06 August 2009

Kyoto Day 2, Kumihimo workshop

My kumihimo bracelet

Bracelet again - closure is magnetic
Medieval costumes with kumihimo used for frog closures, sandal straps, etc.

(click on image to enlarge)

On the afternoon of our second full day in Kyoto, I took a kumihimo workshop, arranged for me by the Japanese liaison, a woman named Junko, for the tour group I joined for part of my trip. Kumihimo is a traditional form of braiding developed during the Heian period (794-1185 AD). Junko met me at the hotel and we walked about a block to Kyoto's most prominent kumihimo maker, Adachi Kumihimo-kan. Since field trips to traditional craft workshops seem to be a big part of the Japanese school curriculum, the craft centers are set up with failure-proof projects for neophytes.

I worked in a brightly-lit upstairs room obviously set up as a classroom, sat on a mat and worked under the care of a young woman from the center, with Junko kindly serving as interpreter. No one speaks English, so it's necessary to have a liaison make the reservation for the workshop and preferable to have a guide accompany the Westerner also.

From a public domain photo, kumihimo braiding stand, with eight bobbins

At Adachi (for short) I was given a choice of projects and selected a bracelet, a project which cost 2,000 yen, or about $20. I didn't take any photos, unfortunately, but the braiding stand I worked on had two round wooden disks attached with dowels. The upper disk has a hole to accommodate the lengthening braid as it is woven, and the bottom disk is solid.

About six looms, called marudai, were pre-threaded with different color combinations, and I made my choice from these selections. The young instructor knelt on a mat and showed me how to weave my four cords - basically, two cords move clockwise, then the opposite cords move counter-clockwise. That's it - a ten-year-old could manage it, and the room was basically set up for school groups. There's a weight on the cord, to keep the tension even, and the weaver just has to play out more silk from the bobbins occasionally. My knees suggested I just sit on my mat, rather than kneel, and after about 15 minutes, I had finished a length sufficient for my bracelet.

While another crafts person made the length of cord into a bracelet by gluing the cut ends into the two parts of the magnetic catch, Junko and I were led upstairs to an informal gallery, with some examples of antique kumihimo, and looms set up for flat braiding variations, one with 64 bobbins and the beginnings of a very elaborate length of cord. In addition , there were copies of woodblock prints showing kumihimo weaving during the Meiji era. A special item was the prototype for beautiful cords which tied commemorative scrolls at a shrine in Hiroshima.

While this cord is one of those items that is easy to overlook, once you're aware of it, you see the cords everywhere in displays of traditional costume. In addition, it's another example of the way the Japanese craft tradition maximizes the aesthetic appeal of even the most seemingly mundane item. Kumihimo is also yet another part of the Japanese textile tradition that's been adopted by Western crafters, in a sort of cultural transfer. There are lots of mostly West coast based sources of supplies and instructions if you google kumihimo. My workshop was fun, but a little too pre-packaged - I would have liked to learn how to measure the cord, wind the bobbins, etc., but there are books available in English from one of these sites for more information.

After the session, Junko helped me buy postage stamps at a local convenience store - you can get almost anything at these handy places - and then we went back to the hotel. Junko went on her way to arrange dinner for our group that evening. While writing my postcards in the hotel room, I watched some Sumo wrestling on TV. Lots of ritualistic tossing of salt, to purify the ring, foot stamping, wiping down of body and face, and brief bits of actual action in the ring. At the end the twenty or so wrestlers, all massive, with hair in topknots, put on aprons with elaborate designs, and stood at the edge of the ring, performing a closing ceremony ritual.


Public domain photo, sumo wrestlers in their aprons, or kesho-mawashi