I’m a big proponent of learning by doing and there is no better city in Japan in which to try your hand at a traditional craft than Kyoto. As the epicenter of dozens of traditional craft industries, you’ll find no shortage of artisans to guide you through making your own souvenir, whether it be a folding fan a lacquerware box or a silk place mat. Here are a few suggestions to get you started, most of which I have tried myself:
1. Kyoto Handicraft Center – This long-running center is more a gallery, with shops on each of its four floors and a hands-on classroom at the very top of the building. Try your hand at any one of nine crafts, including such unique options as cloisonne, spinning tops and woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). No reservations needed unless you have more than 16 people and instruction is in English. I have twice made woodblock prints here and had a great time.
2. The Kyoto Artisan Workshop – Located just steps from the Nishiki Market – a must on any Kyoto itinerary – this workshop focuses mainly on lacquerware painting, though a few other options are available. You need to call and reserve in advance; I tried just swinging by to check things out but the shop was shuttered since no programs were in progress.
3. Nishijin Textile Center – This textile complex in the western part of the city provides a great peek into Kyoto’s ancient silk weaving culture. Some basic information on silk weaving in Japan is provided and you can watch weavers at work every day of the week. At least one staff member speaks very good English and can help you communicate questions to the weavers themselves. If you want to, you can weave something on one of their mini-looms, though reservations are required at least one day in advance.
4. Ogiya Hangesho – Housed in an old machiya (townhouse), Hangesho can walk you through the process of painting your own traditional fan and then teach you Tosenkyo, a fan throwing game similar to darts. Feeling confident? You can even arrange to try your new fan-throwing skills against one of the neighborhood maiko (apprentice geisha).
5. Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Fureaikan) – This is my new favorite spot in Kyoto and fairly off the beaten tourist track. Not only do they have fantastic bilingual exhibits on nearly every traditional craft in Kyoto, but you can try your hand at yuzen cloth painting for a fraction of the price quoted at other venues. On Sundays, there are short performances by maiko between 2pm and 3pm.