“Art is not a thing…it is a way”
By Diane Durston
A dimly lit tatami-mat room on a narrow alley in the heart of Kyoto … a craftsman sits on the floor of his workshop in front of a low wooden bench all day long … today, as he has done every day of his life since he was fifteen. His father worked at this same bench and the tools that hang on the walls around him have been handed down for generations. The pattern he follows are from the worn pages of a notebook that his grandfather kept nearly seventy years ago. This man makes wooden combs.
From the cutting of the tree to the final polish, it takes ten years to produce a single tsuge-gushi, or boxwood comb. Only the finest wood is used to make a comb that will become a family heirloom, passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter for years to come. 'The wood must be specially smoke-dried and cured for years before the craftsman cuts the piece from which the comb will be fashioned. He does not measure the teeth with a ruler – his hand and eye know the distance by heart. The crafts of Kyoto are known for their refinement and elegance.
Few objects made in Kyoto display the earthy, spontaneous flavor of folk crafts from the countryside. Instead, they reflect the studied precision and delicacy of an old established society, full of pride in its sometimes cumbersome traditions and customs, and its legacy as the classic imperial city of Japan.
Starting with the gift of techniques brought from China and Korea 1,200 years ago, the craftsmen who followed the Imperial Court to Kyoto in 794 began to mold and interpret these imported skills into a form of expression that was their own. They wrought an aesthetic that valued asymmetry and simplicity using techniques that allow the beauty of natural materials to be displayed to best advantage – understatement, subtlety and elegance in design. All this, combined with a color sense sometimes startling to the Western eye – a touch of bright green against a background of vermilion lacquer.
In the ten centuries Kyoto was the capital, it was the center for the production of the finest arts and crafts in Japan. Kyoto was not only the home of the Imperial Court, it was the center of religion, the center of the development of aesthetic pursuits like the tea ceremony, and of the performing arts of music, theaters and dance. There, were royal garments to be woven, serving trays to be lacquered, Buddhist statues to be carved and gilded, tea bowls to be thrown, iron kettles to be cast, musical instruments to be fashioned, and elaborate costumes to be designed, woven, embroidered and dyed.
During the Muromachi Period ( 1334-1568), when craftsmanship was at its height in Kyoto, entire neighborhoods grew around a particular craft, like the weavers and dyers of Nishijin. The guilds they formed were under the neighboring temples and shrines in whose precincts open markets were held, providing craftsmen with a stable income in return for tithings.
The relationships between families within a traditional neighborhood in Kyoto was tightly bound to the craft for which it was known. Each household undertook only one step in the process. A lacquerer only applied the lacquer to a wooden tray which someone else had made. Weavers did not dye their own thread, and dyers obtained their thread from someone else. In rural districts, the division of labor was not possible. Each farmer's family did everything themselves, from start to finish. The population of Kyoto, however, was large, and the finest craftsmen were attracted here to provide the Imperial Court and the feudal lords with finery.
Traces of the complicated system of guilds that developed over the centuries – and evidence of the high level of craftsmanship that was achieved – can still be found in the traditional craftsmen's workshops that remain in the old neighborhoods of Kyoto today.