Kyoto's Merchants Follow Time-Honored Ways

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

This beautiful, peaceful city, formerly Japan's imperial seat and the center of the nation's cultural life, is known for following the old ways.

The narrow back streets, lined with ancient or old-fashioned wooden buildings that lead up to temples and gardens, recall bygone eras.

Also, the city is full of small shops that have, like Kyoto itself, survived change. Many establishments are more than 100 years old and are still run by the same families that founded them long ago.

The shops make and sell such items as bamboo vases and blinds, paper umbrellas and lanterns, dolls and other items, all of which are made in a time-honored, painstaking way.

Museum Quality

Although entirely functional, these items assume the stature of fine art. Many are collectors' items. Often they are of museum quality.

Shops are scattered throughout Kyoto, but a good selection is in the Raku-to district, an elegant residential area with some of Kyoto's loveliest temples. It's in the eastern section of the city.

Some of Raku-to's shops, tucked away along narrow streets, are difficult to find, so you may have to ask for directions in advance.

--Kagoshin (7, 4-chome, Ohashi-higashi, Sanjo-dori) has been making some of the finest bamboo baskets in Japan since 1862. In 1920, the shop's owner, Shintaro Morita, was given a special award by the emperor for introducing bambooware to the West.

Now, the shop is run by Morita's grandson, who makes more than 100 shapes (round or cylindrical or variations of both) and patterns (woven tightly or with pretty starlike spaces) of baskets out of more then 50 types of bamboo.

The shop is always filled with works in progress, many of which are being made by special order for customers who suggest some variation of shape and pattern. There is also a selection of finished baskets that can be bought for about $130 U.S. and up.

--Hirata (Shijo-agaru, Yamatooji-dori) makes sudare , the bamboo and reed blinds that have become an integral part of Japanese architecture. The blinds are made from bamboo stalks that have been split thin and tied together. They are used as summertime replacements for shoji paper screens because they allow breezes to circulate in a room while shading it from the sun and pervasive heat.

There are many machine-made versions of sudare , but Hirata has been providing the handmade variety for about 200 years. Yoshio Hirata, present owner, is a seventh-generation screen maker.

Blinds are made in various weights for outdoor or interior use, with or without decorative fabric borders. They may be specially ordered to fit any area. Prices about $70 and up.

--Miura Shomei (284 Gion-machi Kitagawa) sells lamps. Its specialty is paper lanterns, handcrafted in both traditional and contemporary styles, including ultra-modern hanging akai lanterns designed by Isamu Noguchi (about $90 and up) and floor lamps with classical cone-shaped paper shades ($100 and up). Also traditional garden lanterns, bamboo and paper wall lamps and bamboo table lamps.

--Kasagen (284 Gion-machi Kitagawa), the oldest umbrella shop in Kyoto, has been in business since 1861. The shop sells three types of handcrafted paper umbrellas: higasa are fragile, un-oiled parasols with hand-painted decorations that were traditionally used by geishas for protection against the sun; janome are lightweight ladies' rain umbrellas that are usually decorated with pretty hand-painted floral patterns in delicate colors, and bangasa are large rain umbrellas with sturdy bamboo handles, often decorated with the owner's name written around the rim.

The umbrellas cost about $45 and up. Cheaper versions are available in all tourist shops, but Kasagen's umbrellas, properly cared for, will last for many seasons.

--Nakamura Chingire-ten (Sanjo Minami-iru, Nawate-dori) has been selling antique textiles for more than 100 years, and is an excellent source for magnificent hand-painted silks and hand-stenciled cottons.

In addition to bolts of fabrics costing hundreds of dollars, the shop sells coin purses ($15 and up), neckties ($40 and up), handbags ($90 and up), sashes ($35 and up) and other small items made from antique fabrics.

--Konjaku Nishimura (381 Moto-cho, Yamatooji Higashi-iru, Furumonzen-dori) is another source for antique textiles.

Like Nakamura Chingire-ten, this shop has been in business for more than 100 years and sells splendid samples of antique, hand-woven cottons and hand-dyed silks, plus coin purses and other items fashioned from antique swatches. Prices are comparable. Because stock varies daily in these stores, check both for the best and most varied selection.

--Nakanishi Toku Shoten (359 Moto-cho, Yamatooji Higashi-iru, Furumonzen-dori) has what may be the finest selection of antique dolls in Japan. The shop opened about 18 years ago when Nakanishi converted his long-time hobby of collecting dolls into a full-time profession. All types of antique dolls are sold, but the shop specializes in Kyo-ningyo, or dolls made in Kyoto.

Of the various types of collectible dolls, most popular are the hina ningyo , with graceful postures and elegant attire, and musha ningyo , or samurai dolls, with intimidating costumes and strong expressions. Dolls cost from about $70 to thousands.

--Fujii Kei Shoten (Shinbashi, Nawate-dori) sells new and antique dolls, including both hina ningyo and musha ningyo . Prices about $50 and up to thousands.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing .

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