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Kyo-wagasa Umbrellas: Their Beauty is the Result of Over a Thousand Years of Innovations

People

Kyo-wagasa Umbrellas: Their Beauty is the Result of Over a Thousand Years of Innovations

Content Partner

Japanese high-end experience booking platform WABUNKA.We offer exclusive experiences such as behind-the-scenes tours of manufacturing facilities and temples.

Content Partner

Japanese high-end experience booking platform WABUNKA.We offer exclusive experiences such as behind-the-scenes tours of manufacturing facilities and temples.

Interview with Kotaro Nishibori, President of HIYOSHIYA Co.,Ltd.

“Logical and completely functional, the beauty of a millennium of expertise encapsulated. That’s what’s attractive about these umbrellas,” said the owner of HIYOSHIYA Co.,Ltd., the only Kyo-wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrellas made in Kyoto) manufacturer in Kyoto now.

Japanese umbrellas have been used ornamentally as talismans and also as props for Kabuki or Nihonbuyo dance. Also, they have been long loved for the way that they complement the appearance of the person holding it. There is an old saying that women look most beautiful “in the darkness of night, in a gaze from afar, or under an umbrella.” 

“When a beautiful umbrella is opened we say ‘the flower of the umbrella is blooming.’ The characteristics of the natural materials used for traditional Japanese umbrellas, the texture of bamboo and the light filtering through Japanese washi paper, compose a simple, refined beauty that is part of Japanese aesthetics.”

The wonders of Kyo-wagasa that brighten both your spirit and the air around you can be experienced at Hiyoshiya’s umbrella making workshop. Here’s the story behind this project.  

Diving into the world of Kyo-wagasa artisans from a completely different career

Hiyoshiya, now the only Kyo-wagasa manufacturer in Kyoto, was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and has a history spanning over 160 years. Mr.Nishibori is the fifth generation owner, but he didn’t intend to become an artisan from the beginning. At first, he was working as a public servant in Wakayama Prefecture after studying abroad.

“My wife was from the Hiyoshiya family, so I first encountered Kyo-wagasa when I visited my wife’s parents’ house before we got married. I remember the excitement I felt when I first saw them. I thought they were absolutely stunning.”
The colorful umbrellas displayed in the shop as well as the studio

But, by that time, the demand was rapidly shrinking due to the growing market share of cheap, mass-produced western-style umbrellas, and the owner then had already decided on closing the business.

“I thought it didn’t seem right that something so beautiful would be gone from this world. I also thought that there must be needs for them somewhere, including a global niche market. Then, I proposed selling them through the internet, which wasn’t the standard yet. I had some experience using the internet for tourism-related operations at my former job, so I decided to use my experience to help my family business.”

And as he started to be in charge of the sales promotion, he gradually started to feel the urge of making the umbrellas himself. “After finishing work, I would travel from Wakayama to Kyoto, and record the production process videos. Then I spent days learning how to make the umbrellas through watching those videos.”, said Mr. Nishibori.

 

He said he was fond of using his hands since he was a young child and so he got absorbed in it immediately.
The shift to electronic commerce was successful and they received positive feedback from inside and outside of Japan. He left his former job and officially became a member of Hiyoshiya. Finally, he became the head of Hiyoshiya after his predecessor passed away in the same year. The course he took on becoming a professional artisan was not the ordinary path. He left his promising career, he started anew learning the ropes and then revived the tradition using the knowledge he had. It was a dramatic encounter with Kyo-wagasa that seemed almost like destiny to him. 

Rational and beautiful, the wonders of traditional Japanese umbrellas

Now we take for granted that we can open and close the umbrella using only the tips of our fingers, but “that function itself was the result of a history of refinement and is intrinsically fascinating,” said Mr. Nishibori.
The light filtering through the washi paper sets off the contrast and colors of the ring pattern

“I love the moment when a Kyo-wagasa umbrella is opened. Closed, it may look modest and plain. But, upon opening, it reveals an almost indescribable beauty. Also, I think the contrast of the washi paper and the texture of bamboo, the way the light filters, and the sound of raindrops falling on the oiled washi paper, all embody a deep sense of beauty that is cherished in Japan.” 

While Western umbrellas that we use on a daily basis are structured with eight ribs, Japanese umbrellas are made with 30 to 70 bamboo ribs. Unlike umbrellas that are mass produced by machines, traditional Japanese umbrellas are made only from natural materials with natural variations that require the expertise of the artisans who handle them. The whole process of the trial and error that took place on gaining those skills is almost unimaginable.

