To begin with, it might be important to present some background material on Kyoto itself. The Emperor Kammu founded Kyoto in 794 as the second permanent capital of Japan in order to escape the constraining influence of the Buddhist clergy in the old capital of Nara. From its beginning, Kyoto, Japan has been a center of art and culture in Japan and it remains so, to a great extent, today—especially in the crafts.

Kyoto’s history as the capital is entangled in power struggles resulting in periods of uneasy peace, family rivalry, ruthless dictatorship, internal intrigue and corruption, and sporadic display of wanton opulence by a few at the expense of thousands.

Yoshiyuki Asano, vase

The craftsmen of Kyoto, like its other inhabitants, have experienced times of destitution and times of affluence; however, as a whole, Kyoto has been a haven for them. They have found patronage here from the Buddhist sects (there are 1,598 temples in Kyoto, not to mention 253 Shinto shrines), the Emperor and his court (who resided in Kyoto from its founding in 794 to 1868 when they moved to the new capital, Tokyo), the Shogunate (Japan’s feudal military overlords), the aristocracy, the samurai, the merchants and businessmen and finally from the average citizen.

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The tea ceremony developed in the court, in the temples and among the samurai in the 14th century after the reintroduction from China, along with Zen Buddhism, of the practice of drinking tea. The popularity of tea opened up a whole new avenue of creative activity for Kyoto’s craftsmen including the production of cast iron kettles for which Kyoto became well known. The tea ceremony reached its apex in Kyoto with Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), master of tea under the Shogun Nobunaga and later Hideyoshi. Rikyu cultivated the “tea of quiet taste” emphasizing simplicity and humility, an influence still apparent in much of the crafts of Japan today. When Rikyu’s grandson Sen Sotan retired, he divided his property among his three sons who started the three main schools of tea in Japan (Urasenke, Omoto-Senke and Mushanokoji-Senke) based in Kyoto.

In 1615 the Tokugawa shoguns established undisputed control over Japan. They moved the capital from Kyoto to the village Edo, the present Tokyo. The country forcibly shut itself off from the world. Trade with other countries was forbidden. This, combined with the period of extended internal peace, resulted in an explosion in commerce within the country.

The year 1868 marked the opening of Japan to the West after 250 years of isolation. The Emperor moved his court from Kyoto to Tokyo and Japan underwent a transition from feudalism to a modern industrial society. This was a period of social reform including the abolition of class distinction and the banning in 1876 of the symbol of the samurai: the sword.

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From 1868 to the present was a difficult time for craftsmen in Japan. Industrialization had rendered many of their products obsolete or uncompetitive, social change and diminished demand for many others and several wars depleted Japan’s resources.

The population of Kyoto is now made up of participants in a modern industrial economy. Japanese artists contribute to contemporary international movements in art, architecture, photography and design. When I observed the metalwork of Kyoto craftsmen in the spring of 1980, I found an eclecticism which was at once both disturbing and fascinating. The work was disturbing because much of it seemed to ignore the dramatic changes in the world for the last two centuries, and yet it was fascinating in its refinement and consistency with Japanese art made before 1868. Some work, on the other hand, in an amazingly contemporary manner, seemed to capture a sense of the spontaneous in the most rigid of materials. Simultaneously being created were objects which conformed to the esthetics of the past and those which sought for the relevance of the present.

The roots for this vocational tradition in Japan arte to be found in historic kinship relations, the system of family inheritance and the class structure, which was present in feudal Japan and existed as last as 1868. This made social and occupational mobility difficult. The relatively late introduction of industrialization in Japan compared to Europe and the U.S. also helped to preserve the small business and the hand craftsmen. It must be added, however, that industrialization in Japan was adopted and developed faster than perhaps any other nation in the world.

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Yuzuru Okuda, bronze vase—Amita Company

This newly industrialized society is placing very real pressures on the traditional family and the family business. The pleasures and luxuries of contemporary society are as available to the Japanese with the money to buy them as they are to Americans. The salary and security of a job with Mitsubishi far exceeds those which most Japanese craftsmen will ever experience. Yet, traditional family craftsmen are surviving in Japan due, in part, to some important advantages that the family system has to offer. The older members of the family pass on a sense of tradition and personal contribution to the youth, who, in turn, feel a sense of purpose and identity. The image of the artist, rather than being one of an outcast from society, an individual apart, is one of a member of society who is an integral part of its past, present and future.

There are also negative aspects to a family tradition in the crafts. First, the historic strength and conformity of Japanese design, while possessing a breath-taking beauty, makes creative innovation or improvement difficult. The inheritance of a family craft includes the designs and stylistic approaches passed down for generations, often unaltered. This may serve as an excellent source for the preservation of artistic tradition, but it makes the creative process vulnerable to stagnation and deterioration. It is much easier to pass along skills and techniques than it is to endow the recipient with creativity or artistic sensitivity.

