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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Restoring traditional techniques of "Inden"

May 15, 2017

The traditional Japanese craft known as Inden is gaining popularity overseas. Inden uses deerskin, embellished with intricate patterns in lacquer. When the craft originated in the 8th century, patterns were made using smoke. Inspired by the original Inden, one craftsman is working to restore the ancient technique.

The craft is used on various items like bags and wallets. The traditional technique impresses even the toughest critics.

"It's light and soft. It's as good as any luxury brand product," says a customer.

"It's fun to see the items. It looks rather modern," says another.

Inden is also attracting attention outside Japan.

America's biggest fashion fair was held in New York in February. Products from a Japanese studio were displayed there. The combination of deerskin and lacquer surprised buyers, prompting many inquiries.

One of the oldest Inden pieces has a "budo karakusa-mon," or grape-vine arabesque design, and is designated a national treasure.

The color wasn't created by lacquer, but by smoke. It's not known exactly how the ancient craftsmen did it.

One man is trying to revive the technique.

Taichiro Minamiura says he was shocked when he first saw the smoke-dyed Inden.

"I had believed that it was dyed with colorant, but later learned that smoke had been used. I was impressed with the amazing technique," he says.

 

How is deerskin dyed with smoke? To find the answer, Minamiura spent 40 years studying the few remaining documents on the subject.

Minamiura calls the smoke-coloring technique "ibushi." He created a room especially for the process.

In it, he placed a custom-made tube-like object called an "Ibushi Drum," on which he lays the deerskin.

He made an earthen kiln to generate smoke.

He turns the "Ibushi Drum" by hand, making sure the smoke touches the deerskin.

He moves it from right to left and up and down so the smoke can reach every inch.

He says that at first, the deerskin did not change color at all. But through trial and error, he noticed that the key was the yellow smoke that rises immediately before flames appear.

Various factors such as the thickness or the length of straw make a difference in the way the smoke rises.

"The results were different every time, depending on the kind of straw, the weather conditions, the temperature, and the humidity. All factors are intertwined. It takes 10 or even 20 years to master the technique," he explains.

"When I start this process, I'm holed up in this room for a day, or even 3 days if I want a darker color. My eyes get irritated and inflamed because of the smoke."

"I'd almost say I'm risking my life," Minamiura says.

The deerskin was tanned in about an hour.

To create a deeper shade, he repeats this "ibushi" process. He then lets the deerskin stand for more than 6 months so the color can settle.

It takes more than one year to finish the process.

Designs can be imprinted by placing stencils or strings on the deerskin while it is being smoked.

Minamiura's efforts were recognized when he was designated a "master craftsman" by the Japanese government last year.

Minamiura's unwavering goal is to achieve the level of the ancient craftsmen.

"Various techniques are condensed in this piece. This pattern was imprinted using the smoke, and so were these lines," he explains.

"If you look closely you can see that within the vertical lines there are very fine horizontal lines. To be honest, I still don't know how they did it," he says.

He is determined to spend his whole life finding out.

"Ancient craftsmen didn't use machines. They used only their hands. We must treasure their craftsmanship. I will do what I can to preserve such amazing traditional techniques," says Minamiura.


Newsroom Tokyo anchor Aki Shibuya is joined by NHK Osaka's Takeshi Tanii, who covered this story.

Shibuya: Minamiura said he was risking his health pursuing his craft. Could you give us a sense of what it feels like to be in the workshop?

Tanii: I was in the atelier for the filming, so I got a feel for how hard it must be for Minamiura. I couldn't open my eyes. I almost choked when the smoke seeped through my mask. I panicked and ran out of the room. The cameraman who stayed said he could smell the smoke even 5 days after the filming. But Minamiura worked on.

Shibuya: The bags with patterns drawn in lacquer are getting popular abroad. It seems like good business. But why is Minamiura putting so much effort into restoring the smoking technique?

Tanii: Minamiura feels a certain romance in solving the riddle of how the ancient Inden pieces were made. The only thing he can do is look at the old Inden pieces and try to get closer to them through trial and error. Minamiura is from Nara, where Inden originated. He feels perfectly placed to revive the ancient tradition.