Translated by MATCHA
Wagasa: The Essential Item For Rainy Season
Written by Kasumi Hashimoto
Rainy days call for umbrellas, and what better way to enjoy the rain in Japan than under a wagasa, or traditional Japanese umbrella?
What is essential to get through the long rainy season in Japan? The right umbrella.
Starting from the earliest days in Japan, the Japanese umbrella, or wagasa, has undergone several incarnations, and today remains one element of Japanese culture that still touches the lives of everyone. The beauty and design of a wagasa are often reserved for solely decorative or ceremonial purposes, as most people prefer to use a plastic, disposable ones for convenience's sake instead, but these umbrellas do not have to be relegated to the history books just yet.
We spoke with atsuko12 who works for Tsujikura, a long-established wagasa manufacturer in Kyoto, who works to convey the beauty and charm of these umbrellas via SNS.
The Charm of Wagasa Arise from Tradition
One of the first things many will notice about the wagasa is its shape; when opened they form an almost perfect circle. The outer surface is typically a solid color or has some design to it, but the true beauty of these umbrellas can be seen on the underside.
There are dozens of evenly spaced ribs with carefully placed stitches and seams from the underneath. The sharp contrast between the wood of the ribs and the brightly colored karakami craft paper of the wagasa is amazing.
After appreciating its overall shape and design, make sure to take a moment to study the handle. They are shaped to fit comfortably in the hand, and are often wrapped in cord or carved from wood and have a smooth, warm texture to them. In fact, most wagasa today are still made from all-natural materials, and each one is created by a master wagasa artisan.
Wagasa and Japanese Culture
The precise origin of the wagasa isn't known, but its roots can be traced back to ancient Japan. Around the late fifth century a type of umbrella known as a 'tengai' had already been introduced to Japan from China. Unlike the wagasa, however, the tengai could not be opened, and through trial and error by different Japanese craftspeople, the design was adapted until the openable wagasa came about in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The wagasa has largely remained the same since this time.
Wagasa are also sometimes referred to as 'bangasa'. There are various theories as to why this is, but the most likely is that hotels and restaurants used to write numbers on the umbrellas that were available for guests and customers to use, in order to keep track of them.
Zojoji Temple in Snow: Hasui Kawase
Ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period also liked the motif of people with wagasa, and many famous works featuring them in both rain and snow were produced over the years. Wagasa have been an integral part of the lives of the Japanese for centuries, however their current use has declined thanks to the spread of Western-style plastic umbrellas.
The craftspeople working at Tsujikura are trying to preserve these traditional necessities for future generations, but admit that there are few people who are interested in learning the craft, and that the availability of the materials factors into the problem.
Materials and Manufacturing Process of Wagasa
The main materials needed to make a wagasa in the traditional way are bamboo, wood, lacquer and Japanese paper. Vegetable oil is used to grease the paper and make it waterproof, but other than these elements, very little else is needed to properly make a wagasa.
The ribs and the shaft of the umbrella are made from bamboo, which are stitched together and attached to the rokuro, or the upper part of the umbrella, and to the mechanism that opens and closes the umbrella. The rokuro is made from a hard wood called Japanese snowball tree, which are processed and used to make the outer frame. A sheet of Japanese paper called the nokigami is glued to the outer side of the frame while a sheet called the nakaokigami is attached to the inside. Then another sheet of paper is glued to the upper portion.
After these steps, the paper is greased with a vegetable oil compound to waterproof it, and then lacquer is applied. The wagasa is then set outside to dry under the sun, the handle may or may not be wrapped with cane, and other fasteners called hajiki are attached, and finally, the inner side of the umbrella may be given some decorative stitched designs as well.
Every one of these steps is done by hand, and a single wagasa can take several months to complete, but the dedicated efforts of these craftspeople have made it possible for the traditional wagasa to still be available in Japan.
Head Out on a Rainy Stroll with a Wagasa
Wagasa are most commonly used for special occasions in Japan, such as at wedding ceremonies in the photo above, and almost always are part of a full kimono or yukata outfit. But wagasa weren't always something to use on these days only, and can still be used in your daily life in this day and age.
For many, the sound of rain as it hits the karakami of the wagasa is very pleasing, and something that Western-style umbrellas just can't replicate. If you'd like to refresh your spirits and take a stroll around some sightseeing spots during rainy season, then please consider doing so with a wagasa instead. You just might find yourself making the wagasa into a regular part of your life afterwards.
If you have the chance, please take a look at a wagasa for yourself, enjoy a stroll in the rain with one, and see how people throughout Japan's history stayed dry in style.