1. On overhead photo of a wooden table with many brightly coloured glass plates of different sizes on top of it
    Photo: Maruyoshi KosakaMaruyoshi Kosaka lacquered glassware
  2. Japanese iron teapot
    Photo: Mizina/Pixta

8 traditional Japanese crafts that make perfect gifts

Kojima denim, Kiso lacquerware, Sakai knives and other artisanal goods from across Japan are perfect practical souvenirs

Written by
Jessica Thompson
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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from spending a lot more time at home, it’s the importance of finding joy in small pleasures – a beautiful cup for your morning tea, or a comfy, perfectly fitting pair of jeans. We may be biased, but we’d say Japan makes some of the most elegant everyday items in the world.

Japan is legendary for its handcrafted goods, with histories dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. Meticulous artisans hone their skill over decades, and crafts are passed down through generations. But as much as these crafts are shaped by the hands of artisans, they are also shaped by the culture and geography of different regions.

From famous kitchenware and ceramics to clothing and fabric, you can find traditional crafts in out-of-the-way spots across Japan. Many are also available in specialty stores and online, so even if you can't make it to the workshop, you can still pick up a perfect handcrafted gift. 

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Authentic Japanese crafts to buy

Knives (Sakai, Osaka prefecture)
Photo: Wada Shoten/Facebook

Knives (Sakai, Osaka prefecture)

Elegant, strong and sharp – Japanese knives are the samurai swords of the kitchen. In Sakai, a coastal city in Osaka prefecture, the knife-making tradition dates back hundreds of years, and the local swordsmiths of the area once made katana for feudal lords and their samurai. 

Sakai knives are hand-forged rather than machine-made, and like all Japanese knives, only beveled on one side. The steel is heated and beaten to increase its hardness, creating a smooth and razor-sharp finish, which can slice through ingredients as delicate as raw fish with ease. Knives are more than a souvenir to pick up in Japan, they’re a reason to travel here.

You’ll find Sakai knives in specialty knife shops and at the central markets in most major Japanese cities. Look out for knives by Wada Shoten (pictured), Yamawaki Seisakusho and Izumiriki Seisakusho.

Nambu ironware (Iwate prefecture)
Photo: Iwachu/Facebook

Nambu ironware (Iwate prefecture)

Cast iron cookware has a coveted place in Japanese homes, for its sturdy structure and elegant finish, as well as its ability to enhance the flavour of food and drink. The most revered cast iron items come from Iwate prefecture, and are called Nambu tekki. The prefecture, formerly known as Nambu, is rich in high-quality raw materials. In the mid-17th century, the head of the Nambu clan gathered the best artisans to come from Kyoto to craft iron teapots for ceremonies. The ironware’s rust-resistance, ability to retain an even heat, sophisticated appearance and incredible durability have won a loyal following ever since. 

The finish is classically black, but can be coated with coloured lacquer, especially by more modern producers. Decorative patterns are common, such as a studded motif or cherry blossom design. The most common Nambu tekki products are kettles and teapots, along with cooking pots and pans. The quality of the tea made with a Nambu pot is famed for its soft and mellow taste. Keep an eye out for Nambu ironware from brands including Iwachu (pictured), Oitomi and Oiharu.

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Lacquerware (Kiso, Gifu prefecture)
Photo: Maruyoshi Kosaka

Lacquerware (Kiso, Gifu prefecture)

If you’ve had miso soup in Japan, chances are you sipped it from a lacquerware bowl. Lacquerware is created by adding natural colourants to the sap of the urushi tree and using it to coat wooden objects, giving them a smooth, elegant finish and fortifying them against water, bacteria and acid. Traditionally, lacquerware comes in striking shades of deep black and bright vermillion, sometimes embellished with patterns and textures. 

The town of Kiso in Nagano prefecture is particularly famous for its lacquerware, which is known as Kiso shikki. The industry grew from the area’s natural abundance of hinoki cypress wood, as well as its location on the route from Tokyo to Kyoto – during the Edo period, travellers often picked up Kiso lacquerware as a souvenir along the way.

While lacquered goods are generally not cheap to buy, they can last over a hundred years when treated with care. Yamaka Shikki is a great example of classic lacquerware, or for a spin on tradition, look for lacquered cutlery and metalware by Koku, and lacquered glassware Hyakushiki by Maruyoshi Kosaka (pictured).

Ceramics (Bizen, Okayama prefecture)
Photo: Hero556/Pixta

Ceramics (Bizen, Okayama prefecture)

Across Japan, ceramics vary greatly based on the local clay and pottery techniques. At Bizen in Okayama, the ceramics have a distinctly earthy quality to them, with the iron-enriched clay producing work in shades of red, brown and copper. Bizen ceramics are left largey unglazed to give focus to the simple, elegant shapes of the pieces. 

