AGE-OLD TECHNIQUES PRESERVE ICONIC MOTIFS
Japanese traditional art has attracted global attention in recent years. One of the popular artistic items is Koshu inden, beautiful traditional Japanese patterns printed on soft, light deerskin, developed and manufactured in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Items using Koshu inden, a type of dentōteki kōgeihin (government-designated Traditional Crafts of Japan) includes coin purses, pencil cases, wallets and handbags. Inden-Ya Co., which effectively dominates the market of inden products, often collaborates with global luxury brands such as Tiffany and Gucci.
The origin of Koshu inden dates back to at least the ninth century, when aristocrats, samurai and others had daily-use goods, kimono and armor adorned with inden to show off their fashion.
Inden-Ya was founded during the Sengoku Period (1454–1573), also known as the Warring States period, by Uehara Yuhichi. The founder passed on its inden technique to only one of his children, who must adopt the founder’s exact name in becoming the president; this tradition has continued on to the current Uehara Yuhichi XIII.
The established brand uses more than 200 different patterns, most of which are of traditional Japanese design. Almost all of the patterns symbolize good luck and other positive meanings, as ancient and medieval Japanese kept them for good fortune, especially samurai who wanted to win wars.
The three major patterns are dragonflies, shōbu (sweet flags) and small cherry blossoms.
Dragonflies used to be called kachimushi in Japanese; as the insect is known to fly only forward, it became a symbol of victory among samurai. Shōbu had the connotation of respecting bushido samurai spirit. Cherry blossoms are known to bloom and fall in a short span of time, resulting in the flower becoming associated with the beauty of how short-lived life is.
Deerskin is naturally creamy white. Inden-Ya dyes it rich colors such as black, indigo, brown, dark red and wine red. To decorate the dyed deerskin, inden uses three main decorative techniques: urushi tsuke (application of urushi, a natural lacquer), fusube (smoke patterning) and sarasa (calico).
In urushi tsuke, artisans dye deerskins black, white, red or pink with urushi natural lacquer by using stencils cut from Japanese washi paper. Urushi can last a long time, resists water and has a unique glaze finish. With fusube, artisans place deerskin around a rotating, barrel-like cylinder, and secure stencils on the deerskin. The cylinder is rotated above burning straw smoke, which darkens the exposed leather to create patterns. Sarasa is a decorative method in which artisans apply multiple colors by using separate stencils for each color.
The combination of urushi and deerskin is another secret for the excellence of inden. Deerskin is the only type of animal skin that urushi can stick well to because the skin absorbs urushi well. Other skin, such as cowhide, do not absorb urushi as well, making it easier for urushi to wear off, whereas fabric would absorb too much.
Inden-Ya is taking its refined products to the global market. In the past few years, items produced with inden have been showcased at trade fairs in New York and other major cities abroad. Many Westerners have fallen in love with the smoothness of deerskin, which offers a comforting touch to one’s own skin. Inden-Ya aims to make Koshu inden a global brand, sharing the traditional artistry of Japan.
Antique inden products on display at museum
Some historical inden products are on display at the Inden Museum, on the second floor of Inden-Ya’s flagship shop, near JR Kofu Station in Yamanashi Prefecture.
On display are kawa haori (short deerskin coat for kimono), coin purses from the mid-Edo Period (1603–1868), cigarette cases and other items.
The museum brings you into the daily lives of Japanese from the Edo Period, when inden products were must-have fashion items.
Address: 3-11-15 Chuo, Kofu-shi, Yamanashi Prefecture
15 minutes from JR Kofu Station
Hours: 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. (irregular closing dates)
Entrance fee: ¥200 (high school students and older), ¥100 (elementary and junior high school students)