Have you heard of the Kyoto word “roji,” (路地, in Kanji) which means “alley?” This word refers to that narrow space between houses at the end of the main streets. With redevelopment progressing in the ancient capital of Kyoto due to the increase of tourism, areas like these alleys where the quaint towns apes of old remain are a valuable existence. I heard about a particular area where young artists’ atelier shops are aligned amongst these nostalgic alleyways, and have come to see for myself!
This area is approximately three minutes on foot from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station on the Keihin Main Line. If you walk in the direction of the Daikoku-yu Public Bath’s chimney, you will come to a narrow alleyway in between the houses: Ajiki Alley
There is a signboard with the name “Ajiki-roji” written, and a resident map at the entrance. The townhouse tenements built over 120 years ago line the way along a narrow alley of only 1.8 meters in width, where young artists work on their creations in workshops, which also function as their dwelling place. There are a total of 14 tenement houses, nine of which are inhabited and one which is leased (as of March 2019).
The landlord of the buildings is Mrs. Hiroko Ajiki, though it might be more appropriate to call her “mother.” This is because her presence here is said to be like a mother who watches over and supports the growth of the artists. Whenever she calls out to them, you are sure to hear them respond, “Yes, mother.”
Ajiki Alley was Established to Support Young Artists
Actually, Ajiki Alley itself has not been around since ancient times. It was only in 2004 that they started recruiting young artists as tenants. The reason for this was that Mrs. Ajiki, who designed cloisonné wares and metal engraving as a hobby, married and started a family. Eventually, she resolved to “entrust the dreams I gave up of becoming an artist to the next generation.” It was then that she decided to rent out the alley row houses, which has been owned since her ancestors, to young aspiring artists.
Here are some of the atelier shops created by a cozy community in which everyone is regarded as family.
Suzume-ya: The One and Only Notebook and Paper Shop for Bookbinding Artists
Suzume-ya was established here in April 2018, and has been open every weekday from noon till sunset ever since. On weekends and holidays, they open before noon. The owner of this notebook and paper accessory shop is Kana Muramatsu, who studied architecture at an art university, and is currently active as a bookbinding artist.
“I found my passion for bookbinding during a break from university, where I swore to quit school if I could not find a way to support myself through my art,” says Muramatsu. But why bookbinding? “The job of an architect is to create a space where people can coexist, creating their stories in the daily landscape of their lives. I realized that notebooks share a similar purpose, and I took some white paper, bound it together myself, thinking ‘This will be the book where my own story begins.’”
“Suzume Stamp,” the shop’s name, and also their standard design.
There are an additional 12 types of notebooks, including the palm-sized “Nijimi” series, an artistic design with a modern pattern also recommended by Ms. Muramatsu.
Ms. Muramatsu’s notebook production process begins with paper selection and folding. The reason why she does not neglect the tremendous amount of work involved to align the pages and cut them one by one with a paper cutter, and pays particular attention to the smallest of details, is because she wants each item to show proof of her handiwork. The bookbinding is also done manually, page by page, without the help of any machine. “I want to regard each person who buys a book from me as special, which is why I want to make my books ‘only for that one person,’” she says. Her notebooks are simple, yet offer freedom of usability.
I would like to spend more time in this quiet shop, and learn more about Ms. Muramatsu’s world views.
- Address 3-Kita, 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Business Hours: Weekends/Holidays: 11:00AM~6:00PM; Open Weekdays (Please check website for details)
Fixed Holidays: None (Check website for information on closings)
Camera and Design Classroom torico.camera: Study the Fun of Photography
Opposite from Suzume-ya is a photography class lead by Shina Matsumura, a professional photographer who is active in magazines and books in the Kansai Area. She runs her shop in Ajiki Alley while commuting from her hometown of Kawanishi City, Hyogo Prefecture.
There are currently three camera classes available, from beginner to semi-pro, including “Photography Lovers’ Class” and “First-time Photographers Class.” There is also a “Digital Drawing Class” which specializes in design production, and “Gallery Ajiki Class,” where you learn how to display your work in a gallery (each class held once monthly, limited to 3~5 people). A total of 27 students attended in 2018, and some 2019 courses are already full. The secret to Ms. Shina’s popularity is holding small classes with few people so she can fully and easily provide individual attention.
Ms. Matsumura, who used to rent space in Ajiki Alley to hold occasional lectures, gained interest in this area when she had an opportunity to shoot for a book, “Life in Ajiki Alley.” As the classrooms filled up, Ms. Matsumura began to feel the strong urge to establish a regular classroom, and with a newfound passion to use this place as a starting point to do her best work, she made the decision in May 2017 to rent as a tenant.
As for what made her want to begin a photography class, Ms. Matsumura replies, “I am not very good at speaking, so I want to share my thoughts through photography and design. I would like to share that fun with lots of other people, too.”
