In the 10th century samurai guarding the emperor and aristocrats began to wear colorful armor, reflecting the capital's elegance. High-ranking samurai practiced mounted warfare, shooting arrows from horseback. When infantry warfare became the norm, armor lost its practicality and became a symbol of a samurai's power. The elaborate armor they commissioned involved dying, weaving, lacquer, and metal artisans. Discover the beauty within samurai armor that is now upheld as the ultimate in craftwork.
Kyoto artisans pursue delicate handiwork.
Their products are seen as the pinnacle of craftwork.
A millennium ago, samurai devised battle armor that was renowned for its brilliant color.
Today, a natural technique from those times is used to color threads.
Time and effort are expended in exploring the beauty of times past.
I wonder how stunning the warriors
would be if they were alive today - as I attempt to
recreate those images.
Once used as protection in battle, samurai armor is now prized traditional craftwork, symbolizing Kyoto beauty in times of peace.
Core Kyoto explores the aesthetics of the samurai through the artisans who bring their elaborate armor to life.
Aoi Matsuri, a festival dating back 1,400 years, is a vibrant pageant.
Participants are primarily attired in reproductions of court costumes from the 8th to 12th centuries.
The ensembles reveal the aesthetic sense of Heian aristocrats.
Samurai armor is believed to have emerged from the dynastic culture which flourished during the 10th century.
Aoi Matsuri is held annually at Kamigamo Jinja, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 677.
The entrance to the office that handles daily shrine affairs is guarded by two suits of armor, gifted by Kyoto artisans.
They feature metal ornaments and cords dyed in delicate shades.
The armor is distinctive for its extensive ornamentation and detailed patterns.
The Nishijin neighborhood known for weaving and dyeing is home to the workshop where these suits of armor were created.
Myouchin Ako is one of few artisans producing samurai armor using traditional methods.
She studied under Myouchin Muneyuki, the 25th head of the Myouchin family, a leading group of armorers prominent from the 13th century on.
When I saw Muneyuki's
armor with its red lacing, I didn't see it
as an object,
I sensed the presence and thoughts
of an actual being.
Not many people know
about Heian armor.
I'm not quite sure why I
decided to create armor myself - other than the fact
that it's beautiful.
Elegant armor was originally worn by warriors guarding the emperor and aristocracy.
Later, high ranking commanders were entitled to wear this armor.
Back then, cavalry warfare was in its prime, and the armor was designed to facilitate easy maneuvering for the archers shooting arrows from horseback.
The numerous parts of samurai armor are crystallizations of the finest dyeing, lacquer, and metalwork techniques.
The two vertical chest straps protected the openings closest to the armpits, as well as the heart.
The waist area was protected by four plate-like sections on the front, back, left, and right.
These broad sections protected the shoulders and arms, and they could be used as shields.
Beneath the corded section were small, layered pieces of sturdy cowhide strengthened by coats of lacquer.
The decorative braided cords reflected the harmonious traditional patterns and colors treasured by the aristocrats for their expression of seasonality.
This pattern, for example, evokes the wisteria flower blooming in spring.
A millennium ago, warriors customarily sought beauty in their armor as a way of declaring their allegiance and their resolution to fight with pride during battle.
to be noticed.
People had to clearly
identify themselves to others.
They also needed to
demonstrate their power.
Wearing something beautiful and brilliant
identified you as a person of means.
Warriors did not adorn themselves
because they faced death, but rather to embrace life.
Red is the color of the sun,
of life, of fire.
Wearing red empowers.
In cavalry warfare, samurai armor dazzled the enemy with its splendor.
However, the passage of time brought a shift from cavalry to infantry fighting, prioritizing lightness and practicality over beauty,
and samurai armor transformed into works of art esteemed as symbols of warriors' authority.
The samurai armor I make is infused
with the essence of Kyoto.
I try to communicate
that distinct beauty.
Kimono and obi made in Nishijin were favored by court nobles, samurai, and wealthy townspeople for centuries.
Hosoo Masao runs a textile business established in 1688.
He believes that genuine creations requiring time and effort will be appreciated by future generations.
Those with an eye for the finest in beauty
and quality can appreciate our work.
