Tochigi: Japan’s crafts heartland

26 Mar 2020 in So Design

Let local artisans bring a timeless touch of Japanese tradition to your ryokan stay.

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Head north from Tokyo and, when the urban sprawl ends and the mountains begin, you’ll find yourself in Tochigi Prefecture. This diverse region is famed for its shrines, remote onsen villages, and the grandeur of its natural landscapes.

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It’s also a hotbed for traditional Japanese crafts.

Mashiko-yaki pottery and Yuki-tsumugi silk are two of the area’s most prized art forms, but there are many more, handed down from generation to generation.

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At Hoshino Resorts’ KAI properties, you can experience Tochigi crafts first-hand. Each ryokan works with local artisans to create an original décor built around traditional crafts – in the rooms, in the restaurant, and all around the ryokan. Even the menu can be a product of traditional washi papermaking!

Nikko: Japanese-style joinery

With its lakeside setting beneath the mighty Mt. Nantai volcano, Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko makes an ideal base for exploring the Nikko National Park. Inside, the ryokan’s décor is classic Japanese, with tatami mats, aromatic cedar baths and shoji sliding screens. There’s also a distinctive style of wood latticework, known as kanuma kumiko.

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Kumiko is a technique that allows elements of wood to be joined together without using nails. The regional kanuma-kumiko is thought to have originated during the construction of the opulent 17th-century Nikko Toshogu Shrine, a 30-minute bus ride from the ryokan. It relies on high-quality local wood such as Kiso cypress, Akita cedar and Nikko cedar.

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At Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko, you’ll see the distinctive hexagonal form of kanuma-kumiko decorations on the room partitions, shoji sliding doors and other interior features.

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To design these unique furnishings, the ryokan worked with artisan Mori Yukio, who has been practicing kanuma-kumiko for over 20 years. It’s a highly intricate art that involves shaving strips of wood down to as little as 0.5mm in width. Precision is essential, as even a 0.1mm difference means different parts of wood will not join correctly.

If you want to release your inner artists, you can try your hand at kanuma-kumiko during your stay. Complementary starter kits are provided to all guests so you create your own latticework while admiring the view of Lake Chuzenji.

Kawaji: hands-on papermaking

Washi is an age-old form of Japanese paper, known for its exceptional strength and resistance. Thanks to these properties, it’s used in shoji screens, lampshades and book covers, kites and origami – and even wallpaper. In Tochigi Prefecture, the local variety known as Karasuyama washi has been handmade for over 1200 years – and you can learn the method yourself at Hoshino Resorts KAI Kawaji.

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Karasuyama washi is particularly prized for its water resistance and was historically used in the Imperial court. The raw material usually comes from the kozo, a type of mulberry bush. After the bark is removed, branches are boiled and pounded to loosen the individual fibres. Next, a large quantity of water is added, along with glue made from the roots of sunset hibiscus. To form a sheet of washi paper, you scoop up this solution on a sieve frame and carefully drain it, leaving it to dry overnight.

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Thanks to a partnership with local papermaking company Fukuda Seishi, Hoshino Resorts KAI Kawaji will guide you to create your own washi postcard. It’s all part of the experience of staying in this hot spring ryokan in the small mountain village of Kawaji.

Kinugawa: deep blue décor

At Hoshino Resorts KAI Kinugawa, touches of deep blue indigo add streaks of striking colour throughout the ryokan.  The local art of indigo dyeing known as Kurobane aizome uses a labour-intensive method called “stencil dyeing”.

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The craftsman behind the ryokan’s indigo bed linen and wall decorations is Yuta Onuma, the eighth generation of a family business founded over 200 years ago.

The process involves mixing fermented leaves from the Tadeai plant with bran, quicklime, sake and other ingredients. These are put in a jar, which is buried underground and left to ferment using natural bacteria. After a week or so, the dye is ready. To obtain different shades of indigo, the craftsman carefully varies how long the fabric is immersed.

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While Kurobane aizome is traditionally used for linen and kitchen towels, Yuta Onuma’s company has branched out to offer indigo sneakers, t-shirts, paper bags and more. If you’re inspired by the ryokan’s deep blue décor, why not treat yourself to an original gift from his store in nearby Otawara City?

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