Bizen is considered one of the oldest and finest regions for ceramics in Japan, with a history going back to at least the 14th century, and Bizen ware was among the first tableware officially approved for tea ceremonies. Today, Bizen pieces are crafted by independent artists around Japan who work with Bizen clay. This individuality means you can find Bizen ceramics in the form of flower vases, tableware, sake vessels, reusable water flasks and much more.

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Towels (Imabari, Ehime prefecture)
Photo: Imabari Towel Japan

Towels (Imabari, Ehime prefecture)

Ehime prefecture has a long history of cotton production and in the late 1800s, the port town of Imabari developed into a hub for producing cotton towels thanks to a local textile entrepreneur. Today, there are around 200 towel factories in the Imabari area, which use the soft (low mineral content) water of the area to create cloud-like cotton. In order to bear the Imabari Towel logo, towels must pass strict tests on how well they soak up water, as well as their softness level and breathability.

As well as bath, hand and face towels, Imabari towel fabric is used to make scarves, gowns, blankets, baby products, bath mats – and more recently, face masks. Choose from snowy white towels in plain and patterned finishes, as well as colours that reflect a traditional Japanese palate, like rose pink and navy. 

Imabari towels can be found in select retailers around the country, as well as online. Some of our favourite brands include Sugino Towel, Murakami Pile and Onaru Towel.

Shibori textiles (Kyoto)
Photo: Bunzaburo/Facebook

Shibori textiles (Kyoto)

Dyed textiles are a big part of traditional Japanese clothing like kimono, yukata (summer kimono) and obi (belts). Fabric dyed using the shibori technique is some of the most highly prized. The easiest description of shibori would be a kind of Japanese tie-dye, but the craft goes far beyond rubber bands and hippie T-shirts, with a number of careful techniques and procedures – stenciling, binding and weaving with beads – to create intricate finished patterns. 

Kyoto is well-known for its shibori-dyed fabrics, and is also home to the shibori museum. Where once shibori fabrics were used mainly for traditional clothing, now you can find modern fashion items, as well as interior furnishings like napkins and curtains. In Kyoto, traditional modern artisans sit side-by-side, such as Bunzaburo (pictured) and Cosaien Taneda.

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Denim jeans (Kojima, Okayama prefecture)
Photo: Rebranding Co., Ltd.

Denim jeans (Kojima, Okayama prefecture)

The hometown of denim may be in France, but Kojima in Okayama prefecture is the birthplace of Japanese jeans. In the early 1600s, Okyama emerged as a production centre for cotton textiles and indigo dyeing. Over time, this developed into thicker items such as tabi socks and sanada-himo, the cloth cords used to wrap sword handles – and in the 1960s, producers turned to denim jeans. The town is now home to thousands of denim craftspeople, who make some of the highest quality jeans in the world. 

Denim artisans like those at Momotaro Jeans (pictured), Japan Blue, Setto and Shin Denim, use traditional fabric-making techniques, including vintage looms that create a high-quality selvedge weave. Some even still dye the cotton with indigo plant dye (used for kimono), although hand-dyed jeans will certainly set you back more than a pair of Levi’s. If you visit Kojima, there’s no mistaking where you are, with jeans hanging like bunting all around town.

Washi paper (Echizen, Fukui prefecture)
Photo: Yamatsugi Seishi

Washi paper (Echizen, Fukui prefecture)

Washi, the variety of paper made from Japanese plants, is known for its durability and delicate beauty – plus, it’s a piece of Unesco-certified intangible cultural heritage. The uses for washi in Japan expand far beyond writing, it’s used for ukiyo-e woodblock printing, origami, gift wrapping, lanterns, shoji folding screens, fusuma (sliding doors) and calligraphy. It’s even used to line plates for tempura and wagashi. 

Echizen in Fukui prefecture is one of Japan’s preeminent paper-making regions, with a 1,500-year history and 67 mills still producing paper. Echizen washi comes in a range of styles for all tastes and purposes – from a smooth finish to a crepe-like texture, in plain white and cream, as well as vibrantly coloured and patterned. Made from all-natural ingredients, with an organic yet sophisticated appearance, Echizen washi has an enduring appeal. 

Echizen washi can be found at specialty paper stores such as Ozuwashi and Itoya, as well as online. Some popular producers include Osada Washi (pictured), Ryozo and Yamatsugi Seishi.

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