It was freezing and lashing rain on the morning I touch down in Shimane prefecture. I was bleary from my flight and the 4am wakeup that preceded it in Tokyo, and as my rental car glided past the sodden rice paddies and unfamiliar streets, the cold began to settle deep under my skin. Realizations that the year was nearly over weighed heavily on me, as well as the usual year-end worries: did I do enough this year? What will happen next year? Alone and far from home, my mood was grim as I maneuvered the car through the bleak, gray landscape.
When I finally pulled up outside of Takahashi-san’s home workshop, it felt like I had arrived at some kind of refuge, or sanctuary. It’s a modest house a stone’s throw away from Izumo Taisha, one of the most important shrines in all of Japan, and the moment I stepped in out of the freezing rain, I felt the tension leaving me. Perhaps it was the warmth inside the house. Perhaps it was the sight of a well worn workshop dedicated to a single craft. This year has been a constant hunt to bring you Lenspire readers a variety of interesting and rare artisans for your enjoyment, and perhaps I was relieved that for my final entry I’d found another story that deserved to be told.
Takahashi-san makes iwaidako, or ornamental kites. While they can be flown, they are not meant to be, rather they are to be displayed in one’s house as a memento of a momentous occasion, such as a graduation or a marriage. The custom comes from as far back as the Genroku period (1688-1704), when two major families with deep links to the prestigious Izumo Taisha would fly massive kites on a nearby beach as a way to celebrate good fortune. The ornamental kites of the modern day are smaller versions of these, and they come in pairs of red (symbolizing the crane) and black (symbolizing the turtle). Both animals are revered for their wisdom and longevity in Japan as well as many other countries in Asia.
Iwaidako are unique to Shimane Prefecture and Takahashi-san is the only one left who makes them. At a year shy of seventy, his hair and beard are mostly silver, but his movements and eyes reminded me of a much younger man. He explained to me that he was a salaryman for most of his life, while helping his father make kites on and off. He only took over making kites full time once he retired, realizing that without him, the business that his grandfather worked so hard to build would not survive. Now, he explained, he considers it his duty to protect and prolong the tradition of iwaidako for as long as he is able.
That might not be such an easy task for Takahashi-san. Although he is still quite spritely, he is getting on in years and doesn’t yet have an apprentice to which he can pass his knowledge and skills onto. Not only to mention that the processes required to make a single kite are quite involved, and not something that can be taught in a day or two. For example, because of the intricate and complicated shape of the kite, its base material of bamboo must be curved and shaped into precise lengths and angles months in advance in order to have materials to work with down the road. All of this must be done in the drier months of winter and early spring, in order for the bamboo pieces to have springiness but not softness. As Takahashi-san begins to assemble a kite out of a bag of readymade pieces, I marvel at the masterful handcrafting required to mold hundreds of straight rods of bamboo into dozens of different shapes, as if they were made out of clay. The kite takes shape in a slowly but surely with each piece put in place according to a specific order, before being tied into place. Once that’s done, the kite is covered in rich, velvety washi, or Japanese paper, before being painted with the traditional crane or turtle design. Each step is performed entirely by Takahashi-san – the knowledge and experience contained within his head and hands.
Takahashi-san remained tight lipped when I ask him about the future of iwaidako, preferring only to say ‘I feel my mission is to protect what my grandfather has started’. He decided not to elaborate beyond that too much. However, in my years photographing artisans across Japan I have seen this pattern enough to know where it goes – if Takahashi-san does not teach others how to produce iwaidako soon, then in ten, twenty years it will be too late. An apprentice needs to learn by watching their master in their prime, and needs time to grow into their role as the eventual successor of their craft. Should that fail to happen in time, then the art of the iwaidako will be lost to future generations. At the very least it will be left to others to reverse engineer the craft in order to revive it, which is an extremely laborious endeavour.
And while Takahashi-san’s craft is not well known outside of Japan, nor do other people particularly need iwaidako to get on with their daily lives, the impending passing of this craft is still an incredibly sad thing; a it signifies piece of color and variety and culture in this little corner of the world fading away, leaving the world a little less interesting each time. Every time a traditional craft dies the cultural heritage of mankind is diluted just a little bit more. Over this year I hope I’ve been able to show you dear readers of Lenspire some of the Japanese crafts that have become increasingly rare in these modern times, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed seeing them. Our world is full of people who make amazing things.
Lenses I Used:
I think you guys guessed what I was going to say – I used my trusty set of Loxia lenses for this shoot as well as many others in this series. For a single operator switching between stills and video during a very fluid shoot, these lenses are unique in their class for their compact size, all manual construction and beautiful image quality. If you are a Sony E-mount user, go buy them now!