Kyoto Visitor's GuideiDec.'96/Jan.'97j

Kyoto Visitor's Guide œDec.'96/Jan.'97

WRAP IT UP@Going places with FUROSHIKI

By Ann Overton

The Japanese are famous for the skill and beauty with which they wrap even the most ordinary objects. Visiting a department store after the hiring season one can see new employees struggling to master the elegant art of diagonal paper wrapping. Years ago, the book, How to Wrap Five Eggs, with its striking photographs of Japanese objects, became a classic of the coffee table book genre. Until about 40 years ago, the furoshiki, a simple piece of cloth, played a major role in this realm. People used this square of fabric to carry things, instead of the suit cases, handbags, brief cases and plastic supermarket bags we use today. By folding, twisting and knotting it in a variety of styles, the same furoshiki, on different occasions, could become the ideal carrying case for a watermelon, a rectangular box, or a pair of sake bottles. This of course meant that the user had a higher level of participation in the process: a shopping bag is simply an object to be filled with merchandise while a furoshiki is an object to be transformed according to its function. It is this more active use of the hands and imagination that is valued by those hoping to preserve this folkway.

In Kyoto, the Furoshiki Study Group, founded by Chizuko Morita, works to promote both the time-honored methods of using these carrying cloths as well as inventing new wrapping styles. Traditional usage is still alive in Kyoto today, Morita-san points out. Along Muromachi Street, center of the kimono shop area, young men on bicycles pass by with kimono fabric wrapped in these cloths. Japanese lunch boxes, or obento, are wrapped, together with chopsticks, in a smaller version of the furoshiki. Lawyers in the courthouse are said to prefer carrying their documents in furoshiki rather than in briefcases.

Furoshiki still play an integral role in traditional gift giving. A gift is presented wrapped in furoshiki, which the recipient later removes and wraps around another gift which is given back to the original giver. Thus its use expresses the Asian value of reciprocity. Another way in which its use is rooted in Asian culture can be seen in the folding method employed when presenting formal gifts. For congratulatory occasions the cloth is folded with the right side on top, while for occasions of condolence the left side is uppermost. The former is aligned with the Yang principle of Asian cosmology, connected with birth, spring, and summer, and the latter with the Yin principle, connected with death, autumn, and winter.

Striking a more contemporary note Morita-san makes a case for furoshiki use as a way of supporting ecology: shopping with a carrying cloth makes plastic and paper bags unnecessary.

Because their designs are so appealing many people now use furoshiki as accessories such as scarves and hair bands. In home interiors they function as decorative wall hangings, table cloths and covers for computers. The smaller lunch box cloths are used by Western people as table napkins.

Four times a year Morita-san's group hosts Furoshiki Talks, events featuring a lecture followed by a practical demonstration of wrapping techniques. Their next event, scheduled for February 22nd, will include a lecture by Alex Kerr, author of the award-winning book Lost Japan.

It is the use of the hands and the imagination, as noted above, which forms the core of the Furoshiki Study Group's work. Their enthusiasm has generated new interest in furoshiki both abroad and in Japan. And their enthusiasm returns to them, like a gift wrapped in the donor's furoshiki. (For more information about their activities contact the Furoshiki Kenkyu Kai, Tel:075-432-2722, Fax:075-432-3832)

Furoshiki Kenkyu Kai:E-Mail CXV00174 —