While preparing to introduce our wonderful maker Waramu, a collective of weavers, we realised there are so many stories to share in a maker's profile. Particularly, it is difficult to talk about Japanese rice straw craft without mentioning its historical background. Rice is such a deep topic that thinking about it feels like stepping into a bottomless rice paddy.
This blog is our best effort to complement Waramu and its founding leader Sakai Yuji's amazing journey.
Rice has been Japan's soul food throughout its history. As an agricultural nation, people put rice ahead of anything else and even developed their identity around it. As the Japan's Genesis (early 7th century) puts, the country was called 'the Land of Rice' poetically. Rice comes with a whole set of symbolism and values such as growth, prosperity, purity, wealth - everything good - and so does rice straw.
Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, uses woven straw ropes as an integral part of its practice, representing the boundary between the mortals and the sacred realm. You will always see the ropes at shrines. Waramu takes commissions from historic shrines whose ropes are extra thick and can be as heavy as 200 kg. The image here is from Kasuga Taisha in Nara.
Rice straw was once an essential part of rural life and utilized in almost every way -for wearing, wrapping, sitting, warming, burning, roofing, walling, preserving, fermenting, fertilizing, decorating etc -until the plastic age arrived.
Most notably, straw was used to pack roughly 60 kg of rice grain into a bale, which became the basic unit for measuring one's wealth or income.
Straw craft is tightly interwoven with Japan's history and pre-modern psyche, which can still resonate with today's people.
Talking about straw as packaging material, there are amazing examples collected in the book "How To Wrap 5 Eggs" by Oka Hideyuki - we will post another blog about that.
Fast forward to 21st century.
Sakai Yuji, Waramu's leader, once used to be a city dweller. When he moved to Iijima, in the middle of the Ina valley surrounded by 3000-meter high mountains, he was shocked by its depopulated landscape, despite its rich farming and tourist assets.
As a keen runner himself, Sakai campaigned to launch a council-led "rice bale mini-marathon" to promote the local heritage and appeal to potential residents and visitors. Once it was announced, the event attracted much attention and looked promising.
Only, unexpectedly, rice bales were not available.
Rice farmers had lost their weaving skills, except for one or two who were over 80 years old. Sakai had to turn to them for help. He made 50 5-kg rice bales by himself in a record short time. The rice bale marathon was held successfully and has become regular event in Iijima to this day.
Over time, Sakai's efforts developed into founding a non-profit Rice Bale Preservation Society with a mission to continue the endangered weaving crafts, which became the basis of Waramu.
Apart from taking commissions, Waramu's projects include restoring abandoned rice paddies, repurposing waste produce, the rice bale marathon, workshops with schoolchildren and visitors, and supporting vulnerable young adults.
Since 2018, Sakai has taken prestigious commissions from the Japan Sumo Association to craft all six grand tournament wrestling rings each year.
Video links to the activities of Waramu.
Along with straw weaving, Waramu is busy with various projects to connect the area with the wider community. Cats are their secret weapon.
One of Waramu's signature items is the purpose-designed, high-end cat basket. Some would wonder why farmers offer such a luxury item for cats; we would say everything has a background.
Silkworm farming once used to be an important industry for the people of the Ina valley, where Waramu is based. Cats were treated very well because they catch the mice that could harm silkworms.
Cats slept in the best bed their humans could think of, warm in winter and cool in summer. Waramu's design is actually a modified baby basket, so it is crafted with much time, labour, and love.
Cats became deities and protectors in many silkworm farming villages. The whole Ina valley is filled with the legacy of silkworm farming, and Iijima is no exception.
Tucked in a small wood, silkworm related relics still stand together with a stone carved Buddhist deity, Fudo Myo Oh (sunskrit Acala). A tombstone has an image of an archaic cat inscribed, and it reads 猫神 (Cat God) above it. Next to it is another tombstone inscribed with 蚕玉大神 (Cocoon God).
Although once visited by the young and old, this sacred site has been almost neglected for many decades. Only recently have the relics been rediscovered amid the global all-things-about-cats trend. Would anyone want to join a guided cat deity pilgrimage followed by a straw cat making workshop instructed by Waramu? Apparently it is already happening and has proved popular.
Video links to the activities of Waramu.