Another negative aspect to a hereditary craft tradition is the secrecy which often accompanies knowledge or ability with restricted access. Indeed, until very recently much of Japanese metalworking technology was unknown to all but a selected few. Secrets of the trade preserved the identity and originality of a family’s product. This secrecy could not help but also repress some of the innovation, experimentation and natural evolution in the creative process dependent on free exchange of ideas and methods.

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It cannot be denied, however, that one of the most joyous advantages of the Japanese family tradition in the crafts is the fondness and dedication which seems to have been handed down with the skills from generation to generation.

Few university art programs offer metalworking in Japan. The family business and the apprentice system are the main sources for transferring the knowledge and skills of metalworking in the Kyoto area and probably in most of Japan.

An appreciation of individually crafted objects by the Japanese public makes the proliferation of artists possible. Even today, when many of Japan’s youth are more concerned with the music of the Sex Pistols, Pierre Cardin fashions and the next Steven Spielberg picture than they are with native crafts, there is still a demand for craft objects in all of Japan, and Kyoto in particular, which is unequaled in America. Of course, Kyoto has a long history as a home for potters, silk weavers, lacquer workers, wood carvers, doll makers and metalworkers. It is also true that craft objects in Japan are considered art treasures and are carefully conserved and passed down for generations. The artistic quality of craft objects is respected far more than the quantity accumulated. In a Japanese-style room usually only one or two objects will be displayed at one time. In addition, what often distinguishes these objects is the Japanese love for minuteness of scale and attentiveness to detail. It is almost as if, as inhabitants of an island nation, they have become connoisseurs of the art of limitations.

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The tea ceremony accounts for a large portion of metalwork produced in Kyoto. Kettles, incense burners, incense containers, bowls and trays for sweets and flower vases are usually intended for use in the tea ceremony. The predominant activity of many of these craftsmen is in producing tea ceremony implements. Today Japanese department stores often devote one whole floor to objects for the tea ceremony.

All this is not to say that the life of a craftsman in Kyoto is a life of affluence. The competition for the consumer is keen especially as Japan faces inflation and shortages of resources. Yet, on the other hand, the craftsmen of Kyoto are not in the business for fortune. They practice their craft for the love of the material and for the pleasure that creativity brings them. Considering Japan’s population density, the inbred sense of family and social responsibility and the de-emphasis of the individual on this small island nation, careers in the arts offer opportunities for self-fulfillment that are as rare and precious as the results they produce.

INFORMATION. The Kyoto Tourist Information Center at the Kyoto Tower Building, Kyotoeki-mae, is open from 9 to 5 weekdays and Saturday morning, but it also has a 24-hour telephone service in English—(075) 371-5641. Another telephone tourist service in English can be reached at 361-2911.

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INFORMATION. The Kyoto Tourist Information Center at the Kyoto Tower Building, Kyotoeki-mae, is open from 9 to 5 weekdays and Saturday morning, but it also has a 24-hour telephone service in English—(075) 371-5641. Another telephone tourist service in English can be reached at 361-2911.

MUSEUMS. At the National Museum Kyoto, Chaya-machi, Higashi-ku, (get off the city bus at Hakubutsukan-sanjusangendo-mae) are old national treasures from shrines and temples. The museum specializes in ancient work in ceramics, textiles, metals, dyes, lacquers, etc.

THE KYOTO CRAFT CENTER, 275 Kitgawa, Gion-machi, Higashi-ku, provides an exhibition space for craftsmen and manufacturers from Kyoto in ceramics, textiles, lacquer, bamboo, rattan, metal, etc.

THE KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF ART, Okazaki koen-nai, Sakyo-ku (get off the city bus at Okazaki-koen-mae), specializes in exhibitions of traditional and contemporary work from Japan and abroad, including craftwork and sculpture.

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THE KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF ART, Okazaki koen-nai, Sakyo-ku (get off the city bus at Okazaki-koen-mae), specializes in exhibitions of traditional and contemporary work from Japan and abroad, including craftwork and sculpture.

THE KYOTO NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART shows contemporary Japanese art and craftwork. The museum has hosted international jewelry shows.

THE KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF TRADITIONAL INDUSTRY, Seishoji-Machi, Okazaki, Sakyo-ku (get off the city bus at Okazaki-Koen-mae), always has demonstration of crafts as well as work in metal and other craft mediums. This museum houses a “Machiya,” a typical old downtown house for craftsmen in Kyoto.

SEN-OKU HAKKO-KAN exhibits the Sumitomo Collection of ancient Chinese bronzes, Buddhist statues and coins from 500-1000 B.C.

SADO SŌGO SHIRYOKAN (Museum of the Tea Ceremony) is located at the Urasenke center, Teranouchi-Agaru, Horikawa-dori, Jōkyō-ku (get off the city bus at Horikawa-Teranouchi). Here tea ceremony art and tools by old masters are exhibited: the second floor houses a tea ceremony library.

