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Sakura | Magical CraftArt of the Japanese Cherry Tree

Cherry Tree Craftsmanship Japan Sakura Tree

Magic of the Japanese Cherry Tree

Lacy-Cherry-Tree-Japan

Find a spot!  Anywhere among the vivid greens and vibrant blues and soft yellows of nature.  And just sit and breathe in the magic and beauty of your surroundings.

Now then, if you can, from that lovely calming spot, imagine looking up into a blue sky, bright with sun and laced in pink. This now, is the magical beauty of the Japanese Sakura tree.  But ask a craft artist, and you will get much more!

This one tree, gifts an abundance of natural materials for many traditional and many contemporary fine crafts and designs. So, when it comes to enduring Japanese CraftArts, the Sakura tree will tell us three stories for how it gifts its beauty year round.

Dyeing to be Pink - secret revealed

Light Pink Cherry Blossoms Japan

To novices of the plant-dye culture, it's a common guess that the pigment for dye from the Japanese Sakura (Cherry) Tree comes from the lovely pink petals themselves.  But finding the pink pigment turned out not to be quite so easy.  And for generations in Japan, more than a few plant-dye artists repeatedly tried to tease out this tree’s natural pink colors. Petals do not work. So, perhaps roots? Bark? Branches? Leaves? Nothing worked.  

Well, welcome to the perplexing mystery of the lovely Yoshino Cherry tree, which, if able to speak, would playfully exclaim, "gotcha ya again"!

The Sakura is a playful tease and unwilling to give up any secrets too easily. Though Japan's colorful dye culture dates from the Nara and Heian periods (710-1185), extracting the eco-pink dye from the Sakura tree itself has always remained a baffling mystery. In fact, since the pigments of cherry trees contain more oranges and beiges, many textile dyers, even today, only get "sakura color" by relying on a few – perhaps - deceptive tricks -- using a combination of other natural dyes like akabane (madder root - red) and other clever techniques to mimic the pink hue. A few modern dye ateliers even resort to adding drops of chemical dye just to get that special "natural" shade!

So, admitting defeat, over the years, many craft-dye artists and ateliers just gave up.  

Except for one. Meet Mr. Komuro.

Mr. Komuro Japan Natural Dye Artist

In a natural dye studio in southern Japan – an area once known as "Little Kyoto" – plant-dye artist Mr. Yoshihisa Komuro was (here's the pun) dyeing to know. However, this tickling desire quickly turned into a quest that would take a bit of time. The trees, after all, bloom only once a year—and the blossoms, those that fill all viewers with awe, last no more than two short weeks!

The experiments, then, would require patience, curiosity, some obsession, and sustained creative energy and true Japanese craftmanship. But the first task was to find out exactly where the pink was hiding.

A good way to unravel this pink mystery seemed to start with considering a time and a place.

The time comes with the changing of seasons -- when days start to warm but the nights are still cool; when the sun begins to shine a bit longer and the daylight hours stretch out; when you start to get that feeling of hope and renewal with the warming rains that come with spring.  

Sakura Tree Buds Japan

The Sakura tree must be feeling something, too, for it's just in that time when its tiny buds start to awaken that the mystery of the Sakura dye starts to unravel a bit. 

Mr. Komuro discovered that as the little green buds are beginning to uncurl from their tight, winter cocoons, something else very peculiar is starting to form in the tree.  Encouraged by the natural light of the sun, the warming rains, the still-cool nights, and all those changes that come with spring in Japan, the Sakura tree was quietly and diligently making pink. 

And the place

The place doesn't have to do with a park, or a garden, or a yard. The place, really is kind of like a waiting room - place where excitment builds. Mr. Komuro found that in tiny, gnarly twigs, nestled just behind maturing cherry buds, was a little "packet" of pink - waiting.  A pretty pink packet color meant for petals that would soon burst forth in a glorious pink parade. By gathering thoe twigs and buds, not too soon, not too late, and just before that blossom party began, Mr. Komuro discovered he could retrieve that rare packet of pink and extract this pigment for natural dye. It was a pink pigment packet of pink – (tongue twister intended!)

Sakura Cherry Tree Buds ready for boil

But finding the color and choosing the best time to pick the buds was still only part of the Sakura Pink Dye mystery. Mr. Komuro still needed to find a way to make a dye solution that would be consistent and reliable. Unfortunately, how the tree produces its pretty pink was often out of his control. Weather, it seems, was a key factor for that pink color. Fickle as always, the weather might be running cooler one year, hotter the next, sometimes bringing days of unusual rain, or nights not quite cool enough. These weather conditions, in addition to a more complex series of events that tend to impact the blossoming tree and the forming color packets,  Komuro found that the dye each tree produces from year to year would change.

Sakura Twigs for Dye and Silk Scarf

Yet, he persisted. Finally, through repeated experiments over the course of years, and by keeping diligent, detailed records, Mr. Komuro found success through the luck of weather, his unique techniques, and lots of perseverance.

From extracting the pigment from the twigs to producing the resulting natural dye can take many months. The gathered twigs are repetitively simmered and cooled over and over for up to 40 days. This resulting solution is then further aged -- sometimes up to another 90 days. Finally, with its mordant, this solution is ready to be used as a 100% completely natural dye for silk and cotton. An extrordinary gift of natural dye for scarfs and clothes and decour, from the extraordinary Japanese Sakura Tree!

How Blossoms, blossom again

Close up pink sakura cherry tree flower petals on a branch

In the movie, The Last Samurai, Katsumoto says, “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your entire life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”  Hmmm. Ponder. Ponder. Reflect.

