to their core, they must be stretched out over a 25 meter long hallway and suspended by hooks. The strings, having never been extended to this length before, creak and groan but never snap. It’s an extremely strenuous process that taxes the workers, who sometimes slip on the water being strained out of the newly wrung strings. Left to dry, they are then hand-inspected along their full length, with the workers delicately trimming at any bumps and knots to make sure they are of uniform girth. A coating of glue then ensures the strings will not come apart mid-performance. 

The silk strings of Hashimoto Marusan are beloved by musicians across the world for their warm sound and full resonance. The small town of Ooto is the only place left in Japan with the industry to produce 100% pure silk strings entirely domestically, and certainly one of the only places in the world left continuing to do so on a commercial scale. The limited nature of the strings has lent their brand an air of exclusivity, and both Tsukuda and Hashimoto believe that there are still untapped markets in the west for the proliferation of these gorgeous handmade strings.