 

The delicate natural qualities become clear in the bamboo rib material before the paper is glued on

“The way the umbrella opens and closes may seem like it happens naturally, but the truth is that making an umbrella to efficiently open and close took a thousand years of expertise that is embodied in its current form. The history of the umbrellas resulted in rationality. I believe that rational design in itself holds brilliance and beauty,” said Mr. Nishibori.

 

Continuing innovation as a long-standing business that turned into a global venture

Mr. Nishibori made a long-established Kyo-wagasa manufacturer expand the business globally in a single generation. When he registered his company, he announced the guiding credo, “Tradition is continuing innovation.” and the concept seems to continue to be integral.

“Japanese umbrellas have a great presence and visual impact, on the other hand, it is true that western-style umbrellas are easier to use for daily purpose. Still, it doesn’t mean that Japanese umbrellas are not good products. I feel that it’s just that they are losing their place in contemporary context. That is why I thought it’s time to change the perspective.”

Originally having thought of “giving the business a fresh start as a venture business that incorporates the contents of a long-established business,” Mr. Nishibori set out on developing and exporting new products using the same manufacturing methods as Japanese umbrellas such as KOTORI, and also worked on collaborative projects developing product designs with both international and domestic designers and architects, culturally promoting Japanese umbrellas around the globe. 

 
Japanese-style lighting “KOTORI-“ made by the same materials as Japanese umbrellas

“It’s been twenty years since I first made Japanese umbrellas into lighting fixtures. I’m guessing that even these will be called traditional crafts in another twenty years from now. I believe that exposing Japanese umbrellas to many people through continual innovation could support passing on the tradition as a result.”

The number of organizations making Japanese umbrellas across the entire country is around ten or less. “I want to take the initiative in creating opportunities for people to see and get to know about Japanese umbrellas.”, says Mr. Nishibori. We also hope that many people will be able to actually feel the texture of the washi paper and other materials in their own hands, and have a hands-on introduction to the charm of Japanese umbrellas through the experience we are offering now.

Experiencing the “result of 1000 years of artisanship”

During the special experience plan, participants will have the opportunity to listen to a story about the umbrellas’ history, and then to actually experience the process of pasting the washi paper onto the bamboo ribs with Mr.Nishibori’s guidance.

 
 
Even pasting a single sheet of washi paper requires various techniques, allowing participants to have a glimpse at the depth of the artisanship involved in Japanese umbrella making.
“The logic may be the same as the theory of evolution where old things are sifted out over time. Still, I think there is value to whatever has managed to be sustained for hundreds of years. Like the way the umbrellas that were mere talismans that weren’t able to open and close were able to evolve into raingear.”

By experiencing the process of production, learning about the meanings behind its shape or the way the particular way the glue is applied, Mr. Nishibori said, “I hope that people will be inspired by the distinct beauty that the umbrellas have.” 
 
 
Mr. Nishibori: “I hope people can enjoy the charms of Kyoto through the beautiful Kyo-wagasa umbrellas”

“This experience is the fruit of 1000 years of artisanship. I hope to pass on the tradition by continuing innovation with traditional Japanese umbrellas so they will become familiar and loved items for us living in the modern age.”

Take this opportunity to enjoy the world of Kyo-wagasa, their simple sophisticated beauty and elegant presence that adds color to the scenery.

 

Hiyoshiya

The 160-year-old Kyo-wagasa company aims to reintroduce the traditional craft to our everyday lives by further developing products that incorporate the techniques, materials and structure of Kyo-wagasa umbrellas to match the contemporary needs under the concept of the company’s maxim “Hiyoshiya Contemporary / Tradition is Continuing Innovation.”

Address:546 Dodo-cho, Horikawa Teranouchi-higashi-iru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto City 602-0072 
Website:https://www.wagasa.com/en/


June 15,2021

Special plan

Make your own Japanese umbrella with the guidance of a professional artisan of the long-established Kyo-wagasa umbella company
Price 88,000 yen per person (including tax)

For more information(Japanese only)

 

Read more article on Partner’s site

Japanese high-end experience booking platform WABUNKA.We offer exclusive experiences such as behind-the-scenes tours of manufacturing facilities and temples.