The green islands rising from the richly blue expanses of the Seto Inland Sea are well-known as bastions of artistic expression across the region, and this is a reputation well-deserved. After all, it is right here where travelers are able to encounter some of the most powerfully transformative and moving examples of contemporary art in Japan and arguably in the world.
However, these veins of artistic expression are not only contained within these floating fortresses of art and culture, but rather freely spread across Kagawa, dyeing the prefecture with a distinctive and surprising artistic streak in spite of the often-rural nature of Japan’s smallest prefecture.
This streak of artistic expression ranges from the abstract and modern found in airy museums and exhibition halls to the traditional and folksy as enjoyed in a casual, day-to-day manner by the many people who call Kagawa Prefecture home. And one shining example of the latter is found in an unassuming former pre-school whose brown and blue façade contrast with the otherwise dull oppidan grey of the surrounding cityscape.
This building is home to the Sanuki Kagari Temari Preservation Society which keeps alive the relatively unknown folk-craft tradition of “temari.”
From Ancient Origins to Wartime Decline
Literally meaning “hand ball,” these colorful spheres were introduced to Japan sometime in the 7th Century as part of the cultural exchange between Mainland Asia and the Japanese Court centered in Nara. Made by wrapping a dense ball of cloth in layers of silk string, temari would be lovingly crafted by mothers and passed down to their daughters as a play thing and memento. However, as the Japanese Court’s love of art, poetry, and culture increased the creation of temari became highly popular as a work of art in its own right among nobles.
Using fabric from kimono, noblewomen would transform these children’s toys into works of art which were then displayed or worn as accessories. The highly decorative spheres became so popular amongst nobles that they would even arrange competitions to showcase and share their artistic abilities.
Additionally, due to the time and effort needed to create temari as well as their bright colors and intricate patterns, the exchange of temari was seen as a sign of friendship and as a way to express wishes for good luck and a happy life.
The popularity of the temari also extended to the populace as mothers would create temari for their daughters based on the patterns and designs seen worn by nobles. In particular, a temari ball game played during the New Year was especially popular amongst the wider populace during most of Japan’s Medieval Era.
Despite the former courtly popularity of the temari, as Japan began to modernize during the late 19th Century the introduction of affordable rubber and large-scale manufacturing meant that the days of handmade crafts was on the decline and by the end of the Pacific War the tradition had almost ceased to exist.
Rediscovery and Rebirth of a Tradition
However, in 1965, Kagawa native Araki Kazuo founded the Ritsurin Garden folkcraft museum which showcases examples of traditional art from across Japan. During his travels and research, Kazuo discovered that during Japan’s Medieval Era, the crafting of temari was especially widespread in Kagawa Prefecture.
Moreover, Araki uncovered that the temari crafted here were unique as they actually used cotton as their core instead of cloth since in the past Kagawa was famous for producing the “Three-Whites:” sugar, salt, and cotton. To renew this unique yet nearly lost tradition, Kazuo and his wife Yaeko founded the Sanuki Kagari Temari Preservation Society in 1983 with the help of locals who still had the knowledge on how to produce these regional temari.
The current leader of the association is actually Kazuo’s daughter-in-law Eiko who was inspired by her mother-in-law’s work with the temari. Fascinated by the vibrant colors of woolen yarn and the beautifully intricate geometric designs, Eiko quickly fell in love with the craft and in addition to preserving and reinvigorating the tradition of temari, Eiko also stresses the familial importance of the tradition as passed down from grandmother to mother and mother to daughter.
This feeling of family is tangible in the association’s hall where visitors are happily welcomed as any other member. Here, different works by the members are on display and each one serves as a unique and personal expression from the creator. And despite the relative rigidity of geometry, it is fascinating to see the array of different patterns and expressions of shape, color, size, and form in the completed works of the members.
Each of the temari formed in the quiet of the association hall begins with a core of loose cotton and rice from the prefecture which is then carefully wrapped in layers of woolen string. The string itself is dyed using local plants taken from a small courtyard but also includes the peels of citrus fruits or persimmons taken from the gardens and farms of different members throughout the year meaning that each batch of dyed wool uniquely captures the hues and colors of a particular season.
Choosing the colors of the thread and actually sitting down to create a temari oneself is deeply relaxing and while listening to the gentle instruction and hints of the members it is easy to become engrossed in the dip and glide of needle and thread, and time spent creating the temari could very easily be considered as some kind of “Zen.” It is also highly satisfying to consider that despite the highly local character of both the members and materials used in this almost hypnotizing process it nevertheless manages to connect with the courtly elegance of Classical Japan; threads of which amazingly still manage to survive to this day in this place we call Shikoku.
Written by H.Sapochak
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