Words and images by Pinky Concha Colmenares
THE ART OF FAN MAKING: Mr. Hiroske demonstrates the processes of making the Kutami-uchiwa, a Japanese traditional fan
a young artisan prepares the bamboo skeloton of the fan
artisan manually cuts the oval sides
the finished product
LAND OF THE LORDS;The oldest Buddhist shrine in Yamaga City
Restored house of a samurai resident
Typical row of houses
Sakura-ya hot spring
Hot spring foot bath
The mood of tradition lives in many parts of Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture, particularly in Yamaga City where the mood flows like honey—sweet, thick, and slow.
The city traces its roots to the 13th century, when it was a major stop in the trade route because of the Kikuchi River. Those were the days of the samurais, the feudal lords, and traditional crafts whose presence still remains today in much of Yamaga.
Walking around Yamaga City is like stepping into a living museum. Houses of the samurais have been restored with the typical wooden doors and walls and the slate roofs peeking from the narrow streets.
The city is very prepared for tourists. An English map of the Buzen-Kaido, the road where enterprise and trade flourished during the Edo period, is available.
We walked the kilometer-long street with a 76-year-old guide (whose name I missed), who added many insights to our understanding of the city’s history. His remarks were translated to us by Junko Furukawa, our guide during the three-day tour organized by the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This is the city where the mood of tradition slows down the traveler’s pace. Despite a timetable dictated by a Shinkansen ride later in the day, our mindset shifted to low gear as we appreciated the skills of the artisans working on crafts that have remained to charm a limited market.
For a few hours we took delight in the world of the passionate artisans fashioning kutami-uchiwa (paper fans) and paper lanterns, and producing malted rice, sake, and rice crackers.
It felt more like disrupting their world as we ogled at the way deft hands put things together and asked the 101 questions for us to bring home our stories.
To those artists, working on their craft is a family tradition kept alive from generation to the next. At the kutami-uchiwa shop, Mr. Hiroshe, the leading artisan, said in reply to a query: “Let me stop to think how many generations of our family have been involved in this.” His family has been fashioning paper fans for the last 400 years!
The shop where four people, including Mr. Hiroshe, were working showed what looked like the simple processes of making the traditional Japanese fans, which takes about five to six years to master.
The fan starts with a piece of bamboo. The lower side is carved to form the handle while the other part is thinly-sliced into dozens of stems. Japanese paper is glued onto the stem and when dry, it is passed to a person who uses an old steel gadget to manually cut each fan’s side to form the oval shape.
Alas, the Japanese fan, once a functional item, had been overtaken by the electric fan and the air-conditioning system, Mr. Hiroshe said. Now, only one fan maker remained from the 17 that used to produce this Japanese craft which used to be a six-million-yen-a-year industry, he said.
Malted rice for miso and sake
At the other side of town, the young man who showed us the process of fermenting rice to be made into miso and sake, readily announced that he comes from the ninth generation in this trade. He said the family founded the business 185 years ago! The process seemed very simple and the product would be used in the production of two well-known Japanese products—miso and sake.
Next to the young man’s shop was the sake museum for the “retired” things from the oldest sake factory a few houses away. Outside, a shop was selling sake in small, travel-friendly bottles, which I just had to buy. I can never say “no” to anything that looks like it is only available in that part of the world.
The old man making rice crackers seemed to be the happiest artisan on the block. He spoke only in Japanese and his smile convinced us to try making rice crispies from an old simple steel machine, which looked like a version of a sandwich griller. He demonstrated how a teaspoon of rice and some flavoring sprinkled on a flat surface is pressed by another steel plate. Turn the steel handle to press the plates together and out comes a delicate round rice cracker!
A craft that has been enshrined in a museum in Yamaga City is the paper lantern or the Yamaga Tourou. Housed in an old building that used to be a bank, the museum displays an array of beautiful paper lanterns and paper shrines—each one telling of the passion that lives in the artisans who had chosen to keep this art alive through 400 years of history.
Every August, thousands of ladies in yukata (light cotton kimono) dance with the gold paper lanterns on their heads, a festival that now attracts hundreds of thousands of people.
The well-known Yamaga Tourou is made through a very meticulous process, as artisans in the museum will demonstrate. It starts with the precise cutting of each piece that will form a lantern. Those are glued together to create a form that looks like its solid. Each part of the lantern (or model structure) should be empty, no matter if it is a dome-like part or a straight part, the artisan explained. Being equally lightweight provides the balance of the whole finished structure—which can be small lantern headdress or a large replica of a shrine!
There are two crowning features in this well-preserved old world Japanese city—the Sakura-yu hot spring bath, which used to be a tea room of the feudal lord 370 years ago, and the 108-year-old Yachizyoza theater.
Sakura-yu hot spring
Yamaga City is well known for its hot springs. It is said that the feudal lords on their way to Edo (Tokyo) would stop in Yamaga to dip their feet in the hot springs there to rest. Those are the hot springs that transformed the tea room into the Sakura-yu hot spring bath for the feudal lord and his guests.
The beautiful wooden Chinese entrance with the unique crossed roof structure of the Edo period has been restored and is a landmark in the city.
When it was eventually opened to the public 60 years ago, the guide said 4,500 people a day came to bathe there. Today, it is the largest hot spring in the Kyusu area.
The Yachiyoza Theater was constructed in 1910 by the merchants to provide a place for kabuki performances and other town events. The theater has retained its original features, which provide a window to the theater scene 108 years ago. One is the ceiling boards, which have painted pictures of advertisements of the sponsors for a performance. It is said that this unique feature cannot be found in any other theater built during the same time.
Another is a brass chandelier, lighted by gas lanterns, which has been restored to its original state.
The “orchestra section” is a sloped floor area covered by tatami mats with wooden bars separating each section measured to fit four to six people. On the sides are the gallery seats with low benches that can sit 830 people on the ground floor and 444 people on the second floor.
Take the theater tour (about 520 yen) that will bring you to an underground alley leading to a space directly under the stage. There you will find a quaint but still functioning wheel system that is the mechanism for the revolving stage. The guide said that the wheels in that system were imported from Germany.
From slow to speeding
Reluctantly, we stepped out of “yesterday” when we finally left to catch the Shinkansen at a nearby station. Minutes later, we moved from the slow mood of tradition to a bullet train that runs up to maximum speeds of 320 kph, covering the 100-kilometer distance to Fukuoka in 40 minutes.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs invitaton
For that extraordinary experience, we thank Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, represented in that tour by Ms. Mami Shijo, public relations specialist at the International Press Division. The tour invited journalists from China, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to explore Kumamoto Prefecture.