Twisted tradition that's knotty but nice

A kimono is never complete without an obijime (narrow braided sash cord). Although the color and pattern of the kimono and obi (belt) are what catch the eye on first glance, an obijime is essential to pull the whole look together.

Obijime are one kind of kumihimo, braided cords or bands that are produced throughout Japan in places such as Mie, Shiga and Kyoto. Kumihimo made in Tokyo are said to be the most popular, and many obijime are made in this style, but the words “Tokyo kumihimo” are largely unfamiliar these days even to Japanese people.

According to Yasuhisa Fukushima, owner of the Fukushima Store (a Tokyo kumihimo shop) and the director of the Association for Tokyo Kumihimo, 90 percent of the products created by Tokyo kumihimo artisans are obijime.

“We have tried producing other accessories such as ornaments for keyholders and cords for keitai and glasses, but these are still minor sellers compared to obijime,” he says.

Unfortunately, the handcrafted kumihimo industry is on the decline. Fukushima says that traditional kumihimo shops started closing down about three years ago (under competition from sellers of machine-made kumihimo), and that if the demand for handmade obijime continues to fade, the industry may die out altogether.

Hiroyuki Kondo, 67, one of the remaining artisans of handmade Tokyo kumihimo, says that traditional kumihimo has a warmth that the machine-made product lacks. Unlike machine-made kumihimo, handmade kumihimo has such elasticity and tightness that it fits perfectly when tied or knotted.

Kumihimo was first made in the Nara Period (710-794) and was mainly used for sword belts, wrapping for sword hilts, trim for amulet cases, ritual banners and priestly vestments. It was also used for lacing, trim, shoulder straps and belts in armor. In the Edo Period, samurai made kumihimo for their own armor in their spare time. Kumihimo was rarely used as obijime at this time, and came to be used by geisha for their kimono only after the Meiji Era.

Kumihimo are made from silk, using a weighted-bobbin braiding technique also known as kumihimo. The silk strands are interlaced obliquely to produce a wide variety of patterns. The number of strands runs from three to over 100, with each strand consisting of up to several hundred fine silk threads.

Artisans use any of four different kinds of stands to create kumihimo: marudai, ka kudai, ayatake-dai and kodai. Kondo has always used a kodai, and when at work moves with such machinelike precision that it is almost impossible to see what his fingers are doing. The many rolls of thread intersect each other, but Kondo knows exactly which to add next. He likens this process to cooking, because the cook uses salt and sugar intuitively to season the food.

Kondo says that he has learned the order so well that he doesn’t have to look at all when he twills. “When I make a mistake, my hands just stop moving automatically and won’t go any further,” he says.

Kondo’s signature patterns are hyotan (gourds) and kikko (tortoise shells). A work he is particularly proud of is a replica of a kumihimo with a ryomen (double-sided) kikko pattern. The original version was an ornament attached to a yoroi kabuto (suit of armor), dedicated to Bushu Mitake Shrine in Okutama, where it is still displayed.

Working side by side with his wife, who is also a kumihimo artisan, in their house in a quiet residential area in Katsushika Ward, Kondo says that he is happy just to be able to make a living out of making kumihimo.

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