About Kyo Wagasa Umbrellas

ŸThe History of Japanese Wagasa Umbrellas
Wagasa or Japanese umbrellas were first introduced to Japan from China at the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185).

The earliest form of wagasa umbrellas was quite different from the traditional Japanese umbrellas of today. They looked more like a straw hat and cape, and were worn less for rain protection than as a way to protect members of the imperial family and aristocrats from sunlight and evil spirits. However, by the late 14th century umbrellas had developed to the point where they looked much like the ones we know today. A historical document written in 1390 shows a picture of a noble person beneath a large umbrella.

Early Japanese umbrellas could not be folded together. The folding structure was an innovation that occurred in the Azuchi Momoyama period (1568-1603). By the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868) umbrella production had developed into a series of craft processes, and production rapidly rose as umbrellas became a popular possession of the common people. Until that time, the common people protected themselves from the rain with straw hats and capes.

Famous Edo-period picture books clearly show that umbrellas were part of daily life. One print by the ukiyoe artist Hiroshige Ando (1797-1858) shows a group of people with umbrellas walking briskly beneath an evening shower (this print is one of Hiroshige's famous Meisyo Edo Hyakkei or One Hundred Famous Edo Scenes; publish around 1857). Another famous print maker of this period, Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), included umbrellas in many of his works of women and common street scenes.

It is often seen that a low ranking samurai making umbrellas to make money in Japanese samurai movies. Some historical records indicates that this kind of situation occurred after the mid Edo period. The low ranking samurai helped the local province finance by making umbrellas.

Wagasa are also referred to as Karakasa (Chinese umbrellas) since the first umbrellas came to Japan from China. However, many researchers believe that the word karakasa is an abbreviation of a Japanese phrase meaning emagical umbrellaf, in reference to the magical way Japanese umbrellas could be folded together and opened when required. We take folding umbrellas for granted today but the innovation and craft skills required for such a structure is rare among Japanese craft traditions.

 

Historically, Japanese umbrellas have also long been a popular fashion accessory. Though practical tools for protection from rain and sunlight, they also had to be attractive and stylish as fashion was a major industry in Japan from the middle of the Edo period onwards. Many Edo-period paintings depict beautiful women in gorgeous kimono with a fashionable umbrella in hand.

 

For centuries, Japanese umbrellas have also been an essential accessory for Japanese tea ceremony, kabuki and other important forms of traditional Japanese culture. Traditional umbrellas were designed and produced for all kinds of people and situations. Certainly Japan is one of the only countries in the world that can claim to have such an old and original umbrella culture.

ŸTraditional Kyoto umbrellas
As the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years (794-1868), Kyoto has been the center of nearly every important aspect of Japanese culture including traditional umbrellas. Compared to other Japanese umbrellas, traditional Kyoto umbrellas are known for their simplicity, delicate beauty, and the exceptional precision of the master craftsmen who make them.

 

Hiyoshiya has long had a strong connection with the leading practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony. Our shop is located around the corner from the headquarters of Japanese two largest tea ceremony schools. In the world of tea ceremony, simplicity and elegance are the two most important aesthetic factors. Hiyoshiya successfully developed an original style of Japanese umbrella, in response to the requests of leading tea ceremony masters. These special, large-size umbrellas are known as Honshiki Nodate-gasa.

 

Hiyoshiya's umbrellas are made with the finest quality materials, collected from all over Japan. Different qualities of washi paper are used to suit the specific feeling and style of each kind of umbrella (from Fukui, Gifu and Toyama prefecture). We use the finest bamboo obtained from special groves in Gifu Prefecture or Kyoto City. Additionally, the decorative aspects of our umbrellas make use of a number of traditional Kyoto craft forms including lacquer, braiding, and fine metal work.

ŸThe state of Japanese umbrellas today
More than 10,000,000 umbrellas were produced in Japan when the demand for them was greatest. However, when cheaper, western umbrellas arrived in Japan in the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the demand for traditional Japanese umbrellas shrank rapidly. Today there are only a few traditional Japanese umbrella shops left: specifically, in the prefectures of Gifu, Kyoto, Ishikawa (Kanazawa City), Tottori, and Tokushima.

 

In Kyoto, the only traditional Japanese umbrella shop left is Hiyoshiya. Sadly, Japanese umbrellas are no longer a part of daily life.

 

However, Japanese umbrellas are still a popular item for many. They are sought out for private collections, as accessories and props for traditional entertainment performances, as special effects for historical events and festivals, and so on.

 

They are especially important in traditional culture forms such as the Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese dance, and kabuki theatre. Japanese umbrellas are also highly effective when used by modern advertisers and promoters as symbols of traditional Japan and classic Japanese culture. And they remain a popular souvenir item for foreign tourists.

 

ŸDifferences between Japanese and Western umbrellas
Many people think that Japanese umbrellas and Western umbrellas are not so different. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both come from completely different traditions in terms of use, design, materials, structure, and craft expertise.

 

First of all, the materials are very different. Western umbrellas are made with artificial materials like plastic, polyester, steel, etc. On the other hand, Japanese umbrellas are made with natural materials like washi paper, bamboo, etc.

 

A Japanese umbrella has 30-70 ribs while most Western ones only have eight. Western umbrellas open when the tension in the metal ribs press up on the covering of the umbrella. Japanese umbrellas open as the many thin bamboo ribs spread the washi paper and stretch it tight. When open, Western umbrellas are dome shaped while Japanese umbrellas have straight line.

 

They also fold away differently. Western umbrellas are wrapped around the central column and handle. Japanese umbrellas collapse together and most of the surface structure is folds inward and out of sight.

 

The ribs of Japanese umbrellas are made by splitting bamboo into very thin strips. The precision of the final rib structure and the washi paper glued to it work together to fold away simply and elegantly.

 

When a Western umbrella is put in a stand or leaned against something the handle is always up. Japanese umbrellas stand with the handle touching the ground.

ŸHow to make a traditional Japanese umbrella
The main materials used to make a traditional Japanese umbrella are all natural and include Japanese washi paper, bamboo, wood, linseed oil, lacquer, persimmon tannin, and tapioca glue.

 

Traditional umbrella production is divided into several processes and each process is overseen by a different master craftsman in the following order: 1) bamboo craftsman; 2) woodwork craftsman; 3) washi paper craftsman; 4) final adjustment craftsman. Generally, it takes from a few weeks up to a few months to finish a single umbrella, depending on the size and design. Looked at more closely the entire process from start to finish involves a few dozen complicated, time-consuming precision craft processes.

 

Here are the most important steps:

1 Material preparation
each specialist prepares his materials (bamboo, washi, wood, metal, etc.)
2 Frame construction
the bamboo frame is attached to a wooden core to create the opening and closing structure
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3 The paper covering is cut to size
a large piece of washi paper is carefully cut to match the size and design of the umbrella
4 The glue is mixed
Hiyoshiya uses an original type of glue made from tapioca
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5 The paper coveringis carefully attached
The paper covering is carefully attached to the bamboo/wood frame with glue
6 The glue is allowed to dry
The glue is allowed to dry
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7 Lacquering and painting
various natural pigments, lacquer, cashew nut juice, and other natural materials are used to color and decorate the umbrella
8 Application of linseed oil
to water-proof the umbrella, linseed oil is applied and then the umbrella is dried in the sun (from a few days up to two weeks)
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9 Finishing and final decoration
tassel decoration, metal parts, and other final decorative effects are attached.
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