A Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Traditional Crafts

The Humble Beginnings of Traditional Handicrafts: From Rural Beginnings to Modern Times

One admirable trait of the Japanese is their ability to preserve culture and tradition. Becoming the powerhouse of the East for research and development, it is surprising how a lot of the old culture, practices, and tradition have been retained to integrate with the changes brought about by rapid technological advancements. In the recent years, Japan has become a popular attraction for tourists all over the world as it brings the best of both worlds – the old and the new.

Traditional crafts play an important role in making the culture of the Japanese distinctly their own. Some may even argue that traditional crafts are the heart and soul of the Japanese culture. It is a long withstanding tradition that dates back to the first human settlement in the Japanese islands. In short, the traditional crafts of Japan are as old as the Japanese culture itself. However, it is worth noting that the objects that are now deemed to be “art” have stemmed from more practical purposes. In fact, the first dated traditional crafts in Japan way back in 10,000 BC were beautiful ceramic wares intended for day to day use. As time passed, traditional crafts developed from useful tools to fine pieces of art that became embedded in the Japanese culture. The mastery and craftsmanship of traditional handicrafts was passed down from one generation to another, allowing the art to prosper and become increasingly sophisticated through time. A notable period in the history of Japanese Traditional Crafts is the Edo period. It can be compared to the Renaissance of the West – a period when art, culture, and tradition flourished. The elements of traditional Japanese handicrafts are also very distinct as they incorporate a lot of details that were derived from their surrounding. Since Japan is a beautiful country filled with plenty of natural elements, the most popular design would be the cherry blossom, locally known as the “sakura”, which is a popular symbol of Japan everywhere. Tourists can easily buy folded fans, kimonos, and other sakura printed memorabilia to preserve their trip.

The Various Traditional Crafts of Japan: Traditional Crafts and Modern Art.

Japanese crafts can be classified into seven major types, all employing various techniques and different materials to form different designs. However, each major traditional craft is further divided into different styles depending on the area of origin. Usually, styles are named from the prefecture where the technique was developed or made popular.

Pottery and Ceramics

Ceramic making is the oldest form of Japanese handcrafting. The original settlers of the Japanese islands were believed to be the first to create pottery and ceramic wares in the entire world. The popularity of ceramic wares transcended beyond Japanese culture as western aristocrats started to import ceramics pots and vases from Japan on the onset of trading. Japanese wares or ceramic pottery are commonly classified by the distinct styles and techniques used to create a piece. Usually, the standards of creating ceramic ware vary from one location to another; hence the designs names were coined from their prefecture of origin. The primary material for ceramic crafts is clay that was shaped using a potter’s wheel and hardened through a kiln.


Textile craft is another form of Japanese traditional crafting that involves weaving and dying of various fabrics such as cotton, silk, and hemp. Unlike ceramic crafts, textile crafts came at a much later time. While the Jomon people (the first inhabitants of Japan) were already creating intricate pottery designs, their garb were made from plain plant fiber that did not show any distinction from men to women’s wear. It was only in between 300CE to 700CE that the Japanese nobility deemed it necessary for clothing to be decorated with intricate designs made from silk and other fine fabrics. One driver for the development of textile crafts was the increase of trade activities between Japan and other neighboring nations. Not only did the Japanese became derive designs from other cultures, the open trade allowed raw materials such as silk to become more accessible.

Lacquer ware

Lacquer crafts bear some similarities to two different forms of traditional crafts, ceramic and wood. Like ceramic wares, lacquer wares were created for domestic use.  The most common forms are bowls, trays, containers and even ceremonial tea caddies, holders and statues. The art of making lacquer wares also dates back to the Jomon period, about the same time that pottery handicrafts started. Wood and bamboo materials are used, similar to the art of woodworking. However, the difference lies in the use of sap from lacquer trees to preserve the wood. It is also where the name "lacquer ware" was coined from.


Metalworking draws a significant impact on Japanese culture as its popularity peaked during the feudal time of warlords and samurai. Swords epitomized the era of samurais as they served not only as a weapon but also something of religious importance. The ancient Japanese believed that swords were very powerful things and that the soul of a samurai is contained inside his sword once he has passed away. While sword making is the most popular type of metalworking in Japan, it is not entirely limited to that. There are other types of metalwork which were used to create ordinary objects and tools for day to day use. One technique used for creating crafts out of metals is casting, where in the metal is melted and reformed using a mold or a cast. Another technique is smiting, where the metal is shaped through repeated beating. Various types of metals are used to create metal works, common metals are iron and copper, however, previous metals like gold and bronze were used for more luxurious purposes.

Doll making

Japanese doll making is another traditional craft that can be dated from the Jomon period. Unlike its contemporary forms of crafting, the art of doll making was derived from old customary traditions where dolls made from grass were blessed and offered at shrines. One of the initial beliefs regarding dolls is that they were capable of protecting pregnant women from losing their unborn child. Through time, they became a symbol of good luck and eventually became play things for young girls. Dolls were made using four different base materials: wood, clay, paper-mache, and ceramic.


Wood working or Japanese carpentry stems from both practical and religious purposes during the ancient times. Objects that were used for daily use such as utensils, baskets and dishes were formed from employing various wood working techniques. A popular form of wood working is basket weaving (kagome), where in the material is interlaced by forming a pattern until a final product is eventually made. Wood was also a popular material for creating the first Japanese furniture.  On the more religious origins of wood working, ancient wood working techniques were used to build secular and religious structures. Other tools used for religious ceremonies were made using bamboo working techniques.


