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Amazing Bamboo
Versatile and essential plant rooted deeply in Japanese culture

One of the most versatile natural materials on Earth, bamboo, or take in Japanese, is an integral part of Japanese culture and aesthetic tradition, and can be found in an amazing multitude of forms and contexts within everyday Japanese life. The image of bamboo can be seen in all manner of Japanese visual designs, and the plant has long been an object of admiration in Japanese poetry and literature.

With a tensile strength comparable to that of steel, and a density like hardwood, bamboo has been a formative building material in Japanese architecture and interior design for centuries. The image of bamboo can be seen in all manner of Japanese visual designs, and the plant has long been an object of admiration in Japanese poetry and literature. It is even edible -bamboo shoots, or takenoko, are a very popular spring delicacy.

Among the commonplace objects made from bamboo in Japan are furniture, kitchen implements, sushi-rolling mats, dinnerware, chopsticks, tea ceremony utensils, writing instruments, paintbrushes, baskets, fencing or kendo swords, umbrellas, handbags, garden pipes, fishing poles, fish traps, flower vases, kites, wind chimes, dolls, rakes, and boxes -just to name a few!

And being perhaps the fastest-growing plant in the world, capable of gaining close to 50 inches in height in a single day, bamboo is also a highly renewable resource. Consequently, the popularity of bamboo has increased tremendously all over the world, where the Japanese example has been implemented in all areas of bamboo's possible use.

There are more than 600 varieties of bamboo found in Japan among the known 1,200 varieties throughout the world; however, only about 10 or so of these are used in everyday life, with the most common type being madake.

All varieties have their own uniquely conspicuous characteristics - the very color of bamboo can range from white to green, from gold to amber, from bluish to glossy black, all depending on the type, as well as whatever processes of drying, dyeing, and treating the stalk may undergo.

The most commonly used types of bamboo also vary in thickness and shape, as well as surface texture and pattern: shumi-take and goma- take, for instance, both have a spotted appearance, with every stalk exhibiting an individual pattern. And the patterned surface of kikkou-chiku has earned it its name, which means ''tortoise-shell bamboo.''

Architecture is the realm in which the use of bamboo in Japan is perhaps most appreciated, with the ready availability of bamboo having significantly shaped the design of all manner of buildings, from traditional inns or ryokan, to restaurants, teahouses, and homes. In all cases, the medieval Japanese aesthetic notion of wabi-sabi, which among other things emphasizes the ideal of naturalness, has resulted in a traditional retention of bamboo's original structure and appearance.

Bamboo has also found prominence in other areas of Japanese visual arts, being a recurring subject in the art of ukiyo-e, or woodblock printing. In the realm of Japanese theatre, bamboo is often featured in compositions of lyrical Noh and Kabuki, and as a literary motif, bamboo has been favored for even longer.

The motif of bamboo grouped with a pine tree and plum blossoms was introduced in medieval times, and symbolizes perseverance in the face of life's difficulties; the ranking involved in this arrangement - ''Sho Chiku Bai'', or pine, bamboo, and plum - has also been traditionally used when ordering sushi courses. Bamboo even has a religious significance in Japan: bamboo forests sometimes surround Shinto shrines as part of a sacred barrier against evil.

Bamboo can be seen and enjoyed all over Kyoto -it is a common sight to see groves in the yards of residential properties. Perhaps the most famous forests in the city are those around the Daitoku-ji Temple complex, and especially the great bamboo grove in Sagano, adjacent to Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama. Bamboo is also grown at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

Amongst Beautiful Bamboo Without the Crowds
A trip to Kyoto, for most, isn't complete without setting your sights on the iconic Sagano (Arashiyama) bamboo grove. Long gone are the days when you could visit without sharing the spot with a host of other tourists, but it's tranquility and beauty pales in comparison to the verdant green and undisturbed charm of Muko City's 2km Takeno-michi - ''Path of Bamboo.''

Muko's bamboo forest, on the outskirts of Kyoto city, is truly a hidden treasure. Lofty green stalks tower above a winding path dappled with sunlight, leaves rustling far overhead as the breeze sweeps through the canopy. The path, almost devoid of tourists, is about as far from the beaten tourist track that you can get when visiting the ancient capital, still offering an unspoiled sightseeing spot that can be rare in Kyoto. A stroll through the area is sure to invigorate the senses and heal the soul with its fresh air and cheery birdsong.