During the time of my visit, Ms. Matsumura’s class was full of students and had a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. If you are interested in photography and design, I recommend you give it a try as well! As it is a one-time class and scheduled irregularly, please check the homepage, “Maimai Kyoto,” for details.
Camera and Design Classroom torico.cameraカメラとデザインの教室torico.camera
- Address 1-Minami, 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Business Hours: Varies by course
Regular Holidays: None
*Each class is held once per month. Please check website for details.
Oriya Marikiko: Cute Japanese Goods Shop
Next to Camera and Design Classroom torico.camera, is Oriya Marikiko, open every third Saturday and Sunday. The shop is run by “The Tsudzure-ori Craftswoman,” Ishikawa Mari and Okamoto Makiko, who use a special technique in which their fingernails are serrated like a saw and used to weave cloth. The tenants of this particular row house change depending on the day of the week.
The store name is derived from the combined names of the shop owners, Mari and Makiko. They sell handmade items made using a tsudzu-ori, or tapestry weaving, technique.
There are many daily necessity items, such as Japanese zori sandals with beautiful tsudzure-ori straps, obi sashes, bags, pouches, and tissue cases. Most small accessories are sold for around 700 yen.
The process begins by preparing a silk thread that is thick enough to get caught in the fingernails, a special technique that takes time to master. The highly artistic fabrics that are woven through much time and effort are known as luxury goods. Though the aging of skilled craftspeople of this technique has progressed, it seems that recently there has also been an increase in younger generations wanting to become weavers, such as the two young ladies here.
“I consciously try to create new combinations of colors and materials that are different from the traditional works of veteran craftsmen,” says Mari. Works that include original color patterns and items where one part is wool bring a sense of youth and newness to traditional techniques. The opportunity to interact with such craftspeople directly is a valuable experience. Even if you simply ask about their tsudzure-ori weaving technique, it is sure to be a time well spent.
- Address 2-Minami, 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
- Phone Number 080-6142-5261
Business Days/Hours: Every third Saturday & Sunday 11:00AM~6:00PM
evo-see: A Reasonably Priced, Order-Made Hat Shop
Hat shop evo-see was established by Mr. Kenji Kato, an experienced tailor who wanted “a hat that suits my own head.” It has been opened every week on Saturday and Sunday since moving here in May 2009 (all other days open by request only).
The shop offers two options: Full Order (from 30,000 yen) and Semi-Order (from 15,000~30,000 yen). Samples decorate the inside of the shop.
For a Semi-Order, pick your favorite sample and order the fabric. For a Full Order, you will be able to have a special mold made to fit your exact head size. Both orders take around 4 months to complete (production times may vary depending on number of orders received). You can even have a hat made of your own custom designed using your own sketches and photos.
Mr. Kato puts the most effort into making the patterns so that it will look most beautiful when worn. However, it is not enough just to make it from a paper pattern. “I like to make the brim slightly fall, so that it creates a draped silhouette when worn,” he says. A specially crafted hat with particular attention to detail is easy to wear, regardless of age. Why not try ordering one for yourself?
- Address 4-Kita, 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
- Phone Number 075-708-6480
Business Hours: 12:00PM~7:00PM
Regular Holiday: Mon~Fri (Open by request only)
MATSUSHIMA leather handmade: Diligently Crafted Leather Accessories, with Full Orders Also Available
The last shop I visited was located three houses down from evo-see, Matsushima Leather Handmade. Shopkeeper Kenji Matsushima, with a dexterous hand and a love for leather goods, started leather crafting on holidays while working as a company employee in another industry. He picked up the skill through his own study, and left his company job to start his own business in 2015. He opened this shop in 2017, and began selling his goods online and in craft cities.
The items lining the store are semi-order products, of which you can choose the leather and thread to your liking. You can even request small changes in design such as the item specifications. Full orders are also available (upon request).
Mr. Matsushima’s specialty is “hand-crafted items of high-quality materials, both domestic and abroad.” He purchases leather from prestigious tanner super-brands such as Germany’s Perlinger Leather and Italy’s Badalassi Carlo, as well as Japan’s Tochigi Leather. He then hand-stitches each item for a final product that is both more durable and more beautiful than items sewed by machine.
These carefully hand-crafted works do not allow for compromise in details, such that even the cut surfaces are carefully polished, leaving an impression that I still remember. It is one of the few shops where you can see original leather goods, all crafted by a single individual.
MATSUSHIMA leather handmadeMATSUSHIMA leather handmade
- Address 8-Kita, 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
- Phone Number 070-4097-2375
Business Hours: 10:00AM~6:00PM
Regular Holidays: Tuesdays, Sundays
- Address 284 Yamashiro-cho, Daikokuchodori Matsubara Sagaru 2-Chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Business Hours: Varies by shop
Fixed Holidays: Varies by shop
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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