The shōtengai (shopping street) in Katsuyama, a rural hamlet located on the banks of the Asahi River in Okayama Prefecture, wouldn’t look completely out of place in a Richard Scarry picture book for young children.

The doorways to the buildings that line the paved street are decorated with a wide variety of colorful noren curtains that signify the products or services that are available behind the drapes. An illustration of a plump ripe tomato spread across three curtains hangs outside a fruit and vegetable store, a chirpy red Volkswagen Beetle flutters in front of the local mechanic’s garage and a friendly devil clutching a cup of coffee dances in the wind outside Oninosumika (The Devil’s Den), the town’s bijou tavern. Even the tiny church on the main street has a noren positioned in its alcove.

These noren typically come in one shape — rectangular — but in many sizes and an array of colors, and each signifies an element of the house or building it adorns.

Noren hang in front of a machiya townhouse in Kyoto.
Noren hang in front of a machiya townhouse in Kyoto. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

The 100-plus curtains that hang outside the buildings of Katsuyama’s shōtengai are the work of 69-year-old Yoko Kano, who 21 years ago decided to spruce up the entrance of her ancestral home, a 250-year-old sake brewery that has been turned into a shop, with a noren of her own design.

Kano, who studied textiles and weaving at Joshibi University of Art and Design in Tokyo, didn’t know at the time she would be starting a trend that would be embraced by the townsfolk, as well as help keep her in business all these years later.

Besides putting this remote Okayama locality on the map — the town publishes a noren map in English and Japanese for visitors — Kano’s curtains have helped enliven a community that might otherwise have become forlorn and desolate like so many other rural outposts in Japan, fighting a losing battle to depopulation and the expansion of convenience stores and mega malls.

Yoko Kano, 69, stands in her small shop in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture on Jan. 3.
Yoko Kano, 69, stands in her small shop in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture on Jan. 3. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Kano, who has been invited to exhibit her noren creations on Naoshima, the so-called art island in the Inland Sea, says her curtains act as a talking point.

“Historically, Katsuyama was a castle town, so outsiders thought we were a little arrogant,” Kano says. “But we’re actually very shy, and vendors in the town were not so good at making sales or closing deals. We don’t like to impose ourselves on others.”

As the curtains started to be hung in increasing numbers around the town, it gave visitors and townsfolk something to talk about.

“It broke down the natural barrier between outsiders and insiders,” Kano says.

Katsuyama noren, which Kano produces with a staff of four in the brewery-turned-studio, are exceptional for their use of bold color, as well as the playfulness her designs incorporate. Kano generally eschews placing lettering on her curtains, which is in keeping with noren as they were originally produced.

Noren are ubiquitous throughout Japan and are typically found hanging outside entrances to public baths, hot-spring spas, traditional Japanese pubs, ramen shops and, last but far from least, sushi counters.

Noren hang in the entrance of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture.
Noren hang in the entrance of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

According to Mikako Sawada, an editor based in Kyoto who writes about Japanese arts and culture, noren fulfill several roles: they act as a partition and a decoration, but also carry out a more prosaic function not unlike a billboard.

“By hanging curtains at the entrance,” Sawada says, “the thin cloth separates the inside from the outside of the shop and it also elegantly covers the door, which enhances curiosity and expectation, similar to wrapping paper.”

Sawada thinks the Japanese are drawn to using textiles creatively, while imbuing the quotidian with an aesthetic touch. Sawada draws parallels between noren and other textiles: the tenugui (a small cloth) that is used as a towel but also for wrapping bottles, and furoshiki (a decorative wrapping cloth) that can be used for wrapping gifts, but also for more everyday activities such as wrapping a bento box meal.

“The Japanese can’t stop inventing other functions for things, even with a piece of cloth,” Sawada says somewhat half-jokingly.

The origins of noren

Noren are likely to have first appeared during the Heian Period (794-1185) when the country’s capital was located in modern-day Kyoto. Back then, Kano says, noren were used to protect goods left outside a shop, as well as to guard entranceways against the elements. These noren were unadorned; designs and lettering were innovations that would come much later.

Photographer Kiyoshi Takai says that they were a common feature in local communities.

“Originally, Japanese curtains were used by all households — in farm communities, fishing towns and mountain villages — a simple cloth used to guard against the sun, wind, dust, as well as nosey neighbors,” Takai writes in a book titled “Kyo Noren.”

While Katsuyama noren have helped the town generate a remarkable level of interest, it’s hard to argue against Takai’s assertion that “Kyoto is the noren capital of Japan.”

What historically set Kyoto apart when it came to textile production was the availability of different colors of dye, which in turn attracted weavers and dyers and helped establish a nascent textile center in the city. Production has survived until this day, most notably in the labor-intensive production of kimono.