Located on Nishi-no-oka Hill in northwestern Muko City (just 15-20minutes by bus or train from central Kyoto), in an area famous for top quality bamboo shoots, there are eight types of bamboo that grow in abundance in Muko, including original bamboo hedge creations such as ''Takeho-gaki,'' a hedge made of bamboo branches tied in bundles, and ''Kaguya-gaki,'' a hedge patterned after the neck of a 12-layered ceremonial kimono worn by Princess Kaguya, the inspiration of the folk story ''The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.''

Rakusai Bamboo Park
Open: 9:00-17:00 (last entry: 16:00); Closed Wed. & Dec. 29-Jan. 3; Admission free; www.rakusai-nt.com/tikurin/

Access: Take the Hankyu train from the central city (Karasuma or Kawaramachi) and go to Katsura Station. Take the West Exit and then, take Kyoto City Bus Nishi #3 or #8 and get off at Minami Fukunishi-cho stop.

Create and Present Joy through Bamboo
Interview with Hideaki Hosokawa, the owner of Kisetsu Bamboo Craft Studio

It is likely that any kind of ''traditional craft'' is born in a studio which has been taken over by masters for generations and generations. It is, in fact, true that there are a number of such artisans in this Old Capital. In that sense, Bamboo Craft Studio Kisetsu is an extremely young studio which Hideaki Hosokawa only opened in 2011.

''I was working for a printing company in Tokyo and there was no connection with Kyoto at all. When I became 30 years old, I thought to myself, 'I want to do a job that I can hear voices from the people who receive my works,' so I started to look for another path. Since I liked to create things with my hands, I looked for a job of that sort and wished to become a shokunin, or craftsman.''

Although Hosokawa had discovered what he really wanted to try, it wasn't easy for him to find out how to become a shokunin. Finally, he found a college in Kyoto where people can learn basic skills and knowledge of traditional Japanese crafts in Kyoto. No time to waste for the 30-year-old Hosokawa, so he quit his job and moved to Kyoto.

First, he had to choose which course to begin studying for two years. There were a variety of traditional crafts to choose from, such as ceramics, lacquer, wood carving, stone crafts, washi paper, and more. What pushed him to focus on bamboo works?

''Bamboo was the most unfamiliar and unknown to me, that was why I wanted to try bamboo craft. And more simply, I just loved the touch of bamboo on my hand.

Once I started to learn, the more I learned about bamboo, the more I became fascinated by its beauty and complexity. For example, making a ceramic work offers more extensive freedom while bamboo has some limits. What I mean is that because bamboos have knots at every certain length, the length between two knots decides the size of material, thus, the size of the final craft we can create. It is very important to make a concretely structured plan, how we will knit the parts and put them together to achieve the final look. It is the most difficult but the most interesting part I find in my job.''

A few years after finishing the course, Hosokawa moved to Kyoto City and started his life as an independent bamboo craftsman at his studio, Kisetsu, in 2011.

A variety of knitting skills are combined to form superb bamboo bags. Custom-made, generally (usually it takes several months). You can order at Hosokawa’s studio (pay in advance) and the work can be shipped overseas.

All making processes are carried out in his little studio, from processing the raw bamboo to finishing the surface of the item with urushi lacquer. No single process can be done by machine, but only by hand - such painstaking, time-consuming labor which requires focus and experience.

Combining a variety of knitting styles and structures, Hosokawa creates a wide range of items such as baskets, coasters, flower vases and more. Hosokawa also challenges himslef to create something new. His series of bamboo bags and briefcases are fascinating yet functional.

''The name of my studio, 'Kisetsu' literally means the joy of knot. An extraordinary vital force, a fast-growing speed, and flexibility make it possible for bamboo to grow knots (setsu) which sustain the plant. I want to create my works with joy, taking advantage of these perfectly imperfect, knots and want to share the joy of this with my customers.''

Bamboo Craft Studio KISETSU
Open: 9:00-17:00; Closed Sat. & Sun.; Advance booking is necessary before visiting the studio. Booking through ''Kyoto Artisans Concierge'' is recommended as you can make the booking online and can arrange an interpreter free of charge: www.kyotoartisans.jp/en/