One of the last developed traditional crafts was paper making. The origin of the art is quite simple, paper derived from plants were dyed and decorated with intricate designs.  The outcome from paper crafting is “washi", a hard paper used for other traditional arts – the most notable example of paper craft is "origami" ( the art of paper folding).

Kyoto: The Capital of Traditional Crafts

photo by Luca Mascaro - flickr

It is common knowledge that Tokyo is the capital of Japan. However, not a lot of people know that for more than a thousand years the real capital of Japan was Kyoto. In contrast, Tokyo reflects Japan's modern era while Kyoto preserves the culture from years that have past. In spirit, Kyoto remains to be the center of history and culture for Japan as it preserves the past culture, tradition, and practices. As Kyoto housed the Imperial Court for a millennium, it set a quality standard for exquisite craftsmanship that was unsurpassed during the Imperial era. It comes to no surprise that Kyoto has the largest number of local traditional crafts, ranging from pottery, weaving, doll making and more. The most notable traditional craft in Kyoto is doll making. Kyoto dolls (kyo-ningyo) were originally made as a traditional piece – a gift for young children to signify good luck and health. However, as the dolls gained more regard from the children of the higher nobility inside the Imperial Court, the demand surged and it allowed the craft to be developed further with new techniques. Traditional doll making is only one of the many crafts that were developed to fit the taste of aristocracy. Another popular example of this is textile crafting and fan making. Kyoto’s locally made kimonos are known to be Japan’s most luxurious type as Kyoto harbors local techniques for silk weaving and silk dyeing. These techniques were developed to cater to the aristocracy’s demand for fine fabrics. The outcome of silk weaving produced beautiful kimonos that were truly fit for a king, or in this case an emperor. Meanwhile, folding fans were also crafted at the highest degree of artisanship as they became a staple inside the Imperial Court. The folding fans (kyo-sensu) became so popular in the aristocracy that they became a status symbol for the carrier and were used with strict propriety. Comparable to Kyoto’s kimonos, the folding fans from Kyoto are also acclaimed to be the finest from Japan. Other traditional crafts in Kyoto were not just developed for the aristocracy, but also for traditional ceremonies. Kyoto pottery (kyo-yaki) has a lot of different styles, but the most popular one is Kiyomizu pottery. This form of pottery was used to conduct traditional rites such as tea ceremonies in the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto. 

Kyoto Traditional Crafts Museum: Japanese Craftsmanship Preserved Through the Years

Main Gate of the Kyoto National Museum 20051112

In order to gain a deeper appreciation of the handicrafts from the olden days, it would be best to view the pieces in person. In that way, one will be able to see, appreciate and scrutinize the amount of time, effort, skill, and mastery that was used to create these pieces. There is no better place to do so that in the National Museum of Kyoto. The Kyoto National Museum houses plenty of national treasures from the pre-modernist Japan. The huge museum collection is divided into three sections. One section of the Kyoto Museum is dedicated to fine works of art such as paintings, calligraphy, and sculptures. Another section is dedicated solely to archaeological and historical artifacts. However, the real star of the museum collection, for anyone who wishes to truly immerse himself in the art of traditional crafts is the collection of handicrafts. This collection contains works ranging from pottery, fabrics, lacquer wares, metal works and much more. Being the center of culture in tradition, this museum is a reflection of how the traditional crafts flourished in Kyoto. Aside from the artifacts displayed in the Kyoto National Museum, tourists may also opt to visit the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts for a more in-depth experience. Aside from regular displays of preserved handicrafts, the Museum of Traditional Crafts also holds events for young artists who are still engaged in the art of making handicrafts. It is a great way to preserve tradition.

Experiencing Traditional Crafts

photo by Ardonik - flickr

With the surge of tourists visiting Japan every year, it is no surprise that a lot of hands-on activities involving handicrafts were developed to attract tourists. By paying a small fee, tourists can experience how the ancient Japanese people made their crafts. A myriad of activities are accessible for tourists at various locations – these can be single workshops, museums, and craft villages all over Japan. One of the most popular tourist activities for tourists is pottery making classes as pottery making is very easy for beginners. Usually, a class would cost anywhere between 1,500 to 2,500 yen. It is more common to find these classes in areas where ceramic making is considered to be a major craft. An example of such is the Arita area in Saga prefecture is popular for their ceramic ware, in fact, the largest ceramic fair in Japan is held in Arita. For those who do not enjoy getting their hands dirty (as pottery involves touching wet clay), weaving may be a better option, and also a lot cheaper as the materials are less costly. Typical classes on weaving require only 500 to 2,500 yen. Popular locations for weaving classes are in the Folk Village situated in Takayama, and in the Ryukyu Mura area in the Okinawa Prefecture. Unlike pottery, which requires finished products to be cooked in a kiln for hours to days, weaving classes allow the participants to take home their finished products by the end of the course. The products serve as great souvenirs to remember a one of a kind, cultural experience. Another easy course to partake in are those involving paper making as it requires very little skill, effort, and resources. It is not difficult to find classes for paper crafts as even the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and these usually cost less than other traditional craft classes – costing only 500 to 1,000 yen. Due to the wide variety crafts classified under paper making, there are plenty of options for those who are interested, with origami, fan folding, and paper lantern making being the most popular options.