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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Kyoto fabric maker sees business opportunity as Muslim tourists rise

Mitsumasa Fukumoto

Nov. 8, 2017

Muslim tourists are joining the latest surge of visitors to Japan. That's creating a business opportunity for a traditional manufacturer in Kyoto. It makes Nishjin-ori fabrics, which have a thousand-year-old tradition. Brightly colored yarns are woven into richly decorated fabrics for kimonos.

More and more Muslim tourists from Southeast Asia and the Middle East are making their way to Kyoto. Their numbers have doubled in just the past 3 years. A traditional textile maker in Kyoto is casting a keen eye on the surge in Muslims. The fabric the company weaves is commonly used to make the clothing worn by Buddhist priests. Their designs include phoenixes, dragons, and other Buddhist symbols.

Noriyuki Suzuki is the president of Kaji Kinran, a company that makes Nishijin brocade. Suzuki wondered if it was suitable for making fabrics used in Muslim countries. "I started thinking about what else we could make using our traditional technique. It occurred to me that Muslim prayer rugs could be made from our gold brocade and Nishijin fabrics," he says.

Devout Muslims pray 5 times a day. The rugs they use are essential for prayers, used to sanctify the place of worship. They are special, yet familiar. Everyone has their own.

Suzuki visits an expert on Islamic culture to see if his designs are suitable. "Prayer rugs are important to Muslims. Their designs can't depict animals or humans. You can use floral patterns and that sort of thing," Shahbaz Khan of the Islamic Cultural Center tells him.

Islam bans the worship of idols. Suzuki learned he cannot use the animal designs that appear on Buddhist articles. He also learned that the rugs have a front and back. Worshipers have to know where to kneel and place their heads. The expert gave him tips for attracting Muslims.

"Arabs and Muslims love the color gold," says Khan. "Gold fabric is our specialty. So I'm very glad to hear that," responds Suzuki. It's his first-ever attempt to create a Muslim prayer rug with Nishijin weaving techniques. The vivid design is made with 7 different colored yarns. Many gold threads were used to bring out the designs that people from Muslim cultures tend to favor.

Nishijin brocade features elaborate and intricate patterns. Craftsmen carefully check the design while weaving. It completes several prayer rugs, one with geometric patterns, another featuring Japan's 4 seasons.

"Is the design OK?" Suzuki asks Khan. "Yes, the colors are all right, too. I'm happy to see this special rug. It's a fusion of Muslim culture and Japanese art. I've never seen such a rug before," says Khan.

The rugs are now available at tourist sites in Kyoto. People can use them for free, or buy them. "It's beautiful. Gorgeous, amazing! The art work is nice," says a Muslim tourist. "I think it would be a very good souvenir to bring back because it is definitely something that we didn't think of when we came to Japan to get," says another.

"Muslim and Buddhist cultures have been brought together in a rug. By promoting this rug worldwide, we hope that more people will find Japan's appeal and Kyoto's traditional technique," says Suzuki. The tradition of Nishijin textiles is continuing to grow by branching out into a new area -- Muslim culture.