HANDMADE WARES INSPIRED BY NATURAL BEAUTY
Wrapping can be an art in itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan, where department store staff masterfully gift, wrap countless goods every day. To the uninitiated, the process is clearly the result of rigorous training, with nimble hands wrapping objects of various shapes and sizes at what seem to be lightning-fast speeds.
Given such everyday occurrences, it’s hardly surprising that Japan has a rich packaging culture tracing back hundreds of years. Whether it is for gifts, transportation or storage, Japan’s traditional forms of packaging have evolved over the centuries, adapting to meet the needs and tastes of the times.
Visitors to parks in spring or summer are likely to see people carrying their bento in wrapping cloth. This wrapping cloth — furoshiki in Japanese — is one of Japan’s most well-known traditional wrapping methods.
Though today associated with bento and picnics, furoshiki originated in its current form for an entirely different purpose: to separate people’s clothes at public baths. Indeed, the literal meaning of furoshiki, “bath spread,” derives from the Edo Period (1603–1868) practice of bundling clothes at sento (public baths) to prevent them from mixing with other bathers’ clothes. It wasn’t until the 20th century that furoshiki proliferated as a means of transporting wares and gifts; today’s furoshiki are made from a variety of materials and are often decorated with traditional designs.
Though one may still come across people using furoshiki, the advent of plastic bags has led to a significant decline in the use of this wrapping method. As environmental concerns heighten, however, some point to furoshiki as a less wasteful alternative to plastic bags. The Japan Furoshiki Association based in Kyoto, for example, hosts classes and other activities to teach communities about the cultural significance of furoshiki and how it can be used to address today’s environmental challenges.
Another example of traditional Japanese packing is kiribako — literally “paulownia box.” As its name suggests, kiribako is a box made from paulownia wood and is most commonly used for gift giving and storing items such as antiques, scrolls and rosaries.
A kiribako is comprised of two parts, the actual box and the lid, the latter of which tightly fits onto the box to create a firm seal. After applying the lid, some tie a rope around the box or wrap the box in a furoshiki. If the box is used to store a scroll, it will generally contain a ball bearing, and antiques will usually be wrapped in silk paper before they are placed inside.
Paulownia is an attractive material because of its resilience. It has moisture-resistant properties, which is why many people use it to store precious documents and other delicate items. The wood is also resistant to warping and distortion, making it ideal for storing items over long periods. It has shock-absorbing attributes and is relatively resistant to flames, capable of stopping fire from reaching inside a kiribako box even if its exterior is burned.
Moreover, paulownia repels insects, which is why it is sometimes used to store meat, fruits, noodles and tea. Exuding quality, the wood is trimmed to a consistent thickness and finished with thin paper, resulting in a beautiful package that makes the receiver feel just as grateful for the box as they do for what’s inside. Perhaps the most significant benefit of receiving a kiribako is its practical uses. Because of its durability, kiribako can be used to store a wide array of items, making it the gift that keeps on giving.
Looking the part
A gift’s presentation can be just as important as the gift itself, which is especially true for cash gifts, and Japan has specific ways of presenting these gifts depending on the occasion. On New Year’s Day, it is customary for parents and relatives to give children pocket money, known as otoshidama, enclosed in special envelopes called otoshidama-bukuro, which are usually decorated with charming illustrations or designs.
This custom of preparing cash gifts with special packaging also extends to celebratory occasions such as weddings and births. The special envelopes that enclose these cash gifts are called goshugi-bukuro and can be found at supermarkets and stationery shops across Japan. While both otoshidama-bukuro and goshugi-bukuro are, for all intents and purposes, envelopes, it is worth noting that both contain the word bukuro (bag), evoking the image of a gift bag rather than an envelope, and illuminating the subtle yet distinct intricacies of presentation and gift giving in Japan.