Ise City is blessed with a rich natural environment of mountains, sea, and forest, as well as being the gateway to Ise Jingu. Since ancient times, this has led to the development of many kinds of culture unique to Ise. During the residency, the UK artists had the opportunity to visit artists’ studios and craft workshops to observe paper, household altars, wood sculpture, and carved netsuke miniatures for which Ise is known being crafted using traditional methods. They also encountered ama divers’ culture; visited Kawasaki neighbourhood, where the old townscape has been preserved; and interacted with people who are helping to pass on Ise’s culture to the current generation.
Ise’s traditional craftsmanship
Ise’s carved wooden crafts are said to have originated with carvings the Jingu carpenters produced in their spare time from the scrap wood and offcuts left over from the ritual rebuilding.
Thatched household altars produced only in Ise, which faithfully reproduce the architectural style of the sanctuaries at Ise Jingu, are made with great care by craftsmen. Meanwhile, Ise wood sculptures are characterised by their plain and vigorous carving, in which the surface is neither painted nor polished, but rather the grain of the wood and the knife marks remain visible. Nowadays, carved sculptures of chickens (which live in the Jingu precincts and thought to be messengers of kami), frogs, and the animals of the Chinse zodiac are gaining popularity as lucky charms.
Netsuke have been called “miniature works of art which fit into the palm of your hand.” They were originally used to fasten seal cases and tobacco pouches, but gained widespread favour among prosperous merchants of the later Edo Period as items representing “tasteful” culture. In modern times, they are particularly popular overseas as works of art, and are rated highly by collectors. Ise netsuke, which use boxwood from trees grown on nearby Mt Asama, were apparently very popular souvenirs of pilgrimages to Ise in the Edo Period.
Most of Ise’s crafts developed in tandem with Ise Jingu. Ise washi (washi = traditional Japanese paper) is used for amulets, talismans, almanacs, and other shrine objects. Watermarks are incorporated into Ise washi according to the use to which it will be put. Recently, Ise washi has been developed in various sizes and with various textures, such as paper for inkjet printers, broadening its range of uses.
These Ise traditional crafts have a history dating back to the Edo Period, but they are facing issues such as changing value systems and a shortage of successors. Just as the Jingu’s sanctuaries are regenerated once every 20 years, traditional culture is passed on to the next generation as a living culture by seeking out the values of its age. The crafts people encountered during this visit were notable for their work to put tradition to use in modern life and their emphasis on the training of successors.