Every year as spring turns to summer, the quiet castle town of Matsumoto in mountainous Nagano prefecture is transformed into the craft capital of Japan. Crowds of people come from afar to celebrate the work of several hundred of the country’s leading craftspeople at the two-day Matsumoto Craft Fair.
Since its humble beginnings in 1984, the fair has become the biggest and most prestigious of a growing number of open-air craft fairs that take place across Japan annually. Although the Matsumoto event showcases the work of approximately 260 craftsmen, the competition for places is fierce, which means that entry standards are very high. Only 1 in 5 of applicants reportedly are accepted to participate.
I experienced the excitement of the most recent craft fair in Matsumoto on the final weekend of May 2013 when I, along with 250,000 other craft enthusiasts, made the two and a half hour pilgrimage by train from Tokyo.
At the train station, I was welcomed by an advertising banner announcing “Matsumoto Craft Month” (kougei-no-gogatsu). The success of the craft fair has contributed to the growth of the city’s tourism and it now organizes numerous craft related events and workshops throughout May that builds up to the climax of the main craft fair at the end of the month.
It takes around 20 minutes to walk from the train station to Agata-no-Mori Park where the show is held. This 15-acre sprawling park is lined with tall Himalayan cedars and houses a beautiful historic school building. By the time I arrived in the late morning though, the park’s promenade was tightly packed with the biggest crowd that I have ever seen at a Japanese craft fair. The atmosphere was festive and everyone seemed excited to be there.
Each of the stalls that I visited displayed beautiful and truly unique work. Besides the exceptional quality on show, another characteristic that differentiates this fair from others that I have visited was the sheer diversity of crafts on display. Of the 260 stalls, approximately 80 were ceramics, 50 wood, 25 glass, 25 textiles, 20 metal, 10 leather, 4 apparel, and 40 other miscellaneous outlets. This “others” group included stalls selling raw materials, tools and even books related to crafts that I have not seen elsewhere. Additionally, there were 40 stalls brimming with food and drinks that made the fair an event that one can enjoy for a whole day.
Another unique feature of the show was its serendipitous design. The participants choose where to locate their stalls on a first-come first-serve basis. There was no map to locate where a favored craftsman might be found, so there was plenty of incentive to go around as much of the show as possible to see what was on display. I really enjoyed this element of surprise, which allowed me to wander through all the stalls without the distraction of intent. After a while, I noticed that the end of the park was far less crowded than the entrance, so the next time I come here I will start at the end and work my way back to the front of the park.
The makers Kobayashi Katsuhisa, Ito Akinobu, and Sakai Mika, whom Studio KotoKoto has introduced to the U.S. were also participating in the show, and it was very exciting for me to see them again at such a prestigious setting.
With its sterling reputation and huge popular appeal, it is hard to imagine that the Matsumoto craft fair has only been running for 29 years. It normally takes many more decades to become so renowned. The fair was founded by a small group of dedicated craft artists after one of its members was inspired by craft shows that he had witnessed in the U.S. and the U.K. He proposed starting a similar outdoor event in Matsumoto where the fans of handmade crafts could meet their makers in a fun environment.
The Matsumoto fair will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2014. If you happen to be in Japan during the last weekend of May and want to see what the very best of the country’s young and talented crafts makers have to offer, this is the place for you. Just bring your enthusiasm, a hat, and a comfortable pair of shoes.