People painting the eyes onto wood mice
Under the direction of Yukiteru Kishikawa, an Ise woodcarver, the artists tried their hands at painting the eyes onto mice, the animal of the year for 2020 in the Chinese zodiac. ©

 Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

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.

Two women standing and talking
Visiting the workshop of Miyachu, makers of household altars and votive objects. The scents of cypress and cedar brought back memories of the Ise Jingu, leading to the discovery of an unexpected association between scent and place. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

People watching handmade Japanese paper
At Taihou wasi kougyou K.K., who have been making paper for use at the Ise Jingu for over 100 years and are now the only manufacturers of Ise washi, the participants observed the traditional method of making paper by hand. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

Mice with netsuke sculpture
The participants visited the workshop of Tadamine Nakagawa, a netsuke artisan who also serves as the director of the Ise Netsuke Carving Museum. Nakagawa’s netsuke, which combine elaborate technique with the artisan’s playful spirit, are highly acclaimed domestically and abroad. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

People who see various photos
The participants visited Kuzaki in Toba, called the birthplace of Japan’s ama divers, and met with active ama. Jane and Louise Wilson, who undertook a creative residency on Korea’s Jeju Island last year, discovered the way in which ama culture links Japan and Korea. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

Three people talking in the atelier
Kawasaki, which prospered as a wholesale district from the Edo Period onwards, is a retro neighbourhood lined with workshops and shops making full use of the townhouses and storehouses that retain the vestiges of the merchants’ quarter. The participants visited the workshop of Takeshi Nakatani and Yuki Hashimoto, painters and designers who run a stylish shop in the neighbourhood. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

How did Japanese culture come across to the artists?

During their two weeks in Ise, the seven artists experienced encounters with a variety of cultures and people. Spending the time together with artists working in different fields of expression also seemed to provide positive stimuli. The artists who initially tried to understand things in words gradually got used to “feeling” things as they came into contact with various forms of Japanese culture. The artists reflected in the following ways on the importance of opportunities such as this one, which are impossible to gain through books or the Internet. 

Grace Boyle spoke of how building connections across national and cultural barriers will become ever more important as people disappear further into their digital and virtual worlds and as politics become increasingly polarised.

Season Butler understood this as a chance to reconsider her own culture and community from a different perspective, taking a fresh look with a critical eye at ways of thinking which she had taken for granted.

An artistic residency is not a pleasure trip; it is important to have a sense of purpose, and to adopt an attitude of learning about and facing global issues together, even if you cannot immediately find the answers. These were the words of Matthew Rosier.

Finally, the words of Nicole Vivien Watson, “I don’t think any of us will easily forget the days we spent here. I’m sure that we will remember our experiences many times after returning home, and wonder exactly what they were,” seemed to distil the essence of the group’s profound experiences in Ise, which went far deeper than anything that could be expressed in words.

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