Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The first time I saw fifth generation sudare (簾/すだれ) craftsman Tanaka-san was in the traditional arts and crafts museum in Asakusa; the museum offers its main hall to various local “shokunin” giving them the opportunity to show their craft to the public and, even more so, giving the public the opportunity to take a closer look at the magnificent work of these people, a work that in many cases continues and evolves since the times of Edo (and even earlier). Watching him make the sudare blinds by weaving thin strips of bamboo or wood, I felt as if I was watching a virtuoso musician performing a recital: politely indifferent to the people standing in front of him, he was constantly moving his hands on the improvised “loom”, correcting the spacing between strips and strings without looking –literally: more than once I caught him working with his eyes closed- and he had an expression of vibrant calmness that for many people comes after years of therapy.
Not long after that, in his workshop in Senzoku, a few streets to the west from the old Yoshiwara, I realized that the sudare we hang at our home every year –and even the much better ones that my mother-in-law has in her tearoom- aren’t but the tip of an iceberg sinking down to the Heian ear (794-1185) and having become synonymous with the Japanese summer, first in the mansions of nobility and after the Edo period in almost every home. And when we went up to the second floor which hosts a permanent exhibition of the work done in the workshop, I realized the countless applications of the art of weaving bamboo: from coasters of a few square inches to five-fold screens, sudo (簀戸) doors and up to the common blinds that come out from storage every May and stay on the windows until autumn, some simple, some patterned, with silk or paper borders and in a multitude of lengths and widths.
Contrary to other shokunin, Tanaka-san doesn’t worry much about the future of his craft: yes, old-style Japanese houses are not built anymore in the numbers they used to but sudare still find their way to the new houses, the ones with the aluminum casings and the windows where glass panels have replaced the sliding paper “shoji” (障子). And this doesn’t happen just because people want to add a hint of “tradition” to their homes: for starters, they are really efficient as a defense against light and heat –they even manage to contain the insufferable humidity of the Japanese summer- but beyond that, they transform both the space they are in and the outside world. Looking through a sudare, feels like being in a dream, that you can see through walls or, if you are in the other side, that you have become invisible; if there is any truth in the cliché that the Japanese have a particular fondness for the suggestive and the ambiguous, the sudare might be one of the best arguments supporting it.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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