In 2012, my husband bought me a guide to Old Kyoto by Diana Dursten and Lucy Birmingham. I took the book with me on our 2013 trip, because there were one or two traditional craft items I wanted to bring back as souvenirs.
One such item was an oiled paper umbrella. When I was a child, we had an oiled paper umbrella that I used to like playing with. I liked the creak of the bamboo stays as I opened it up, and the thick paper band that held the umbrella closed. I loved the colours, the black of the handle, the orange tips at the end of the bamboo struts, the deep red of the umbrella, and there was something about its oily smell that I also enjoyed. I looked for the umbrella at my Mum’s house but it had long since disappeared, so I decided that I wanted to buy my own.
Entry E27 in the Old Kyoto guidebook describes the shop I wanted to buy my umbrella from. It’s the oldest umbrella shop in Kyoto, and the most expensive. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it properly. I took extra money with me to cover the cost, because I knew that handcrafted items like this don’t come cheap. On our way back from Chion-In, we exited Maruyama Park and crossed to Shijo Dori. We pulled back the sliding doors and peeped into the shop. It was deserted. Figuring that it was lunchtime, we backed out again and headed off to Matsuontoko to eat.
After eating, we tried to find a second umbrella shop in the back streets of Pontocho/Shijo Dori, without much success. We thought we had found the spot, but the shop was firmly shuttered up, so it was hard to tell. Slightly frustrated, we headed off as planned for our afternoon trip to Ginkakuji, and I had a ponder about umbrellas.
When we returned to Gion, we went straight to Kasagen. This time when we entered, a woman appeared from the back of the shop. I spoke to her about wanting to buy a traditional umbrella and having 15,000円 in mind as a figure (this was around £100 at the time). She smiled regretfully and told me in Japanese that she could show me some umbrellas at that price, but they would not be good quality, and they would not be Japanese. I asked how much the least expensive umbrella would be. The answer was 18,800円 (around £140). I didn’t have enough cash on me, and I got the feeling that Kasagen was one of those old Kyoto shops that doesn’t accept card payments. I looked at Mr Hicks and he smiled. “I can lend you the money if you really want one,” he said, knowing full well that I did. I nodded to the woman, and she pulled from the display case the only two umbrellas that cost 18,800円. One of them was blue and very pretty. The other was red. When she opened it up, I gasped. I think she knew that she had made a sale at that point! It looked just like the one we used to have when I was a child, from the orange tips on the stays, to the depth of colour in the red paper. And it smelled amazing.
She gave me detailed instructions about how to care for it then put it into its paper sleeve and packaged it up in a special box.
I almost lost it on the way home. We called into the 7-Eleven so that I could use an ATM to withdraw money to cover the extra cost of the umbrella, and I left the box on top of the ATM desk. We were a good 10 minutes’ walk down the street before I realised. A mad dash back to the conbini followed. Thankfully we were in Japan and not Manchester, and someone had handed the box in to the cashier who handed it back over to me with a bow.
I haven’t had the courage to use it yet, even though it rains a lot in Manchester. One of the things the woman in the shop impressed on me was how bad for oiled umbrellas centrally heated houses are. I have been scared to use it because I didn’t want to damage it when drying it out.
Today it has rained, though, and it being summer the central heating isn’t on. So I have taken the umbrella out of the box and taken it into the garden to take its picture. It looked lovely against the green of the grass. It’s now open and drying out, and there is a wonderful aroma of oil in the room.
I really should use it properly!