August 29, 2016
by Yu Sakamoto, Kazu Shibao, and Taishi Nishikawa
Which item do you think every person definitely has at least one of? Although it could be several different things, the umbrella is certainly one of them. Did you know that Japan has its own original umbrella? It is called the wagasa. When you walk around Kyoto, you might encounter a woman wearing a kimono. She often is also carrying a wagasa, which can be of an even more vivid color in the sunshine. This is a necessary part of traditional Kyoto life and culture. However, the wagasa has dramatically decreased in production. This is because the western umbrella is cheaper and more convenient for modern Japanese people. Nevertheless, Kyoto actually has its own original umbrella: the kyo-wagasa.
Kyoto has been at the cultural center of Japan for more than 1,000 years. The wagasa has been around for almost as long. It is said that the Kyo-wagasa features the ancient aesthetics of Kyoto. Nobody knows when it was created exactly, but it is said that it’s production and use expanded in Edo period (1603~1867). One of the salient features of kyo-wagasa is the kind of paper used to make it. There are three kinds.
Gokayama-washi from Toyama prefecture. The traditional skills to make gokayama-washi have been protected throughout the centuries. Although there were more than one thousand five hundred factories, there are only three factories now. It is thinner than any others. But it is very strong and used for making Shoji (paper sliding door).
Minou-washi from Gifu prefecture. This type of paper has been around for more than one thousand three hundred years. It is used in many different situations, like for the recording sheet. Unlike other types of paper, it does not turn yellow after 100 years or more.
Echizen-washi of Fukui prefecture. The traditional skills to make this paper have also been protected. And many of them are handmade. It is made from three kind of natural materials. Then this paper is used to make things used in daily life. For example, echizen-housoushi, which is wrapping paper upon which Japanese designs are drawn, postcards, business cards, and more.
There are two main types of Kyo-wagasa. One is for a rainy days. It has a water-resistant finish, either by using linseed oil (traditional) or with the use of modern chemicals. The other one is just for show or indoor use. In this case, there is no water repellent finish. It continues to develop and evolve. Recently, a new kinds of Kyo-wagasa have appeared, for example, an illumination design, a mini Kyo-wagasa for appreciation, and an architect interior design, and more.
The Structure of the Japanese Umbrella
The structure of the Wagasa is made to be much more delicate than the Western umbrella. There have many kind of Japanese umbrellas in Japan. Even Japanese craftsman who make typical Japanese umbrellas, do not know how to make a traditional kyo-wagasa. The main materials of the Japanese umbrella are bamboo (harvested in October and November), the wood of ego (Japanese tree) string, washi (Japanese paper), oil paint of cashew (oil of cashew nuts shell), silk and so on. All of these materials put together become a Japanese umbrella by a lot of craftsman. The Japanese umbrella takes a few months to create. There are many delicate and complicated processes to make a Japanese umbrella. In fact, there are over 100 processes involved in its production. The most important process is shaving bone, Hari (paste), and finishing. This article will introduce the important processes.
Japanese umbrellas should look like bamboo growing in the nature. Paper and string should be perfectly aligned to pass between the bones. The craftsman must mark the bamboo perfectly, and then shave it to make many sticks. After that he must collect all the sticks and repair it to one stick.
Hari does not only paste the paper in the umbrella. This paper needs to be compact, because head of the Japanese umbrella is thin. At this point, the craftsman should not wrinkle the paper as much as possible and he must calculate everything to make beautiful circle when people open the Japanese umbrella. Umbrellas damaged by rain can ruin the motion of open and close. Therefore Japanese umbrellas need to protected from such damage by water. This process is so difficult. Therefore professional skill is required.
The finishing person paints the wax on the paper of umbrella and dries the Japanese umbrella under the sun. At this point, if the wax is too much, the papers will stick to each other and then the umbrella cannot open. However if the amount of wax is too little, the paper will be broken by the rain. After a few days, the craftsman paints a cashew at the top of the bone. The finishing person will paint a cashew quickly and exactly only on the top of the bones. This part is pure art.
In Kyoto, you can buy a wagasa at many places. However, there is only one shop that makes proper traditional wagasa in Kyoto. We can see the wagasa quite well in Arashiyama, Teramachi or Kawaramachi, but the wagasa which they are selling is mostly just the umbrella with wagasa design. Therefore the price is much cheaper and the weight is lighter, so it is easy to get one. That should be reason why those are very popular. The cheap wagasa made by washi is not waterproof, so it’s not available on a rainy day. It doesn’t matter If you only use as a parasol or you want to hold it when you wear the kimono, but if you want to use it during any weather, I don’t recommend it.
As I first said, in Kyoto there is only one shop that makes proper traditional Kyo-wagasa. The name of that shop is Hiyoshiya. Hiyoshiya was first established about 150 years ago, around Gojo Honkaku temple in the late Edo period. After that, it moved to Kamigyoku Touzai town; the second generation Yozo Jiro had a wagasa shop in front of the Houkyo temple. Later, the third generation was Isaburo, and the fourth generation was Emiko. So for hundreds of years, they have been making a Wagasa. When Queen Elizabeth II and princess Diana came to Japan, the wagasa made in Hiyoshiya was used at a special tea ceremony. In this way, Wagasa has been used as a means of brightening the traditional performing arts, such as tea ceremony, Noh, and Kabuki, all of which are indispensable for Japanese culture. With the changing times, the production and use of wagasa is probably going to decrease little by little, but for transmitting traditional Japanese culture, I hope that wagasa will become to the one of the ways foreigners can get interested in Japan.