Many tourists visit Matsumoto for its beautifully-preserved sixteenth-century castle. Only a few stop by the small Matsumoto City Museum right across the courtyard. Although somewhat old fashioned, this museum bears a nostalgic charm. It displays a handmade model of the castle from 1911:
And also offers a peek into the rich world of traditional Japanese crafts from the Matsumoto region.
Traditional Matsumoto Crafts
Beautifying Everyday Life
In pre-industrial societies, people made everyday objects by hand. In Matsumoto, peasants crafted various kinds of baskets out of a specific type of bamboo called Suzutake. They worked on these baskets in winter, the agricultural off season. Matsumoto baskets became famous in Japan from the Edo period onward, and in the beginning of the twentieth century were even exported to Europe and the United States.
As in many parts of the world, however, the most beautiful manifestations of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts evolved around the lives of the elites.
Samurai armor and swards were an important part of the warrior culture of ancient Japan, and many artisans therefore put a lot of effort into making them beautiful. The museum offers a few examples of such artifacts preserved from local samurai families.
Matsumoto Thread Balls appeared in the late 17th century, after cotton threads became widespread. Originally, they were the toys of girls from elite samurai families of the Matsumoto clan. Later they became a popular kind of regional folk art, with many different patterns.
In the Tenpo era (1830-1843), as part of his efforts to promote the town’s industry, the Matsumoto feudal lord encouraged samurai families to produce Oshiebina dolls. People made these dolls to represent kabuki actors and historical figures. They created them by wrapping cotton over cardboard and putting a bamboo skewer at the back for better display.
Many of the traditional crafts in the museum revolve around rituals. These Omiki-no-kuchi, for example, are bamboo sake-bottle charms:
People placed them in Shinto alters on New year’s Eve. The art of making them is dying out, however. Only a few families in Matsumoto are still skilled in the craft.
Another example of a ritual-related craft is straw figures such as this, which were meant to represent the Poverty God. Peasants placed them on the boundaries of villages to prevent the invasion of the Plague God. It was their way to try to ensure good harvest and peace.
Tanabata Dolls in various forms are related to the Star Festival. In most places in Japan, people celebrate this festival on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Matsumoto, however, people celebrate it on August 7th. This festival, by the way, is based on a Chinese folktale about a love story between a Weaver and an Alter. The Matsumoto City Museum has some dolls dating from the 18th century.
People still use Tanabata dolls today, giving them as gifts on important life-cycle-related events.
Various deity figurines and dolls made for festivals, shrines and alters were also widespread. Aren’t they spectacular?
Interested to read more about arts in Japan? Try these posts.
Last December, my family stopped over in Cambodia to see Angknor Wat. Discovering Artisans Angkor and learning about traditional Khmer crafts was an unexpected bonus. But my luck didn’t end with that. The hotel we stayed at was on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and every time we rode a tuk tuk back we passed by this sign:
As you can imagine, the words “Traditional Textiles” ignited my curiosity. I just couldn’t bare the thought of leaving Siem Reap without checking this place out! And so, after a full day of touring the temples followed by a visit to Artisans Angkor, I dragged my exhausted family to one more place before ending the day with a well-deserved dinner.
We walked into the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) to find an unremarkable yard surrounding a traditional house on stilts. In the large area under the stilts, straw mats covered the concrete floor. Rows of looms and other devices filled the space. A few women worked sitting on the floor:
I felt a bit like an intruder, not sure whether we were allowed to be there or not. But then someone pointed to the “store” sign. We climbed up to the second floor to check it out. There, we met a very friendly Japanese woman speaking fluent English, who was generous enough to tell us more about the Institute and take us around.
IKTT was established in 1996 by Kikuo Morimoto. Morimoto was a master kimono painter from Kyoto, specializing in natural dyes. He fell in love with Khmer silk while visiting Cambodia in the early 1990’s. With help from UNESCO, in 1995 he was able to tour remote villages in the still-war-revenged country, searching for weavers who were skilled in traditional weaving. He soon realized that war and modernity threatened the continuation of the art. Young people were no longer interested in learning weaving skills that would not allow them to support their families. Once the old generation died off, Morimoto realized, the art of traditional Khmer weaving will die with them.
