Wagasa Experience

There is often no better way of understanding a country or culture than to fully immerse yourself in it in a practical way. Fureaikan in Kyoto allows guests to do just that, providing a range of craft activities and workshop experiences. During her trip to Japan in August 2017, Hannah participated in one of their most popular workshops, learning to make wagasa, a mini Japanese parasol.

Japan is known for its beautiful handicrafts and the quality of its produce. This couldn’t be truer of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, often known as Japan’s cultural capital. Kyoto is home to myriad craft galleries, lacquerware shops, and fabric stores, as well as Nishijn Textile Centre, where fabric used to produce kimono and other textiles is created. Wanting to soak up some of the Japanese craft for myself, I ventured off to try my hand at a Wagasa making experience.

The workshop where the experience takes place is located north of Kyoto station, and is best reached via taxi, or a private car transfer. The experience is held in a traditional wooden Kyoto-style machiya townhouse. Upon entering, you find yourself first in the shop, surrounded by items made from Japanese wagashi (paper) such as parasols, big and small, and a variety of lampshades. Just beyond the shop is a small work bench and table, specifically for the clients participating in the private wagasa experience.

I sat down with my sensei, who showed me an example of the type of umbrella I was going to make. I was initially surprised to see that it was much smaller than I had been expecting, yet upon learning that the bigger versions take three to four weeks to create, I soon understand why guests make a miniature version!

Full-size parasols are most commonly used at shrines or during festivals

I was presented with the umbrella’s wooden frame, already assembled, and my first task was to re-space the branches of the umbrella. This was a fiddly process, but one which is essential in order to allow the umbrella to fold correctly.

After this initial phase was completed, the next step was to choose the colour and pattern of wagashi with which I would decorate my umbrella. Two different pieces must be selected: a main, larger piece to cover the entirety of the umbrella, and a smaller “topper,” which goes directly over the top. My sensei explained that it works best visually to choose two contrasting colours, but with such a large variety of paper, patterns and colours, the decision was easier said than done!

Once I had decided on my colours, I was instructed to apply glue liberally to each of the umbrella’s spokes, taking care not to allow glue to drip onto the sides of the spokes. Once this was done, my sensei showed me how to carefully apply the large circular piece of wagashi paper onto the umbrella and affix it well. I then added the smaller “topper,” over the top of the umbrella, securing with a band.

The umbrella then needed some drying time, so my sensei took me upstairs to the main atelier. Here, in this treasure trove of wood and paper, a group of four women were working on umbrellas and lampshades of all different sizes and colours.

Hard at work in the atelier: an expert demonstrates her work

With such patience and care, I watched as they carefully covered the wooden frames in beautiful paper. I spoke to one lady who was repairing an enormous parasol umbrella. She told me that this sort of umbrella was often purchased by shrines for use at outdoor events in the summer, such as tea ceremonies, to shade guests, geisha and tea masters from Japan’s intense sunlight.

After a good look around the atelier, we headed back downstairs. The next step was to gently close the umbrella, emphasising all of the creases so that the umbrella would close and open with ease, and look very neat and tidy when closed. We attached a small black ribbon strip to the band holding the topper in place, to act as a little carry-handle.

With my umbrella completed, my sensei was happy to show me some of the other wagashi products the shop sells, and even let me pose with one of the enormous parasols outside the temple opposite.

I left feeling very proud of my creation, and even more in love with Japan than before.

In short: This is a brilliant opportunity to exercise your creative flair and engage further with Japanese culture and tradition. It was also an excellent way to shelter from Kyoto’s heat and humidity during the summer.

Recommended for: Those who are artistic, and keen to learn more about Japanese craft. The work is quite fiddly, so perhaps not ideal for very young children (the experience lasts approximately 2.5 – 3 hours, so involves a good deal of concentration).

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Photos and text by Hannah Smith for Into Japan