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Under the Eye of the Snake: Beautiful, Durable Umbrellas Made of Mino “Washi”

For centuries, the town of Kanō in Gifu Prefecture has been producing elegant umbrellas known as Ja-no-me-gasa (snake’s eye umbrellas), made from bamboo and brightly colored washi paper. Despite their svelte, compact shape and light portability, these umbrellas are surprisingly durable and waterproof. For generations, they were a practical as well as eye-catching part of everyday life.

Umbrellas Made of Paper and Bamboo

The Ja-no-me-gasa (snake’s eye umbrella) makes a famous appearance in the children’s song Ame-furi (It’s raining), with lyrics by the poet Kitahara Hakushū. These stylish umbrellas, made from bamboo and washi paper, were a common part of daily life in Japan until the early decades of the twentieth century, protecting generations of Japanese people from the rain and sun.

Ame ame fure fure
Kā-san ga
Ja-no-me de o-mukae
Ureshii na

Rain, rain—I don’t care
Here comes mother to meet me with a ja-no-me

Ja-no-me-gasa can be used as both umbrellas and parasols. The colorful threads stitched into the framework are not just for decoration, but also help to strengthen the frame and make the umbrella sturdier.

It is the pattern painted on the canopy of the umbrella that gives it its surprising name, which might seem inappropriate for such an attractive piece of craftsmanship. The motif features a bold, white line that forms a circle against a vivid background of red, blue, or purple. People thought the circle looked like a large eye. But why a snake’s eye? In previous times, snakes were regarded as messengers of the gods, and it was believed that the snake’s eye motif had the power to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. As well as shielding the user from the elements, therefore, the ja-no-me-gasa also protected people from misfortune. Despite its slightly unsettling name, the snake’s eye umbrella was a beloved and essential part of everyday life for generations.

Seen from afar, it is the colors and motif that catch the eye. But when you hold one in your hand, it is the intricate design that is likely to fascinate. From the tip, dozens of bamboo spokes run radially in straight lines. Finely stitched around these are colorful strands of decorative thread. The washi paper lets through a delicate light. When it rains, there is a soft, pattering sound as the raindrops bounce off the oiled coated surface of the umbrella. The umbrella can easily be opened and closed, and on windy days, or when passing by someone coming the other way down a narrow street alleyway, the umbrella collapses easily to allow people to pass.

A Visit to Gifu’s Traditional Umbrella-Makers

The Kanō district in Gifu City has been producing umbrellas since the middle of the eighteenth century. Taking advantage of its proximity to local workshops producing the robust, fine-quality Mino washi paper, the umbrella-making tradition continues to this day. The bamboo frame is bound with cotton threads, and a canopy of washi paper stretched over the frame, and then waterproofed with perilla oil. Making an umbrella is an amalgam of intricate craft processes and involves more than 100 individual procedures.

The distinctive silhouette of a ja-no-me-gasa adds an evocative element to the old streets of Gifu, a former castle town. The white circle is the “snake’s eye” that gave the umbrella its name.

There are five main stages: making the frame, producing the small spindles (rokuro) that form the mechanism used to open and shut the umbrella, assembling these parts together, attaching the paper canopy, and finishing. Making an umbrella is a collaborative process, with each procedure performed by specialists. The work-in-progress is passed from one artisan to the next.

“Our umbrellas have an elegant and pleasant appearance. The aim is to get the ribs of the framework as thin as possible. You need to make sure that the washi paper is as thin as possible without losing its strength,” says Sakaida Eiji, owner of a traditional umbrella business in Kanō.

“The bamboo we use for the framework is pliable and strong enough to withstand wind and rain, and doesn’t bend even when it is cut thin. Back in the old days, they used to recycle them from old umbrellas, and some small businesses used to specialize in old bamboo spokes.”

But even after being coated with protective oil, the washi umbrella will eventually tear and break after it is used for a long period, and insects will wreak damage on the paper if the umbrella is kept in storage. When this happens, the umbrella can be given a new lease on life by reapplying a new canopy. So long as the bamboo framework is still sturdy, the umbrella will continue to give good service for a lifetime.

  • [2018.01.26]
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