SHIBUNKAKU ROYAL GALLERY (Shibunkaku Center, 2nd floor) at 2-7 Kanda-cho, Tanaka, Sakyo-ku, exhibits tea ceremony tools, textiles, calligraphy, ceramics and metalwork, both traditional and contemporary.

GALLERIES. A number of galleries in Kyoto show metalwork.

Gallery Maronie, Shijo, Agaru, Kawaramachi, phone 221-0771, shows mostly craftwork, including ceramics, metal and enameling.

Art Space “Niki,” Keage Miyako Hotel, Nishi-donari, Higashiyama-ku, phone 761-9238 shows most contemporary Japanese art.

Space “Aki,” Hitosujime-Higashi-iru, Sanjo-Sagaru, Teramachi-dori, phone 221-6438, is owned by Mr. Akitsu Kimura, a sculptor, who specializes in exhibiting cross-over arts such as kimono, hair design and young artists’ work.

Gallery Nakamura, Kawaramachi-Higashi-iru, Anekoji-dori, Naka-kyo-ku, phone 231-6626, specializes in contemporary artwork.

Sakaimachi Gallery, Sakaimachi-suji-sagaru, Oike-dori, phone 221-5370, shows primarily American art and craft and sometimes Japanese craft.

Gallery “Okazaki,” Kawabatasho-mae, Reisen-higashi-iru, Higashi-yama-dori, Sakyo-ku, phone 751-0761, shows paintings, ceramics and metal.

SHRINES AND TEMPLES. At many shrines and temples you can see bells and religious tools made of metal.

Byodō-in—a national treasure from 1053 AD, known for its Buddhist temple bell.

Jingo-ji, another Buddhist temple bell national treasure from 875 A.D.

Katsura Imperial Villa, known for its Fusuma screen catch (knob) called Hikite.

Ken-nin-ji, houses a Buddhist temple bell and enamel flower vase. Manshu-in temple has a Japanese Fusuma screen catch, a Kugika kushi (metal cover for nails), enameling and donikuro-shiage (black bronze finish).

Myo-shin-ji houses the oldest Buddhist temple bell, a national treasure from 698 A.D.

Nishi-Hongan-Ji, Kurosho-in, is a temple with Kugikakushi and enamels. Shugaku-in Imperial Villa shows Kugikakushi.

To-ji temple has a treasury building housing esoteric Buddhist tools.

Toyokuni-jinja also has a treasury building with swords and iron lanterns.

SCHOOLS AND WORKSHOPS. Kyoto University of Education is the only university with a metal department in Kyoto. The professor is Shigeo Kobayashi. (The Kyoto Municipal Art University has a sculpture department where one can study metal.)

Mr. Shumei Tanaka is a master metalsmith making traditional tea ceremony tools. At his workshop many students are admitted to learn his techniques, although for a Westerner to become a student is very difficult.

Mr. Akihiro Yamanaka owns Seikado Gallery, Nijo-agaru, Teramachidori, phone 231-3661, speaks English and is willing to help with information about metalsmiths in Kyoto and places to study.

Workshops specializing in metalwork that permit visitors:

Toshihiro Yamanaka, pewter shop and gallery, Teramachi, south of Nijo.

Biso Company, cloisonné shop, Gojo, two blocks east of Gojo Bridge, Daimoto Building, 4F.

Inaba Company, cloisonné shop. Sanjo, west of Shira-kawa.

Amita Company, damascene and enamel shop, Kyoto Handicraft Center; take their bud (free) to Marutamachi, East of Higashi-Ohji, to the factory and shop of Kishoin Shinden.

Kawahito Company, damascene shop with demonstrations, Sho-Kokuji Kitamonzen (in front of the north gate of the Soh-Koruji temple).

FLEA MARKETS. Kitano-tenmangu (temple), phone 461-0005, get off the city bus at Kitano-tenmangu. Held the 25th of every month, this market offers old books, Japanese antiques, kimono, etc.

Toji (temple), phone 672-6603, get off the Kintetsu Line at Toji station—a five-minute walk. Held on the 21st of every month, this market offers Japanese antique tools and kimono.

INTERESTING STREETS. Teramachi-Kyogoku—Teramachi-dori area, antique shops, tea ceremony tool shops, Japanese tool shops. This is the original and unique section of Kyoto with many stores that sell traditional things.

Kiyamachi-dori (area)—an old traditional street with beautiful Japanese sweet shops, restaurants and bars. Especially late in the afternoon you can feel the energy of the people here.


Many people have been involved in researching this guide. Thanks are in order to Miyako Umemura for information on Kyoto and to Toshihiro Yamanaka for his help with lists of artists and workshops. Thanks also the Yoshiko Ebihara of Gallery 91 for help with Tokyo information.