Tue, Sep 10, 2019

Beppu’s traditional bamboo craft continues to flourish like the bamboos themselves

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Japanese Bamboo Art from New York: The Abbey Collection at OPAM (Photo courtesy of Ella Donaldson)
By Ella Donaldson / CIR for the city of Beppu, Oita Pref.

Beppu has long been a place known for its onsen, but for an even longer time it has also been a center for bamboo craft-making. This is even referenced in the Nihon Shoki, the ancient text chronicling Japan. It states that when the 12th Emperor visited Beppu while returning from his conquest of the Kumaso people elsewhere in Kyushu, his chef noticed the abundant high-quality bamboo and made a basket from it.

This is said to be the origin of bamboo crafts in Beppu.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), as Beppu became famous for its hot springs, people visited from all over Japan and noticed the beautiful bamboo crafts being sold here, putting bamboo crafts in high demand and establishing the bamboo craft industry.

Japanese Bamboo Art from New York: The Abbey Collection at OPAM (Photo courtesy of Ella Donaldson)

In 1967, a man named Shounsai Shono became the first bamboo craftsman to be designated as a “living national treasure” or general holder of important intangible cultural properties, then in 1979, Beppu bamboo crafts themselves were designated as a traditional craft industry. This designation specifies 8 types of weaves:

  • yotsume ami (which creates square-shaped holes)
  • mutsume ami (hexagonal holes)
  • yatsume ami (octagonal holes)
  • ajiro ami (a closely-woven pattern)
  • gozame ami (a pattern used for mats)
  • matsuba ami (a thinly-woven ‘pine needle’ weave)
  • kikuzoko ami (woven from the centre, ‘crysanthemum’ weave)
  • rinko ami (woven to leave a hole in the centre)

Bamboo makes a good resource, and as well as crafts, can be used to make paper, rayon, bamboo charcoal and activated charcoal, as well as having 70% of the calorific value of coal and 50% that of petrol, so it could even be a viable sustainable source of fuel. Bamboo also grows quickly – from a shoot to full size in only two to three months – and its roots spread over a wider area and grip more strongly to the soil than trees, so bamboo groves can help prevent landslides.

As a material, bamboo is pliable despite its solid appearance, and can be split vertically into thin strips which can then be made into bamboo sticks for crafting. Crafts can be made using raw, unrefined bamboo or processed bamboo. Processing bamboo involves extracting the oil, drying it in the sun and bleaching it white. Once created, products can also be dyed and lacquered. Crafts made from unprocessed bamboo are called aomono (green products), while crafts made from processed bamboo are paler and known as shiromono (white products), and crafts which are dyed and lacquered are called kuromono (black products).

There are actually around 1,200 types of bamboo in the world, with Japan being home to about 600, though 90% of Japan’s bamboo is one of three types: madake, mosochiku, and hachiku. Oita Prefecture has the largest national production of madake bamboo, the most abundant bamboo in Japan. For its crafts, Beppu mostly uses madake, mosochiku and another type of bamboo called kurochiku.

Oita Prefecture Bamboo Crafts Training Center was opened in 1938, and is the only public educational institution offering classes in bamboo craft making, drawing people from all over Japan to Beppu to perfect their craft. In 2013, a 2-year program was started for those wishing to learn how to make bamboo crafts. For the first two months of April and May, the focus is on learning how to process the bamboo, but from June they receive one assignment each month. There is also Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center (opened in 1994), where tools and historical works using bamboo are displayed.

Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center (Photo courtesy of Ella Donaldson)

The current master at Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center is Shohaku Yufu, a second-generation local bamboo artist. His father was Chikuryu Yufu, an apprentice under Chikuyusai Sato, the teacher of Shounsai Shono. Shohaku Yufu started making crafts (bamboo baskets) in elementary school and achieved mastery by middle school, creating numerous styles of flower baskets that became famous in Beppu. Nowadays, he is well known for rough-plaited baskets that incorporate chunks and roots of bamboo.

Bamboo artist Shohaku Yufu makes a basket at Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center. (Photo courtesy of Ella Donaldson)

Beppu is rare among cities in Japan in that it continually produces more young craftsmen each year, who in turn create new and innovative works which continue the craft’s long tradition. This allows Beppu’s bamboo crafts to continue to flourish endlessly, just like the bamboo plants themselves.

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

Profile

Ella Donaldson

Ella is a second year Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) from Portsmouth, U.K., working in Beppu City Hall, Oita Prefecture. The majority of her work involves translating forms and documents for the use of English-speaking foreigners, advertising local events and native-checking documents.

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