TOKYO -- Spools hitting against one another create gentle echoes throughout a shop in Tokyo as bundles of thread are crisscrossed back and forth. The craftsmen here are making traditionally braided items called "kumihimo," which literally means "assembling thread" in Japanese.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), when people still wore traditional clothing, the kumihimo braiding technique was often used to create "obijime," cords that women tied around the "obi" belt of kimonos to fasten them, as well as string that accompanied "haori" overcoats worn over kimonos by men. By crossing over countless silk threads in order, braided cords of various designs are put together. Completed kumihimo works are both firm and lustrous, containing the chic sensibility of Edo craftsmen.
In a corner of the Ningyocho area of Tokyo's Nihombashi district -- which is said to have been home to many puppeteers and craftsmen during the Edo period -- lies Ryukobo, a shop producing the traditional plaited cords.
Upon entering the workshop, second-generation head Takashi Fukuda, 59, and his son Ryuta, 27, were seen seated in a traditional "seiza" position before round tables called "marudai," while braiding bundles of thread dangling from them. The "kumidama" spools softly bumped into each other as they were crossed over one another.
When looking inside the hole of the "marudai," one can see the threads converging and crossing over one another, gradually turning into a cord. Different types of braiding tables, including "marudai," "kakudai," "ayatakedai," and "takadai," are used depending on the kumihimo's shape and design. The round marudai is used for "mitakegumi," the type of kumihumo most commonly used in obijime kimono cords. There are 24 spools wrapped with thread that resemble yo-yos, and a cord with uniform patterns is made by crisscrossing these following an intricate order. It takes about one week to make a cord with a length of around 150 to 160 centimeters.
Each craftsman has their own "marudai" table, and its upper plate is called a "kagami," or "mirror" in Japanese. "It is said that the heart of the craftsman that brings together the threads is reflected onto the plate," according to Takashi.
Those who have seen the popular animated feature film "your name." (titled "Kimi no Na Wa" in Japanese) may remember a scene in the movie where the main character Mitsuha is receiving lessons on kumihimo from her grandmother. Official goods that were re-creations of the kumihimo accessory that appeared in the film -- which Mitsuha used as a hair tie and which the male lead Taki wore as a bracelet -- were made by Ryukobo. The original model for the film's scene was actually the Ryukobo workshop.
With the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Edo became Japan's center, and craftsmen across the country gathered around the hub. Therefore, there remain many traditional crafts of Edo in Japan's capital today. The technique of braiding kumihimo, which have been used for a variety of purposes since long ago, was apparently passed down in the Tokyo area under the name "Tokyo kumihimo," and some 10 craftsmen are currently keeping this art alive.
Takashi told us to call to mind kanji characters with left-side radicals that signify "thread," such as those for "bind," "spin (thread)," and "weave," as well as "fate" and "bond." He then said, "Our job is to connect individuals with other individuals through our works. This also includes passing down these skills to young people so that they will remain in the future."
On the marudai table alone, at least 50 types of kumihimo patterns can be produced. This is a composite artform and the epitome of Japanese tradition.
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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The Japanese version of this article was originally published on April 28, 2020, and the ages of individuals indicated in the story are as of the publishing date.
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The technique of kumihimo braiding was brought to Japan from ancient China, along with Buddhist religious objects. One kumihimo was used in a cover for scriptures from the eighth century, which is among the treasures in the Shosoin Repository of Todaiji Temple in Nara. A decorative kumihiro cord was also used for the "Heike Nokyo" sutras that were offered to Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture in western Japan. In the age of samurai warriors, kumihimo were used in "yoroi" and "kabuto" armor, and also in tea utensils.
Kumihimo, which are pliable, strong, and above all elegant items that are of excellent quality in terms of both functionality and beauty, have been used primarily as accessories worn with kimono, from the Meiji period (1868-1912) onward, as demand for armor disappeared. Today, kumihimo are a local specialty of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Iga of Mie Prefecture, among other places.
The production of silk thread, which is used to create shiny and strong fiber that has been valued around the world since ancient times, increased in Japan during the period of Meiji-era industrialization. However, domestic production is scarce today. At least 99% of silk thread circulating in Japan is manufactured overseas.
Ryukobo is selective in choosing its silk thread, and supports the silk industry of Japan. It uses thread made in Gunma Prefecture that is dyed in various colors using chemical and plant dyes.
Old meets new
While Ryukobo continues to create traditional "obijime" fasteners and other items, it has also been engaging in efforts to create new forms of kumihimo. Taking advantage of the ability to assemble kumihimo in a cylindrical shape, the technique has been utilized to decorate ballpoint pen barrels, umbrella ribs as well as the handle. It has also been used for camera straps, as well as the ribbons of medals which were given to the top teams of the Rugby World Cup held in Japan in the autumn of 2019. Third-generation head Ryuta said, "I'd like to try out various new materials and new uses."
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Ryukobo is located at 4-11 Tomizawacho, Nihombashi in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.
The family business of creating kumihimo objects began about 130 years ago. Second-generation head Takashi Fukuda's father Mannosuke established the current workshop in 1963. Takashi was selected as a "modern distinguished craftsman" by Japan's labor minister in 2019.
The store's official website can be accessed at https://ryukobo.jp/
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An artwork using Ryukobo's square kumihimo was also featured in the online museum exhibition "Edo Tokyo Rethink," a project directed by a contemporary artist in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which provides a unique perspective on Japanese traditional art and culture. The online exhibition, as well as Ryukobo's feature page, can be accessed via the following links.
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The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.
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