Tucked into the mesmerizing narrow backstreets of Kyoto’s historic Nishijin area and just a few steps away from the headquarters of the two grand, centuries-old Japanese tea schools of Omotesenke and Urasenke, there is a humble little shop with a curious square of orange silk hanging at the front entrance of the store.
At first glance, the elegant, spare shop exterior could seem daunting, even to a Japanese. But on the contrary, the bright silk square is a symbol of hospitality in the all-inclusive practice of tea. And passing through its doors will allow you to discover an important connection to the textiles of highly ritualized, yet fascinating, tea preparation.
This is the shop of Kitamura Tokusai, who has been making fine silk cloths, known as fukusa, for practitioners of tea since 1712. Kitamura Yumiko, the wife of the current shop owner, warmly and enthusiastically explains why the fukusa came about and its utility. “The fukusa was born from the people’s desire to cushion, wrap and protect valuable things”. She adds that “it symbolizes the spirit to cherish objects,” a concept worthy of reintroduction into our contemporary materialistic culture.
In Chado (The Way of Tea), a double-layered, square piece of fukusa silk cloth is used by the host during tea preparation. Larger fukusa, approximately 11.25”x10.8” in size, are used for purifying utensils and are usually made of solid colors, such as red, orange, or purple. This cloth symbolizes the cordiality of the host and is put on the waist, ready to be folded and used in front of guests.
The smaller fukusa, called kobukusa, is approximately 6.5”x 6” in size and is typically used as a setting to present utensils and to carry tea bowls. Kobukusa are made of fabrics featuring antique designs that can be divided into three main types: golden brocade (kinran), damask (donsu), and striped cloth (kanto). Designs on some of the kobukusa are known as meibutsugire, or “textiles with special names” or “textiles of special significance.” The originals were mostly brought to Japan from China between the 14th and 18th Centuries.
The meibutsugire are significant because these patterns were selected by some of the earliest tea masters who were widely considered to be the top tastemakers of the time. The originals arrived in Japan when the Japanese did not yet have the technology to weave such elaborate types of textiles. The patterns first appeared in Japan in the form of stoles for Zen monks, or as coasters for Buddhist alter fittings and as such, were highly prized.
These snippets of textiles were very valuable in Japan and were only available to the aristocracy, samurai class, and monks. The original meibutsugire often accompanied distinguished (meibutsu) tea containers in the form of pouches, a practice continued to this day. Because these meibutsugire had been stored in wooden boxes by their owners for generations, many are preserved in excellent condition.
Yumiko-san explained that Kitamura Tokusai creates over 400 different fabric patterns that are still woven locally in Nishijin, which has been the main center for kimono and textile production in Japan for over 1000 years. “Silk textiles change color when they are seen from different angles because silk threads are naturally triangular in shape like a prism”, she said. Each fukusa is carefully sewn by hand with invisible stitches on three sides.
With the expert guidance of the Kitamuras, Studio KotoKoto has brought a selection of Kitamura Tokusai’s fukusa back to the United States for tea and textile enthusiasts. The story behind each pattern is unique and fascinating and we hope that this will trigger your curiosity into the world of beautiful fukusa textiles.