Crash Course: Wagasa

If you saw my last post, you’ll probably know I’ve been riding a bit of a high this week. It came on top of a visit from my friend Felicity (excellent videographer and writer of the blog Where Next Japan) and her husband Nori last weekend and needless to say, with all the hype, not much blogging got done this week. A lot of planning and dreaming, sure, but not much actual writing. 🙂

Since I’ve been bragging about it for quite some time, I made sure that Felicity and Nori joined me this year on my annual pilgrimage to the Yamaga Winter Lantern Festival, where bamboo luminaries and delicate paper umbrellas light up the historic road in the center of town. Seeing the festival got me thinking (again) about the beautiful, traditional Japanese umbrella.

Illuminated wagasa at the Yamaga Winter Festival
Illuminated wagasa at the Yamaga Winter Festival

The Japanese word for umbrella is kasa, but that really refers to the modern contraptions we tote around today. A traditional Japanese umbrella is known as a wagasa, and instead of being made of vinyl, it’s constructed from washi paper. Wagasa are made to certain specifications – there are 48 bamboo ribs that the paper is stretched over, not the usual eight or ten of a modern umbrella. A large sheet of washi is cut to fit the frame and then covered with lacquer to make sure the rain stays out. To finish the water resistant layer, the paper is also lightly doused with pawlonia or linseed oil. If it’s coated too much, the paper remains sticky. Usually, the umbrella is left out overnight with oil spots on it, spots which then spread out to smoothly cover the entire frame.  And that’s just the body of the umbrella. Even more work goes into creating the tip, the handle and the artistic inside frame.

A close-up of the underside of a wagasa
A close-up of the underside of a wagasa

There are several different type of wagasa:

  • Bangasa are numbered umbrellas, used often by ryokan in the past. Before the final lacquer was applied, the name of the business and a number would be painted onto the washi. The umbrellas would be loaned out to guests who needed them, much as many inns do with modern umbrellas.
  • Janome-gasa are parasols for women, covered with both washi and a thin layer of silk. If wearing a kimono, this is probably the umbrella a woman would carry with her.
  • Higasa are those giant umbrellas you come across in gardens or outside tea houses or restaurants. They protect you from the sun and can stretch up to four meters in width.
A bride poses with a janome-gasa
A bride poses with a janome-gasa

Wagasa used to be extremely popular, and you can see them frequently in woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). Major production centers included Kyoto, Kanazawa and Gifu, as well as Jojima, a small town near Yanagawa in Fukuoka Prefecture. Today, the numbers of wagasa turned out by the traditional method are few and far between, but you can still find them The average real handmade wagasa should run you at least ¥9000 but makes for a unique and stunning souvenir, if kept properly.

I used a beautifully illustrated article (“Paper Skies”) from ANA’s Skywings magazine to help write up this entry but you can learn more about wagasa online in this issue of the JNTO (Japanese National Tourist Organization’s) monthly magazine.

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