Great potential exists not only for textiles,
but for all traditional crafts.
Along with his family business, Hosoo supports Myouchin's armor craftwork as a way to pass on Kyoto's dyeing and weaving culture to the next generation.
He provides Myouchin with silk thread colored using traditional Japanese plant-based dyes.
Myochin works because samurai armor
must be preserved for the future.
I feel compelled to ensure that this beauty
is protected at all costs and handed down.
Myouchin uses a high-grade silk thread known as Cevennes, from the eponymous variety of silkworm.
Introduced into Japan a century ago, it fell out of favor, because the small cocoons produced insufficient silk.
The thread yielded beautiful shades when dyed, so Hosoo revived production in 2019.
His team uses plant-based dyeing techniques codified in the 10th century to recreate the colors used when samurai armor first emerged.
On this day, a dye derived from red-root gromwell is being produced much as it was 1,000 years ago.
First, alkaline lye is produced by adding water to the ashes of burned straw.
The lye is then used to refine the silk thread.
Protein contained in the thread is adjusted and removed, as necessary, to allow the thread to evenly and properly absorb color.
Yamamoto Akira, who has been studying historical dyeing techniques for 60 years, supports Hosoo's efforts and collaborates with him.
The dye is extracted from the roots.
Ancient colors were considered precious things received in exchange for the lives of the plants.
The bag filled with roots is kneaded to extract the first pigment.
The full dye hasn't come out yet.
The color still looks grainy.
The silk threads are immersed in the first round of dye.
We dry it for three days,
then dye and dry again.
We repeat that at least three times,
until it darkens.
The same roots are then crushed to extract additional pigment.
The purple is now deeper.
The pigment extracted in the second and third rounds is said to confer the most stunning dye.
Next, water is added to the ashes of burned camellia leaves.
Once the ash has settled, the liquid above becomes a mordant.
People went to the mountain
and spent a day creating ashes.
Dyeing emerged from such
intricate interactions with nature.
The camellia-ash liquid is used to fix the dye to the thread.
Attaining darker shades requires a full month, proof that craftsmen traditionally took their time - working slowly and carefully.
Hosoo is prioritizing the cultivation of red-root gromwell as it has become an endangered species.
Its scarcity is due to a prevalence of chemical dyes and decreasing cultivation.
Hosoo received some of the remaining seeds and began cultivation in spring 2022.
He is now studying cultivation methods suited to Kyoto's climate.
Takamatsu Shuuto oversees the process.
Having studied fair trade at college, he believes that ideas helpful to developing nations may be hidden in the values abandoned by advanced countries,
so he began working for Hosoo, researching traditional plant-based dyes.
The only way to take measure of the present,
or envision the next decade, is to learn from what we know
from the past.
I am most intrigued by the
depths of human life - what moved people to go to such
lengths to create and use dye.
Hosoo believes ancient techniques can stand the test of time.
Craftsmen give their all to their creations,
putting their outstanding skills to work, resulting in beautiful and
Items can now be produced quickly,
uniformly, and in mass quantity.
But the beautiful products we seek
simply cannot be made - within such
an industrialized structure.
Myouchin is finishing armor platelets made from cowhide.
This critical part of samurai armor protects the wearer from arrows and spears.
Not only an artisan, Myouchin is also a manager who commissions six other craftspeople and oversees their combined efforts.
Satou Nagataka is a lacquerer.
He applies thin layers of lacquer to the plates created by Myouchin.
If you apply the lacquer too thickly,
the excess will contract, and the inside will not dry.
The surface is polished and further lacquered.
The process is repeated about 10 times to enhance beauty and durability.
Next, another artisan weaves the red-root gromwell-dyed threads into braided cords.
Myouchin engages in the decorative work, lacing the plates together with the cords.
She personally handles the key steps to ensure the quality of the final product.
Threading the broad cords through the many holes is quite an arduous task.
The braided cord would pass through
larger holes much more easily, but then it would emerge
I want it to look soft and full, so I make
the holes as small as possible.
Smaller holes lend the braids a three-dimensional appearance, imbuing the armor with an air of elegance and dignity.