And so, he established IKTT, and gathered the few old women who still knew the traditional craft into one village. He brought silk worms, set workshops, attracted young weavers and even bought land on which to revive the natural forest (the source for traditional dyes). It took many years, but now the Institute owns 23 hectares of revived forest; supports a self-sustaining textile village that is the home of 160 people; and runs the main office and shop in Siem Reap, which I visited. IKTT currently employs around 250 people.
Khmer silk is made out of yellow cocoons created by the silk worms native to Cambodia. These cocoons are smaller than the white cocoons used for Chinese and Japanese silk, and they produce much shorter threads: about 300 meters (984 feet) per cocoon vs. 1,400 meters (4593 feet) per white cocoon. However, the silk they produce is of higher quality.
Artisans cook the cocoons in banana ash. This removes the proteins and allows extraction of thread. They spin the thread by hand, creating an unevenly-thick thread that later creates a textured cloth:
After they spin it, they prepare it for dyeing.
Traditional Khmer dyes, like traditional Peruvian dyes, are extracted from the natural world: plants and insects collected from the forests. There are five main colors: yellow, red, green, blue and black.
Of course, despite the similar look of the Peruvian and Khmer natural dyes, each culture relies on the plants and insects that are available to it. Whereas Peruvian purple, for example, is extracted from purple corn, Khmer purple comes for the Lac insect. Sadly, this insect became extinct in Cambodia, and is now imported:
Artisans wrap the dyed thread on a wheel to dry, and then roll it into bobbins:
Plain or Plated Cloth
The simplest Khmer silk cloth is plain, with the warp and weft threads being the same color:
Shot silk has two different colors: one for the warp and one for the weft. While visiting IKTT I saw two such examples, one with black warp and yellow weft threads resulting in darkish-yellow color:
And the other with red warp and yellow weft, creating an almost golden color:
IKTT artisans create plaid by using different colors in the warp, mimicked by a similar pattern of different colors of the weft:
The most amazing Khmer silks, however, are those with Ikat patterns. These are the most complex and time-consuming to make. Khmer Ikat is a weft Ikat woven on a multi-shaft loom. This means that artisans have to weave each weft thread exactly in its right place to create the design. This type of weaving creates an uneven twill weave, meaning that the weft threads are more visible on the front of the fabric.
Ikat silk is born when weavers divide threads into small bundles. They stretch these bundles on a frame that is the width of the final textile:
They then tie banana fibers on each bundle, at the place where they DON’T want the dye to take hold. That means that they need to know the final pattern BEFORE they even begin dyeing:
Now the threads are ready for the first dye. Artisans dip the tied thread bundles into dye pots. Once dyed, they stretch them again, remove the original ties, and put more ties to cover the parts which they don’t want the second dye to cover. This is painstaking work that takes many, many hours:
Artisans repeat the process for the third and any subsequent dye, until the threads reach their final color.
Amazingly, the patterns are not written anywhere. The motifs and designs are passed down through the generations, with each artist re-creating them from memory. Thus, every complete textile is unique to the person who created it.
Weavers weave the dyed threads into a fabric. The threads you see in the pictures above, for example, look like this on the final textile:
The traditional Khmer textiles were skirt wraps: Sampot Hol for women, and Sampot Hol Kaban for men. The most complex Khmer Ikat was the Pidan, a traditional wall hanging for religious ceremonies. In the latter, the pattern has no repetition at all!
Many of the textiles created by IKTT artisans take over three months to create!
The second-floor shop offers the finished silks for sale. Don’t expect to find bargains here. IKTT silks are of the highest-quality. Their prices rightfully reflect that. Keep in mind that for your money, you will get a unique piece of art, support an entire community, and help preserve a traditional Khmer art.
Many tourists visit Artisans Angkor, but IKTT is a hidden gem. It truly is a must stop for any textile lover.
For more information on the Institute visit its website.
Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last December I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand, but before it started we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We came to see the temple of Angkor Wat, and stayed in nearby Siem Reap.
Because of the temples surrounding it, Siem Reap is buzzing with tourists. It offers plenty of accommodations and wonderful food options, as well as different kinds of activities. If, like me, you are passionate about traditional crafts, the town has enough to satisfy your curiosity before and/or after you visit the temples.
The night markets offer everything from food to handicrafts, and are fun places to explore. There are several of them, so you might want to stretch your visit to these markets over a couple of nights. If you only have one evening to spare, you can ride a tuk tuk from one market to the other. Riding those is an experience all by itself!
