The art of Japan
Weaving in Kyoto has traditionally been concentrated in the district of Nishijin – a place dotted with types of old-fashioned neighbourhood shops that have disappeared from most Japanese streets, including one where locals can bring their own rice to be polished.
One of weaving’s finest practitioners, however, is found north of Nishijin. Amane Tatsumura is the fourth generation in his family to produce silk brocade, in the Koho workshop named after his father. ‘I do weave myself, but my role is more like that of a movie director,’ he says. ‘More than 70 different processes go into making the finished fabric.’ He points out the shuttles they use, made of red oak, with the hole for the thread lined in local Kiyomizu-yaki ceramic.
Koho is also unusual in continuing to use punch cards. These strings of cards with patterns of holes in them help to control the heddles which move the warp threads. ‘This was the beginning of IBM,’ Amane says, only half-joking. Weaving was just as important in Japan’s Industrial Revolution as it was in Britain’s, and Toyota and Suzuki both started out as loom manufacturers.
The punch cards, like the shuttles, are made by only one person in the whole country. The multitude of parts and processes that go into weaving helps to sustain dozens of artisans, almost like an ecosystem.
‘Time for the magic show,’ enthuses Amane before holding up a silk sash of intricate design in front of a succession of pieces of coloured cloth. When the cloth is purple, the purple threads in the sash seem to light up. When the cloth is green, the eye sees the green silk stand out. Blue, yellow, black and salmon-pink all follow in turn. Knowledge like that can only be acquired after generations.
- The Koho workshop displays some of its signature pieces, such as the wave design pictured on this page, and a wall hanging showing a small deer that appears and disappears as you walk past. Visitors can sometimes watch weavers at work, by appointment only.
- In the traditional silk-weaving district of Nishijin, the Orinasukan workshop has an early-20th-century feel, apart from the odd digital display. Visitors can book sessions to learn the basics of weaving, making multi-coloured table settings. Five minutes’ walk away, Shosuikaku is a beautiful old house showing virtuoso works in silk.
- Windows to Japan can arrange visits to Kyoto’s quieter silk-weaving workshops as part of its Behind the Veil tours.
Japan’s comics culture is stronger on its home turf than any other country’s – manga, together with its screen sibling anime, is worth as much as 3 trillion yen (£23 billion) a year to the Japanese economy.
If Japan has its own Metropolis or Gotham City, the neon tangle of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district would seem a likelier candidate than Kyoto, with its modest skyline and quiet suburbs dotted with temples. Kyoto lost its status as the country’s centre of real power in 1603, and when the largely symbolic figure of the emperor moved to the new capital in 1869, Kyoto was left with the feeling that it no longer had a role to play in modern Japan.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is one of the city’s efforts to prove the contrary. The museum’s deputy director Toshio Kosaka hopes Kyoto can encourage its young manga artists to stay after their studies. ‘Many artists move to Tokyo when they become successful,’ he says. ‘But we think maybe they could be inspired more by Kyoto.’
Eiyu Kojima has certainly found his spark in the city. He has just completed a series of tall folding screens drawn in manga style, based on a famous work by the 17th-century artist Tawaraya Sotatsu showing the dramatic encounter of the wind god and the thunder god. ‘He only drew their meeting, and not the story behind it,’ says Eiyu. ‘So I wanted to draw the story right up to the moment they met.’