[From September Issue 2012]
Yamanashi Prefecture is well known for its mountains and woods, and for being home to a large population of deer. It is also the home of koshu inden – a Japanese craft with 400 years of history that uses deerskin to make soft, durable parts for samurai armor, or everyday objects like bags.
To make koshu inden, deerskin is first dyed and then smoked over a straw fire until the leather has a natural bright yellowish hue. The leather is then colored with Japanese lacquer, with foundation colors typically being black, red or blue. Over this background, decorative patterns are then applied.
Traditional patterns are typically inspired by nature. Fireflies, tortoise shells, waves and various flowers have been popular decorative motifs for many years. Some patterns are more suitable for men, whereas other patterns are more popular amongst women.
The craft’s name, inden, refers to India, where some of these leather dying and coloring techniques originated. It takes many weeks to make a piece of inden. Each layer of lacquer needs to dry and harden and each step in the process must be done by hand by skilled artisans.
Contemporary inden products include purses, wallets, bags and key holders, which come in a wide range of designs and color combinations. Recently inden leather craft has been combined with other crafts and is applied to glass or wood as a decorative touch.
The most prominent maker of inden is Inden-ya Uehara Yushichi Co., Ltd. Located in Kofu City, Yamanashi, the company was established in 1582 and is now run by the 13th descendent of the Uehara family. The quality of their handmade leather goods and the patterns and color combinations of Inden-ya make each product easily distinguishable from other producers of inden.
Over time Inden-ya Uehara Yushichi has come up with a few secret techniques to give the leather a specially hardened coat of lacquer. In recent years some of these techniques were disclosed to other craftsmen in order to allow the craft of inden to prosper and grow.
Recently Inden-ya Uehara Yushichi is making inroads abroad with the opening of the first overseas showroom in New York and many foreigners now appreciate the beauty of this craft. Inden-ya products are not only beautiful, but last for many years and are an ideal gift for your friends in Japan and abroad.
Text: Nicolas SOERGEL