Kyoto Re-visited: Raku, Kasuri and Kintsugi

Quirky doll store never seen by tourists in Kyoto

I loved my first visit to Kyoto, which was before the city’s famous Nishiki Market replaced artistic displays of incredible foods and high-end craft shops with plastic-wrapped produce and cheesy souvenir stands. It was before convenience stores were on every street corner, even in the city’s most historic neighborhoods. There were not so many tourists that you felt like a dumb tourist.  My first visit wasn’t in 1970. It was four years ago.

Random cool restaurant sign from off the beaten path.

Last week, I loved my second visit to Kyoto as well, in spite of how the city has changed. On my second visit, I mostly stayed away from the city’s amazing but jam-packed temples and shopping districts, and focused on learning about the folk arts for which Kyoto is famous. Kyoto has folk art museums, shops and galleries that would take months to fully explore so I picked a few, with the emphasis on ceramics and textiles.

Orinasu-Kan museum of textiles. Photo by Japanshoppers

One of my first stops was Kyoto’s Raku Museum. Going in, I had always understood that “raku” is a firing technique where pottery is removed from the kiln when it is red-hot and immediately put into a container with combustible materials, like leaves. That technique, it turns out, is western.  At the Raku Museum, I learned that “Raku” is the name of a Japanese family that, since the 16th century, has been full of masters of Japanese pottery-making. The Japanese technique of raku is low-temperature firing in which the pottery is cooled with water. It is deliberately Zen in its simplicity and its use of the four elements — earth, fire, water and air. Here is good article about raku.

This raku tea bowl, made by a member of the Raku family, has a classic design that depicts Mt. Fuji.

I also visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and the city’s Folk Art Museum, neither of which appealed to me very much. Both emphasized more refined and recent folk arts. Some of it reminded me of what is sold in the US by cheap import stores.

Representative of the folk art displays at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. This just doesn’t do it for me. Photo from the Museum’s website.

Still, the trek to the Folk Art Museum was worth it! While I was in the gift shop, a small handmade bowl caught my eye from across the room. I checked the price — only $35! I took it to the cashier and handed her my credit card as she lovingly wrapped it in beautiful paper. Back at the hotel, I showed the bowl to Diane. She asked me whether I was sure about the price because the bowl looked like it was worth more than $35, with its hand-painted detail and gold inlaid fish-u. She was right — in my enthusiasm, I hadn’t paid much attention to the zeros on the price tag or my credit card receipt. Maybe the bowl cost $350! I waited to look at my online credit card bill until I had convinced myself that this would be one of those travel stories to laugh about. After three days, I checked my credit card bill online and…

…the bowl was $35! Yay! Why didn’t I buy more of them!?!?!

Perhaps my favorite museum was Orinasu-Kan, where artists weave re-creations of intricate ancient textiles, often for Noh plays. It also displays beautiful examples of some of Japan’s finest handwoven textiles. (Thanks to Cheryl Lawrence, textile artisan from Washington State, who I met at the museum and provided great insights!)

Indigo-dyed Shibori, very old, very amazing

Some of the most interesting textiles at Orinasu-Kan were made using a technique called “kasuri”, also known as “ikat.” Kasuri creates patterns on a woven fabric according to the ways the threads are “tie-dyed” before they are woven.  Check out this short article about kasuri (ikat) that provides a better explanation.

Here is a beautiful but simple example of kasuri at Orinasu-Kan. It is not difficult to imagine how the threads were tied and then dyed to create the patterns.

Now imagine tying off three pounds of fine thread to come up with two yards of Japanese kanji, like this vintage linen piece:


After all that folk art education, I tried to get off the beaten track for meals as well. My favorite was street food at the Sujin-Shimachi “beer garden” near Kyoto Station. It’s just far enough from the tourist hotels that the feeling was relaxed and local. There were a lot of Japanese options but most were meat so I went for the Thai food. OMG, our Japanese chef made the best pad kee mao I have ever had!

Back to the ceramics….the Japanese have made an art of mending broken pottery with gold. The process is called “kintsugi,” which literally means “golden rejoining.” The deeper meaning of Kintsugi is that the once-broken pottery has been recreated as a new and beautiful masterpiece in its own right. Kintsugi is also a metaphor for the idea that the process of healing from our mistakes and broken hearts and shattered dreams resurrects us and makes us even more wonderful. I just love that.













  1. I loved the part about the repair of broken pottery- kintsugi. We could learn much from our neighbors in Japan about many things.

    1. It’s true. One other thing I have recently noticed is that although the country is so commerical and there is so much consumerism here, the capitalism it doesn’t come with the competitive feeling I feel when I am at home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s