Noren ranks below kimono in the unofficial hierarchy of textile production, but they are inextricably linked through their production processes and personnel.

Noren hang in the entrance of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture.
Noren hang in the entrance of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Kyoto-based noren maker Miwako Nagano, 67, set up her business after apprenticing in the dyeing industry.

Nagano spent 15 years making kimono using the yuzen-zome technique, an elaborate dyeing process invented in Kyoto around the end of the 17th century.

The intensity and long hours involved in making kimono wore down her health and, ultimately, she decided to get out of the industry. However, utilizing her experience in the dyeing trade and tapping the creativity that appears to run in the family — she shares her studio with her son, a furniture maker trained in Finland — she decided to try her hand at noren.

Nagano says that producing a noren is similar to making a kimono, if less intricate. First, a design is created and then sketched onto the fabric. Following this, the noren maker will paint over the design with wax.

After the wax has dried, the fabric is dyed. To remove the wax — which brings out the design — the noren is typically steamed, then left to dry, before being ironed and altered in the tailoring stages. Different steps might be repeated along the way depending on the design of the noren, or if more than one color is used in the dyeing process.

Noren makers have traditionally favored working with fabrics such as linen or cotton; hemp is occasionally used because of its durability. A set of noren, depending on its size and the number of people working on it, can typically take anywhere from three to 10 days to complete.

Under regulation

Upon visiting her atelier, Nagano was in the process of making a large four-curtain noren for Nakamura Tokichi, a 163-year-old teahouse in the city of Uji on the southern outskirts of Kyoto. The design incorporates the teahouse’s logo, a black cross set inside a circle painted onto the full-length hemp curtains (naganoren), and runs nearly the entire vertical length of the door.

“My noren becomes the face of a shop,” Nagano says as she surveys the curtains, “so I am very proud of my job.”

Takai says the standard noren featuring lettering and logos that are ubiquitous across the country today first appeared in the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Curtain makers moved away from producing plain noren once the military government moved to educate the masses and improve literacy.

Crossing the threshold: A woman walks through hanging curtains to enter Daigokuden, a sweets shop in Kyoto.
Crossing the threshold: A woman walks through hanging curtains to enter Daigokuden, a sweets shop in Kyoto. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Noren makers were quick to catch on and started incorporating characters on their curtains, in the process turning the hanging fabric into something akin to a billboard.

Linen has over time been replaced by cotton as the base fabric of noren, something that has catered for greater flexibility and creativity. For a long time, however, curtain makers and businesses still had to abide by certain rules with regards to their color and size.

Only a limited range of colors existed before the beginning of the Edo Period — white, reddish brown, brown and navy blue — and shops were required to follow color codes. For example, dispensaries and sweet shops used white noren, while sake shops were identified by navy blue curtains.

Although such rules are no longer enforced, localities such as Kyoto apply a carrot-and-stick approach to regulating noren through subsidies.

In Kyoto, for example, businesses that display noren at their entrances are eligible to receive up to ¥100,000 to cover design and production costs. In order to receive the subsidy, however, these businesses have to follow regulations specifying which local curtain makers they use as well as guidelines governing material and size restrictions.

In Katsuyama, local authorities offer ¥10,000 to cover the outlay of Kano’s noren, which typically costs ¥45,000 per order.

Online expansion

Katsumi Sometomo Shobien, which is located in the western suburb of Kyoto’s Katsura district, is one of the last industrial-scale noren dyeing factories in Japan. From the outside it looks like a large suburban house; on the inside, it’s a network of rooms containing vats for dyeing, an industrial rolling machine and a screen printer. A drying room in the loft houses freshly imprinted long white sheaths of cloth that are suspended from a rack in the ceiling.

Downstairs, among spools of thread, sewing machines and completed sets of curtain, company founder Katsumi Kanbayashi, 76, says that he didn’t initially set out to start up a noren company.

“It was more like noren suited what I was doing, rather than me choosing to become a curtain maker,” Kanbayashi says.

Katsumi Kanbayashi, 76, is the founder of Kyoto
Katsumi Kanbayashi, 76, is the founder of Kyoto’s Katsumi Sometomo Shobien, one of the last industrial-scale noren dyeing factories in Japan. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

The company is 52 years old, and Kanbayashi now runs it with his son, Hiroyuki, 45. Kanbayashi started out as a delivery boy before becoming interested in dyeing, specifically roketsu, a type of wax-resistant process that is notable for its crack-like designs.

Kanbayashi is self-taught as a curtain maker and the company, which employs eight, still makes curtains from the screen prints he first introduced more than 40 years ago.

When asked if noren were changing, Kanbayashi laughs.

