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Kyoto Well-Known as the Crafts Capital of Japan

March 09, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

KYOTO, Japan — To the Japanese, Kyoto means tradition. This quiet city was the bustling capital for over a thousand years. During that time, local artisans, providing the imperial court and its officers with textiles, ceramic wares and the other necessities of life, developed their skills into fine art.

When Japan's center of commerce and political life shifted to Edo (the ancient name for Tokyo) during the mid-1800s, many of the craftsmen remained in Kyoto and continued to work, refining their craft. Kyoto evolved into a center for contemplative activities, the spiritual capital of Japan.

The city's atmosphere is established by dozens of temples and hundreds of shrines, each surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. There is high regard for Kyoto's crafts, many of them associated with the production of goods used in the tea ceremony, ritualistic method of preparing and drinking a special type of green tea. The tea ceremony utilizes beautiful cups, jewel-like tea caddies, special brushes and paper items. Participants dress formally in fine kimonos, carrying traditional purses and wearing special accessories. The tea ceremony is widely practiced throughout Japan, and especially in Kyoto.

Sold Throughout City

Tourists who come to see the temples and experience the tea ceremony quickly discover the beauty of Kyoto's traditional crafts. These items are sold throughout the city. As a matter of convenience, some artisans have gathered to sell their wares under one roof.

The Kyoto Craft Center (Kumano Jinja Higashi, Sakyo-ku) has seven floors of shops offering different types of crafts and other merchandise. The center is a modern building, a bit touristy, but it will give you a good overview of Kyoto's traditional crafts, or, more specifically, many of the current crafts that are heir to those traditions. You'll see craftspeople at work and that will give you added appreciation of the skill required to produce the items you can purchase.

On the first floor, men employed in the Damascene workshop demonstrate how gold and silver strands and flakes are inlaid by hand to form flowers, landscapes or geometric patterns on a black background. The technique has been used in Kyoto for over a thousand years to decorate swords for samurai. It is applied to costume jewelry and small items for home decoration, such as screens and boxes.

The second floor has kimonos, happy coats and summer cotton yukatas. A weaver is there to demonstrate hand-loom techniques. But in ready-made, the quality varies widely. There are some beautiful antique pieces, but most of the garments are new, and some are designed to appeal to tourists. There are lovely things to buy, but the selection really won't give you a comprehensive look at the hand-painted silks, special hand-dying techniques and gold brocades that give Japanese textiles their reputation as the world's best.

A Close Collaboration

A woodblock printing demonstration is also on the second floor. Designer, engraver and printer collaborate closely in this ancient art. You'll find good reproductions of old prints, as well as contemporary originals depicting Japanese life and landscape. An artist is also at work, painting screens and scrolls on silk, and mounting them on fine brocade backings.

On the fifth floor, you'll find a potter at the wheel, surrounded by Satsuma, with its distinctive crackled glaze and gold trim, and other types of ceramics. There is also a demonstration of Satsuma painting. A good variety of cloisonne, ranging from decorative finger rings to large vases, is sold.

One of the best demonstrations is the doll-maker, who painstakingly dresses little porcelain figures in kimonos and obis made of beautiful fragments of antique textiles. The work is exquisite.

The Kyoto Craft Center offers other treasures: Mikimoto pearls and other jewelry, modern Noritaki dinner sets, and an array of electronics.

The craft center is one of the most efficient ways to shop in Kyoto, but if you are willing to venture further, into Kyoto's smaller streets, you'll be amply awarded with treasures, as well as a more intimate view of the city.

Nawate-dori ( dori means street), in Kyoto's antique district, has several excellent shops for antique textiles, the kinds used in doll-making at the Kyoto Craft Center. Nakamura Chingireya, a shop that is over 100 years old, specializes in ko-moni , or small things made from old kimonos or other antique fabrics. In the window, you'll see lovely neckties ($20), eyeglass or business card cases, and small clutch or change purses ($5-$30). These are made from old hand-stenciled cottons. The shop also has tie-dyed and hand-painted silk kimonos and obis brocaded with gold. Most of these date from the turn of the century.

Precious Pieces of Fabric

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