Designed in America and Family-Made in Japan
-This blog post was originally written for Studio KotoKoto-
To celebrate Studio KotoKoto’s second anniversary (how time flies!), Kathryn and I wanted to create something special through collaboration between makers in the U.S. and Japan. We asked our talented Japanese-American friend and potter Ayumi Horie to help us design a special tote bag adorned with her beautiful drawings of playful animals.
To make the bag, we searched far and wide for a small, family-owned Japanese company that produces highly durable cotton canvas and we found Onomichi Hanpu. We then sought out Koyabu Kogei, another small, family-run Japanese company, to make the bags. The end result is the Tomodachi Tote Bag. Tomodachi is a Japanese word that means friends and the tote bag symbolizes the friendship between cultures nurtured through our love for the preservation and tradition of craftsmanship.
The Illustration: Ayumi Horie
The tote bag is decorated with a drawing by Ayumi of a rabbit and toad sharing a peony-infused dream and breath. She draws from folk traditions and comics in the U.S. and Japan, and her ceramics with playful animals quickly sell out because of the many enthusiastic fans that are attracted to her distinctive, charming style.
Ayumi chose these two animals for our bag because they are popular symbols in both eastern and western cultures. In her usual humorous and friendly tone she added, “they both jump to get around, they have something in common, and friends often have something in common”. At the bottom of the tote is a drawing of two birds joining feathers surrounded with a message that says “let’s tomodachi” in Japanese.
Careful thought was given to designing the shape of the tote and the length of its handles to ensure that it is comfortable for daily use. The signature stitches add beauty and durability. The inside has a pocket and a metal clip that can be used to close the bag and also hold keys.
The tag on the bag is designed like a senjafuda, a paper sticker bearing the name of the pilgrim that was affixed on a part of the shrine or temple that they visited. In other words, the tag is like an ancient and stylish form of graffiti tagging!
The Canvas: Onomichi Hanpu
Onomichi Hanpu is a family company that has been operating in the small port of Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture for the last 80 years. The company began as a provider of sails for vessels that carried coal from Kyushu to Osaka in the early years of the 20th Century.
Although engines soon replaced sails, Onomichi Hanpu thrived into the 1960s as a provider of canvas covers for trucks that filled Japanese streets after the Second World War. The moisture-absorbent, air-permeable canvas was the perfect material for truck covers that carried produce from rural farms to city centers.
Since the 1960s, cheaper synthetic fibers began to replace natural canvas. Many canvas factories that existed in Onomichi closed down and Onomichi Hanpu is the last of its kind to still remain in business in the area. The president of Onomichi Hanpu, Takahashi-san, together with 4 employees including his son, are still continuing to make high quality natural canvas that is comfortable to use.
The Bag Maker: Koyabu Kogei
Koyabu Kogei is a family-owned and run company located in the Chita peninsula of Aichi prefecture. Although the majority of bags sold in Japan today are made in China, Koyabu Kogei has thrived because of its skill in making high-quality handbags, which is evident in the Tomadachi tote bag.
The complex stitches on the bag’s handles were the biggest challenge in the developmental stage of the bag’s design. But the skilled craftsmanship of Koyabu Kogei overcame the design headaches and the end result is a testament to the maker’s excellent skill and attention to detail.
The company’s president Koyabu-san relocated the company back from Tokyo to the family’s hometown in beautiful Chita peninsula when he took over the business from his father. The relocation was not only ideal for his growing family, but has also provided much needed part-time work for the skilled women in the area.
In this first cross-country project, we reaffirm our appreciation for handmade and its linkage to the past. In our ever homogenized world, it is refreshing to see the distinctive skill and craftsmanship of the few that can still build identity and strengthen local communities.
In the sturdiness, functionality, and creative design of the Tomodachi tote bag, we hope that you too will find the legacy traced to the sailing ships that plied Japan’s coasts nearly a century ago enduring the rain and cold of the seasons, and the knowledge that is passed on through the generations to create beautiful and useful objects.