“They haven’t really changed,” Kanbayashi says, adding that it was hard to imagine the curtains changing in terms of their shape or proportions.

He’s right, of course, but only up to a point: The noren’s rectangular shape hasn’t changed, nor is it likely to. However, Kanbayashi says the lengths have changed, as has the method of selling noren.

Kanbayashi says the standard size for noren is 1.13 meters in length; the width is usually divided into three columns measuring 34 centimeters each. These days, however, the availability of services on the internet has made customization much easier.

“Noren wholesalers don’t exist anymore,” Kanbayashi says. “I don’t see them at all these days and that means the number of retail stores has also decreased. As a result, it’s understandable that the mass production of noren has decreased, but instead we’re receiving a lot of orders via the internet.”

Effectively, the internet has replaced wholesalers while opening up noren to wider competition.

When Nagano walked away from the kimono industry, she severed ties with her customers. She has found a new set of regular customers in local markets, but increasingly relies on her home page, where she takes consultations and orders.

Kanbayashi has also seen a spike in business since he started offering his services online around 10 years ago. His business has a shop on Rakuten, an online marketplace where shoppers can browse Kanbayashi’s curtain collection and order directly from the site.

“Noren with the ‘ゆ’ (yu) mark (which used to denote a public bathhouse) or the welcoming cat (maneki neko) are both popular in France,” says Kanbayashi’s son, Hiroyuki.

The entrance to Yoko Kano
The entrance to Yoko Kano’s shop. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

“Noren are definitely becoming more popular around the world thanks to the internet,” he says. “We just sent one to New York recently, something I never imagined would happen.”

On his iPad, Hiroyuki proudly flicks through a photo set of noren they had completed for a private house in London; the noren were all hung inside a glass-walled sitting room. Custom-made noren for ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) or high-end restaurants can cost upward of ¥500,000. Customers typically return every three years or so for repairs and maintenance.

In Katsuyama, Kano has also noticed that ordinary people are now using noren for purposes beyond their original function, typically as decorative wall hangings.

Kano doesn’t sell her products online and claims to be too busy keeping up with orders and repairs.

Noren hang in front of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture.
Noren hang in front of a building in Katsuyama, Okayama Prefecture. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

She has tweaked the original design, raising the partition slit on the curtains she sells in her gallery and making it easier for foreign customers to divide the noren and hang them separately.

Inevitably, technology has changed the noren industry. The curtains you see these days outside your local bathhouse are more than likely to have been made with an inkjet printer, but noren makers for the most part have been able to adjust their business plan, aiming at restaurants and hotels as well as making drapes for private use in homes.

Nagano says she receives regular orders from customers for majikirinoren, a type of curtain used indoors to create a partition in homes and apartments that have combined kitchen and living areas.

Multipurpose noren

Daigokuden is a sweets shop in Kyoto that is as famous for the noren that hangs outside its entrance as it is for its mochi treats inside.

Located in a somber machiya townhouse in downtown Kyoto, the shop changes its noren half a dozen times a year in accordance with seasonal or festive activity.

Proprietor Yasuyo Shibata said the curtains are primarily changed out of a sense of enjoyment.

One of the most striking noren Daigokuden displays is of forks of white lightning set against a jet black background. It’s a strikingly modern noren that is displayed just prior to the city’s most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri that is held annually in July.

“It was historically said that the rainy season ends when the thunder rolls in,” Shibata says, “so this is why we chose this noren — to make the rain stop.”

It’s a lot to ask of a simple curtain, but this fabric appears to be capable of ensuring plenty.

Haruka Iwamoto contributed research to this report.

A woman dressed in a bridal outfit enters a room a through a noren at the Bridal Curtain Museum in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture.
A woman dressed in a bridal outfit enters a room a through a noren at the Bridal Curtain Museum in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. | COURTESY OF THE BRIDAL CURTAIN MUSEUM

Hanayome Noren Museum (Bridal Curtain Museum), the world’s only noren museum, opened in the Ishikawa city of Nanao in 2016.

The museum celebrates the region’s custom of hanging bridal noren, which are traditionally hung at the entrance of the Buddhist altar room in the groom’s house. During the wedding ceremony, the bride passes through the ornate curtain, which is often decorated with the family’s crest using a special dyeing technique endemic to the region. The ritual is believed to confer blessings on the newly weds.

In order to keep the tradition alive — the noren are only ever used once before being folded away and stored — the museum was opened in 2016 with a rotating display of bridal noren. Visitors can also dress up in traditional wedding outfits, and re-enact the noren ritual.

Hanayome Noren Museum (Bridal Curtain Museum). Tsu-bu 49, Madashi-machi, Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. hanayomenorenkan.jp/en

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