If you only have little time in Siem Reap and wish to stock up on locally-made souvenirs quickly, the Made in Cambodia market is the place for you. Small, pleasant and not overwhelming, it has an array of booths displaying a wide verity of local handicrafts. I was happy to see some upcycling, such as these bags by Angkor Recycled:
After I bought something at one of the booths, I got it in this self-made bag, made out of newspapers. How cool is that?!
For those who have more time, Artisans Angkor is a must stop. This company, which started in the 1990’s, aims to revive some of the traditional Khmer crafts that nearly disappeared during the years of the civil war. It provides vocational training to uneducated villagers, teaching them new skills and allowing them to supplement agricultural work. The company gives its workers the opportunity to work near their home villages (the center at Siem Reap is only one of twelve sites in the province), and provides a safe work environment in addition to social and medical welfare.
Artisans Angkor is also an educational center for tourists. Visitors are invited to take free tours with English-speaking guides. They can visit all the workshops, and read English signs explaining the different stages of each craft. Some workshops even give hands-on experiences, which can be quite fun for kids and adults alike.
Nothing beats seeing craftspeople in real life, so if you find yourself in Siem Reap, make sure to visit Artisans Angkor. For those of you who can’t make it, here’s a brief virtual tour:
The tour of the stone-carving workshop begins with a sign explaining the different kids of stones.
Clear displays then show the stages of carving a stone statue, from a block of stone to a smooth, finished image.
With hard stone, the artists start with a drawing on the stone. They then drill holes along the outlines, and begins to chip away the spaces. After the carving, the artists polish the statue to remove tool marks, and then sand it to make it smooth:
Soap Stone, which is softer and crumblier, can be made into smaller and somewhat finer sculptures. Artisans polish it with water, creating a smoother feel once finished:
In the spacious and clean workshop visitors can see artisans at work. Each person has their own bench, and is working on their own project.
Wood Carving is similar to stone carving, except it begins with a drawing on paper, which is attached to a block of wood. The artisans carve the spaces out, polish the statue to remove tool marks, and, once finished, wax it to protect the surface:
Artisans paint some of the sculptures once finished, and decorate them with gold leaf. When finished, they protect them with patina as well as wax.
Cambodians use copper leaves to make boxes. Artisans first clean the copper sheets, fire-mold them, and then pound them to give them shape. They gently pound designs, usually that of plants or animals such as elephants. They make smaller details, such as elephant tasks, separately, and glue them on. Once finished, they dry and clean the boxes, and then soak them in a silver bath.
Cambodians also use copper leaves to decorate wooden sculptures such as elephants. These people, for example, are working on saddles they will later attach to wooden elephants:
Metal decorations are also added to lacquered wooden boxes:
Cambodians love to apply lacquer to boxes, sculptures or paintings. The process begins when artisan apply several layers of lacquer over two and a half weeks to create the background color.
For paintings, they use a pad with talcum powder on tracing paper to create the outline. They then apply varnish to the parts that need to be gilded. They gently check with their fingers to make sure the varnish is ready, and add the gold leaves carefully when it is. When the piece is finished, they spray it with hydro varnish to make it safe for humans. It takes up to a week for the hydro varnish to dry.
For silk paintings, artisans stretch silk in a frame over an existing painting. They copy the outline of that painting onto the silk, and then fill the details in with colors. When done, they apply patina to protect the painting.
Cambodia has amazing textiles. Nowadays you can find many cotton weaving in the different markets, but traditionally the country excelled at silk weaving. Silk weaving was probably introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century, through the Silk Road. Local people turned woven silk into sarongs and scarves.
At Artisans Angkor, you can see a demonstration traditional Hol Lboeuk scarf weaving. Women weave these scarves entirely by hand on traditional looms. They take weeks or even months to complete.
Artisans Angkor also has workshops for ceramics and silver jewelry.
Your tour at the facility will inevitably end at the store. Beautiful and modern, it displays the work of the company’s craftspeople. Many of the traditional methods have been adapted to modern tastes and lifestyles, resulting in souvenirs of the highest-most quality. The prices, accordingly, are not cheap. Please remember, though, that any money you spend there will support the continuous preservation of traditional crafts, as well as the community of local craftspeople who could really use your help.
For those of you who are interested in textiles and are willing to go to the outskirts of the old town (a short tuk tuk ride away), Siem Reap offers yet another treat. The Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles will allow you to follow the process of silk weaving in even greater detail. But that, I think, deserves its very own post…