It's a little sad but true.  Spring pinks blossoms bust forth in a flurry, but.... in just a fortnight, on a light gently spring breeze, all come gracefully, lazily fluttering down, swaying left and right in a slow choreographed dance to the ground below, in a carpet of pink. A vivid scene, a melancholy ending.

It’s perhaps this brevity of the cherry tree’s magical expression of life that inspires craft-artists to ponder and even experiment with ways in which to preserve it.

Some have turned to food CraftArt.  Who doesn’t at such times! And, if you are familiar with Japanese treats, you have probably sampled this one:  Sakuramochi – a type of wagashi made with pink-colored rice, red beans, all wrapped in a salty Sakura leaf …and often garnished with that pink blossom preserved through salting and pickling.

Sakura Mochi with Preserved Salted Sakura Blossom

A sakuramochi and a cup of green tea and you are instantly transported to spring in Japan.  A cheap way to travel!  And, specially-trained wagashi artists make the most of the season.  Fortunately, both the blossoms and the leaves are edible, so this food makes a quite deliciously attractive and temptingly tasty way to prolong the spring experience.  But thing is .... it's gone in a bite! 

It seems that to immortalize the lovely sakura blossom might require someone with different skills.  A craft artist.  One who can create an object, a pretty present, that is a little more permanent … an object that can capture those fleeting pink-petal moments of spring in tangible form and transform them into something else – something with function and design that reflects a hopeful season.  Something that lasts.

Interestingly, craft artists found inspiration from another famous craft – Washi – Japanese paper made with natural fibers of indigenous plants and trees. Like many traditional crafts, the objects for Washi's embrace have evolved, transformed, and contemporized over the many years. 

Sakura Blossom Washi Japanese Lamp at Night
Sakura Washi Japanese Lamp during Day

This seemed perfect for the fleeting and delicate sakura blossom. A tough and robust natural paper, Washi enabled this icon of spring, this pretty pink flower, to be suspended in time.

For contemporary craft artists, lampshades seem to almost bring the blossoms to life, providing light to the flowers like the sun on a spring day.  A modern, handmade "Washi paper" lamp, decorated with gold powder and sakura blossoms pressed into the paper itself, captures and preserves the carefree feeling of spring with a soft, rich effect.   

The Big Cherry Tree "Coverup"

Wild Cherry Trees Snow Mountains of Japan

Who would imagine that craft artist are involved in a coverup?!  But   in Akita, Japan, that is exactly what is going on as craft artist engage with the bark of wild cherry tree growing in the nearby mountains. 

This beautiful bark inspires the craft known as "kabazaiku" a "traditional craft of Japan"  as desginated through the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.  

Japanese Contemporary Cherry Bark Tea Caddy at Night
And the coverup is what happens when the lovely cherry bark gets caught up in a craft art expression - like this Tea Caddy pictured here.  The craft and process is eco-friendly and no tree are felled as craft-artisans only use a thin, surface layer of bark that grows again. To make a tea caddy, itself, artisans wrap a prepared paper-thin layer of bark around a cylindrical and adhere to the tea base using special, non-chemical glue and a handmade heated trowel. Then the craft artist firmly presses and smoothes this bark layer over and over again. It is then repeatedly polished to bring out the sheen and the natural beauty of the Sakura bark pattern.  A tea caddy is born.

And so too is its connection ... to us!

Kabazaiku Contempory Design Tea Caddy Japan

Wrapped snuggly in a lustrous, reddish bark - a tribute to the Sakura tree - the caddy coaxes us to pick it up, hold it and delight in its beauty and appreciate its function.  The connection between the tea caddy and the tea sipper begins at that moment.  Both now joined through mutual intentions. The tea caddy holds and preserves the tea leaves, keeping the tea experience at the ready.  The tea sipper follows through.

You and the caddy are in a little theater now, the play scripted by a joint mission – a cup of tea.

Setting out tea caddy and modern cup.

Boiling water that draws out a whistle and some curly steam.

Japanese-Wild-Cherry-Tree-Bark-Tea-Caddy

Gently holding in your hands the rich, reddish embodiment of the Sakura tree and scooping out a bit of tea. 

Depositing that tea in a friendly pot, … and waiting. 

Pouring a bit of pleasure and bringing it to your lips – and experiencing "tea."

Were it not for the tea sipper, the tea caddy would have no meaning.  Were it not for the caddy, the tea sipper would have no tea. The connection between tea caddy and tea sipper complete.

What do you think?  Japan's Sakura Tree and Three 

The Sakura tree continues to impress craft artists and inspire traditional works as well as contemporary designs.  So, do you have cherry trees and or craft arts from the cherry tree in your neck of the woods?  Leave me a comment or picture and let's compare! Tell me your story, I will really love to hear from you!  Click Here to Leave Your Message.

Cheers!  Karen

Featured Artist

1.  Morimoto, Taka: Wabi Sabi Wall Art PanelE.D.P. Studio

 About the Blog Author

Karen and Husband Aizu Japan Alfan Select Online Shop Profile Photo
Hi from Japan everyone! I'm Karen and I have been living in Japan for over 20 years. Here I am with my husband on a trip to Aizu, one of Japan's stronghold for Urushi Crafts.  At Alfan Select we ferret out many kinds amazing contemporary crafts and designs here in Japan thereby supporting contemporary artist and ateliers and hopefully bringing some joy to you! So, browse around our site and enjoy reading some more blogs and artists' stories and Welcome! Karen

Leave a Message Below - Can't wait to Read it!  Cheers! Karen


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