Ryukobo-Tradition and Renovation of Japanese braid-making



Kumihimo (‘Braided cords’) created by gentle finger-loop braiding


No sounds here, but only a craftsman Takashi Fukuda braids the silk threads by his fingers like a conductor dances with his fingers. I said ‘braids’, but say it more exactly, probably I should have described it as he ‘interlaces’ the threads. The round stand called Marudai is a braiding tool on which colorful threads are hung with weighted bobbins (“itodama”) and crossing each other. Although those itodama looks easily hits by each other, that hardly happens; instead they quietly cross over the top surface of marudai to be hung down to the other side.


Interlacing on the special round braiding stand called Marudai. How much stress applied to finger tips is a key.


“We call the top surface of the stand ‘mirror’.” Manipulating the thread, Takashi Fukuda mutters quietly. In Japan we have a tradition represented by the word “Meikyo Shisui” —- Mind should be as bright and clean as a stainless mirror.


Fukuda is an owner of the workshop “Ryukobo where traditional Japanese braids, “Kumihimo”, have been produced since Edo period (1603-1867). There are similar expressions still difficult to distinguish each other and people may be mixing up their usage, such as to interlace threads, to braid threads, or to weave thread.


The threads being interlaced on marudai are extending from the center of the mirror to the bottom of the stand.


“Interlace” has the meaning to put the things together that has varied usages as a verb in Japanese language, such as “interlace one’s fingers or legs” for body movement, “interlace (make) a single pair”, or “interlace (build) stone wall” for building. We never say “braid our hands / legs” or “braid a single pair” or “weave a single pair” in Japanese. Furthermore, we could say “interlace up (kumitateru)” for build-up, but not “braid up” or “weave up” in case of Japanese. A craftsman can employ the method of “interlacing” independently in their works.


People started the history or culture of craft using the technique of “interlacing” that has been developed into today’s form, and “braiding” or “weaving” has emerged later. Kumihimo cord has been passed through Edo to Heisei period in an unbroken line along with developing the history of the nation. Among the representative Kumihimo are the hanging accessories made in the Tang Dynasty style from the Asuka and Nara period, the braids used for harp that is designated as Shosoin Treasure, the braids used for sutra in the Heian period, the braids of the armor torso in the Kamakura period (Kumihimo), and the strings of the samurai swords. The technique of “combining” has never been perished even after the new techniques “braiding” or “weaving” was emerged. It is said that the base of kumihimo we appreciate at present came up with their ideas mostly in Edo period.


Takashi Fukuda, a craftsman of Kumihimo intelaces threads on round braiding stand (“marudai”)


So how people had interlaced threads and made kumihimo before Edo period? “Each worker must have hold one thread and changed his/her position. It must have been perfectly coordiated whre a strong team work was needed.” Takashi Fukuda said as he sent out his heart to those ancient days. Kumihimo was impossible to be made unless the people were in group or pairs. The workers were truly “organized” for kumihimo operation.


Kumihimo was a craft permitted to use only for high class people in Japan. Accordng to Fukuda, “I have reproduced the kumihimo belonging to FUJIWARA no Hidehira, a Japanese military commander whose corpse preserved today as mummy in the Ch?son-ji Temple in northern Japan. His kumihimo must been a decorative accessory on Hidehira’s corpse to be a Sokushin Jobutsu (becoming Buddha in this life), having been protecting and leading him to the Gokuraku Jodo (Land of Happiness in Buddism). So it plays a role of a hanging amulet too.” Kumihimo has been spread for use amongst the general populace to date, for instance Obijime, a cord used for holding Japanese Kimono sashes, is a good example.



Kimono is a traditional Japanese costume that’ why many people may well think obijime should have been attached to it since old days. However this is a myth and the fact is, according to my study, obijime has begun to be attached to kimono since late Edo period or early Meiji in 19th century. The history of obijime turns out to be earlier than we think. Fukuda says, “Kumihimo is an original Japanese accessory that we can boast to the world.” Obijime made by kumihimo adds gracefulness and softness through fine thread in comparison with glamorous impressions of hard material accessories, such as rings, necklaces, or broaches. Obijime is an accessory surely representing Japanese modest beauty.


Kumihimo have been braided for obijime use


Takashi Fukuda was still working in silence. I wondered, by concentrating such strongly what cord his spirit pursued to braid with the silk thread. That must be “Musuhi”, means production and generation in Shintoism. Before talking about Mushi, I should focus on the artisan skills of Ryukobo more.



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