‘I never thought I’d be taking over my father’s position. At first, I wasn’t even interested in the tradition of the stitching,” says Sadaharu Narita, president of crafts company Hirosaki Kogin Kenkyujo. “But now that I’m in that position, I feel grateful that I can seek out and produce new values for the craft.”
Narita is talking about kogin, a type of sashiko stitching used to decorate hemp clothing that was traditionally worn by farmers in Aomori Prefecture to keep them warm in colder months. The stitching style, which was developed in Hirosaki around 220 years ago, not only allowed the clothing to sport motifs, but it also protected the fabric from being damaged. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), after a railway line between Ueno and Aomori made it easier to transport yarn to the countryside, kogin became popular in the area.
Hirosaki Kogin Kenkyujo has been upholding the stitching tradition since 1960, now producing new items designed to compliment contemporary lifestyles. Since it was originally spontaneously sewn by farmers, kogin doesn’t follow a particular design, but compositions of triangles and squares are particularly popular. Well liked for patterns that never seem to date, kogin is still used in modern fashion, with Narita even collaborating with fashion brand Y’s by Yohji Yamamoto in 2014.
“We have to make a profit to be able to pass down the tradition,” Narita says. “So now we use different colored threads (traditionally kogin is stitched in navy and white) and produce items such as buttons and bags. The idea is to give kogin new purpose and therefore a longer life.”
Although Aomori is famous for other traditional crafts, such as Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware, which is Hirosaki’s main craft export, other efforts to use local resources have produced contemporary artisanal products.
Bunaco, which launched its first product line in 1963, has slowly been honing a newer way of using Aomori’s abundance of buna (Japanese beech) wood to create unusual interior goods. The name Bunaco, derived from “buna” and “coil,” refers to the brand’s production process, which involves rolling thin, flexible ribbon-like strips of beech into a coil around a base plate. The coil is then manipulated to create bowl, cup or dish shapes, before being fixed into place.
“Buna is a very watery and sensitive wood, so it was never suitable for buildings,” says Nona Tateyama of Bless, Bunaco’s showroom in Hirosaki. “Apple crates were the only thing it could be used for. That’s why Bunaco was launched, as a means to use the material efficiently.”
Because Aomori Prefecture is the largest source of buna in Japan, Kanari Shirokura and Hironosuke Ishigooka, two workers at Aomori Prefectural Industrial Technology Research Center originally invented Bunaco ware in 1956. Now run by President Masanao Kurata, the company has been making its next move — expanding its catalogue of goods beyond tableware and to other houseware products.
“We’ve been releasing interior goods for the past 13 years, and it has helped introduce the brand to new customers,” Tateyama says. “Now we offer lamps, chairs and even speakers. It’s becoming popular nationwide, even the younger generation are discovering it in interior design shops.”
Tateyama is not hyperbolizing, Bunaco’s Flying Stool was picked as one of the winners for the 2007 Good Design Awards, and its Yauatcha Tea Set, which won the British Homes and Gardens Classic Design Award in 2008, is now a permanent addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. Tateyama does admit, though, that the majority of her store’s customers are still seniors, who like to purchase Bunaco products as souvenirs and gifts.
“We received many phone calls after our product was featured in a TV drama, and we’ve collaborated with popular big brands, including Beams and Margaret Howell,” Tateyama says. “But even here in Hirosaki, not everybody is familiar with the brand. Even if it’s a gradual process, we hope that with a help of the Internet, we can make Bunaco the next big export of the city.”
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