Our World Learn to fold: the ancient Japanese art of furoshiki

My hands have started to move, almost independent of my brain. The tasks they’re executing were entirely foreign to me just a few hours ago.

Now, in a short space of time, they have become second nature. A Japanese trick which has barely changed in 1300 years is helping me to create something beautiful in Shiba Park Hotel in downtown Tokyo.

 Furoshiki is one of the oldest surviving elements of the Japanese arts — something which started as a convenient means of storing clothes in ancient baths, and spawned into a revered art form, a method of creating things of both utility and beauty.

I had never heard of it until I came across Sakura, a brilliant Japanese cultural centre at this hotel. 

As I’ve travelled in Asia regularly over the past decade I’ve noticed a rise in the popularity of hands-on activities for tourists, who can learn things like how to cook regional dishes, how to create traditional art, or perform local customs. Rarely, though, have I come across one centre which offers such a comprehensive range of different workshops like Sakura. Certainly I have never seen another facility like it in Japan across my dozen visits.

Sakura offers classes in not just furoshiki, but also in mizuhiki cord decorating, origami paper art, Japanese calligraphy, manekineko painting, takoyaki cooking and Japanese tea ceremonies. Each of these workshops intrigues me but in the end I plump for the one which seems most curious. How could I resist learning the art of something which translates to mean “bath spread”? Its name is so mundane, I think to myself, that furoshiki must actually be exciting. Kind of like how “tiny” is used as a nickname for big guys. I’m a big guy myself — a big slightly-bogan Aussie — so to spend a few hours delicately folding Japanese cloth seems wonderfully contradictory.

Fortunately, it's not that difficult to master and just one hour into my lesson I've got the hang of it. 

“My mother would be so proud of me,” I remark with a grin to Yuka, my gregarious furoshiki teacher. I’m holding up for her admiration a bottle of wine elegantly wrapped in a lime-green cloth embellished by white and pink flowers. Yuka is delighted. She claps her hands and breaks into a smile. 

Yuka could not be better suited to her job. She takes great and genuine joy from the furoshiki creations of myself and my classmate, even when my first effort was so ragged it looked as if it had been made with deliberate incompetence.

While I’m gradually honing my Japanese cloth-folding skills Yuka teaches me about the history of furoshiki. It first emerged during Japan’s Nara Period (710-784AD) before becoming very popular during the Muromachi Period (AD1338-1573). It is believed that the practice started as a means of wrapping prized possessions of the Japanese Emperor. 

In the latter period furoshiki began to be used by common people to bundle up their clothes and other personal items while visiting public baths. This is how it earned the name “bath spread”. 

Furoshiki’s popularity waned in the 20th century as plastic bags became commonplace. But interest in furoshiki has increased in Japan in recent years due to a rise in eco-friendly practices, particularly among the younger generations.

 I can see the appeal. Having just one piece of cloth which can be easily folded to create a shopping bag, a bottle carrier or gift wrapping is very handy. 

At first it seemed to me like a laborious process. But now that folding this cloth is becoming instinctive I am finding it both simple and enjoyable. 

Will I use flower-decorated cloth to wrap my beers when I’m heading to a barbecue at my cricket club? Probably not. Will I use furoshiki to make a pretty wrapping for my wife’s upcoming birthday? 

Yes, I think I will.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Ronan O’Connell was a guest of Shiba Park Hotel. They have not seen or approved this story.

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