Another artisan creates the metal fittings attached to the straps protecting the chest and armpit areas.
Each fitting is shaped like a chrysanthemum.
Morimoto Akiyoshi carefully taps and cuts out a single copper plate.
And you cut it off here.
The plate is then rounded off with a file.
It takes three days of steady work to complete one fitting.
Myouchin is uncompromising when it comes to quality.
- This has peaks and troughs.
This one's not as defined.
Exactly. You can't tell at first glance,
but there is a definite difference.
- It looks flat.
- It's hard to explain.
Myouchin found the piece on the left satisfactory, but the one on the right lacking in definition.
People like Myochin
Most don't notice details.
She really focuses.
Most artisans would
be satisfied with these.
But if I thought one was a bit off
and preferred the other, Morimoto would agree,
and he would try once again.
Our work lasts forever.
I want people to see my creations
and recognize them as high quality work.
You never know who's looking
and criticizing your work.
Myouchin consolidates the various parts she commissioned to complete a suit of armor.
In Kyoto where objects of beauty are valued and nurtured, Myouchin and her colleagues strive to create exceptional armor that will endure for centuries.
I propose the direction and
confer with the others, and we work in tandem to generate
a great transformation.
I am linked to my mentor,
as he was to his predecessors.
Their accumulated thoughts
are passed along to me, and become part of what I create.
Eventually that takes the form of armor.
But I sometimes wonder if perhaps
it is not armor that I am creating.
The spirits of the ancestors, over a millennium, dwell in samurai armor.
Kotake Masayuki - born and raised in Kyoto - has been fascinated with swords and helmets since childhood.
At age eight, his parents encouraged him to enlist Myouchin's assistance when he made his own suit of armor.
At 18, again under Myouchin's tutelage, Kotake created a full-sized suit of armor using money he had saved.
I feel somehow protected
by this armor.
It inspires me to do my best each day and
gives me the courage to overcome difficulties.
I sometimes feel that a presence or
soul dwells within the armor.
On November 23rd, Kamigamo Jinja holds a ritual for donning one's first suit of armor.
Historically, the event was a coming-of-age ceremony for samurai offspring when they first wore a full suit of armor, as well as for adults acquiring a new suit of armor.
The shrine applauded Myouchin's aspirations to see dynastic culture pass to the next generation and arranged for the ceremony to be revived.
In 2022, it was held for the 15th time.
Both Hosoo Masao, a supporter of armor production, and armor enthusiast Kotake Masayuki, participated.
Myouchin, who previously only walked in the procession, makes her first appearance on horseback.
The event recalls the Heian period, when samurai armor first emerged, and individuals paraded about on horses.
Ms. Myochin Ako,
please proceed to the front.
During the event, Myouchin conveys to the deities her dedication to and fulfillment of creating samurai armor.
Following the pilgrimage, formal Heian headwear is placed on children's heads, expressing wishes for their healthy growth.
The ceremony aspires to instill the beauty of Kyoto into the children.
I feel relieved.
Everything went fine.
Samurai armor was designed
for horseback riding, and I am pleased I could
wear it while riding a horse.
Efforts are being made to ensure samurai armor survives into the future.
Hosoo sells Myouchin's samurai armor along with children's versions at venues, such as department stores.
He hopes to reach enthusiasts, who recognize the beauty of authenticity and appreciate the skill, patience, and soul embodied in each suit of armor.
Sales opportunities such
as this are important - for promoting financial support
and ensuring cultural continuity.
December, and the red-root gromwell planted in spring yields its first harvest.
Hosoo and Takamatsu examine the results.
If successful, the purple dye of a millennium ago can be sustainably produced in the Kyoto climate.
The healthy root color testifies to the plants' steady growth.
- It has solid roots.
- This is a good.
I want to start dyeing
I'd like to dye with it in its peak condition
while it's fresh.
We put our heart, soul, and effort into creating
beautiful things, as they did long ago.
We have reached a stage where
we can live in harmony with nature, and create within nature's cycle.
The challenge of exploring sustainable production has only just begun.
Kyoto artisans strive to produce exceptional items using skills handed down for over a thousand years.
A respect for both ancestors and nature will carry samurai armor into the future.