When one thinks of traditional Japanese clothing, it’s not uncommon to picture the delicate, flowing silk of ornate kimonos, or the deep blue of Japan’s signature indigo dye. One material not often thought of as traditionally Japanese, however, is leather. In fact, Japan has been producing leather for over 2,000 years. Today, those centuries of skills are mostly concentrated with the tanners and leather craftspeople of Hyogo Prefecture. Let’s take a closer look at why leather goods from Hyogo are unlike any other in the world.
1. What Makes Hyogo Leather so Special?
The practice of leather tanning was first brought to Japan by craftsmen immigrating from Korea. Its durability, comfort, and the warmth it provided made it immensely popular for use both at home, as well as with warring samurai as part of their armament. Though tanners could be found throughout the country, the prefecture of Hyogo quickly gained widespread renown for its stunning white leather.
While most white leather is typically dyed post-production, Hyogo leather’s white color is naturally derived during the tanning process. Animal skins are first soaked in water from the nearby Ichikawa River. The river is home to bacteria which feed on the hair follicles attached to the skins, releasing a special enzyme in the process. When the skins are removed from the water, they are rubbed with salt and left to dry in the sun. The resulting chemical reaction bleaches the skins naturally without the need of dyes. Due to its rarity and the quality of its craftsmanship, Hyogo leather and its tanners were revered and sought out across Japan.
2. How is Hyogo Leather Used Today?
As times changed and the use of leather evolved from battle armor to luxury fashion items, so too has the design of leather goods evolved with it. Today, the region alone is responsible for over 70% of Japanese leather, with products ranging from handbags, to decorative items, to golf club handles and beyond.
Leather artisans in the area have also started working with less conventional animal skins, such as deer, boar, and even ostrich; each of which presents its own unique textures and applications.
The unique beauty of the natural Japanese white leather has begun to catch on globally as well. Many international fashion designers have begun incorporating Japanese leather into their clothing lineups. Recently, several Hyogo leather artisans were even featured prominently during the illustrious Paris Fashion Week. As the fashion world turns its eye to the region, talented local craftsmen are helping to shine a spotlight on what was once a much overlooked Japanese tradition.
3. Where to Learn More About Hyogo Leather Craft?
One of the leather producers in Hyogo that has been gathering a great deal of attention internationally due to their high quality work is Daisho Leather in Himeji city. This third generation family-owned company has been making leather goods since 1925. While most leather producers in the area simply tan the leather and sell it to designers, Daisho is unique in the fact that they are one of the few leather producers to both make the leather and their own original goods with a team of in-house designers.
For those wishing to learn more about Hyogo leather tanning and the processes it undergoes to become the finished product you see on the shelves, Daisho welcomes visitors to tour their factory in Himeji. The tour is only offered in Japanese, but their passion for their work can be universally understood.
To be able to see firsthand the work that goes into your favorite leather products will give you an entirely new appreciation for the skilled artisans behind it all.
Address: 110 Hanadacho Takagi, Himeji-shi, Hyogo (see map)
Hours: Hours vary, so please contact them via their online form to arrange a tour.
Transport: From Himeji Station, take the Hirofumi bus line to the Ogawa bus stop. From there, the factory is approximately 3 minutes on foot.
4. Where to Buy Japanese Leather in Hyogo?
For the hands-on learners among us, Daisho offers a leatherworking experience run by expert craftsmen. At Leather Town, their retail store located just minutes from the factory, visitors can craft their own leather coin pouch to take home as a souvenir. Thankfully, the hardest part, measuring and cutting the necessary leather pieces has already been done for you, so even families with young children can enjoy this activity.
The experience is only offered in Japanese, but even non-Japanese speakers should have no issue following the instructor’s visual directions. As you hammer away eyelets and bind the individual pieces together with coarse leather string, it’s easy to imagine yourself alongside the traditional Japanese leather craftsmen of many centuries ago.
Address: 1180-1 Haneda-cho, Himeji City, Hyogo (see map)
Hours: The retail store is open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday, but please check their class calendar in advance to reserve a spot.
Transport: From Himeji Station, take the Hirofumi bus line to the Ogawa bus stop. From there, the factory is approximately 9 minutes on foot.
The expertise of leather goods makers in the area means there is no shortage of inspiration for Japanese fashion. For local designers Tachiro Hashimoto and Makoto Kawamura the appeal of leather is the natural variety in color and texture. Their brand No,No,Yes! explores the possibilites of leather for bespoke fashion design. You can visit their store just close by in Himeji.
Address: 3F-5, 68-170 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo (see map)
Hours: Open rather idiosyncratically from 3:15pm to 7:19pm, closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Transport: From Himeji Station, walk towards Himeji park for 10 minutes, and you’ll find the store at the south end of the park.
When you’re buying leather in Japan, look out for the Japan Leather label. This label can only be used for Made in Japan leather goods from certified members of the Tanners’ Council of Japan, so you’ll know you’re buying the best quality. Make sure you take your passport too to take advantage of tax-free shopping!
5. What Else To Do in Hyogo Prefecture?
While in the area, why not take in a few other sights that Hyogo has to offer? For the best scenic view of the surrounding Suma coastline, the Sumaura Ropeway in neighboring Kobe can’t be beat. From it’s 180 meter-high lookout point, visitors can take in a sweeping panorama of the Kobe and Osaka skylines, the Great Naruto Bridge which connects Hyogo and Tokushima, and much more.
At the top, the Sumaura Ropeway visitor center is home to a revolving restaurant, giving guests a 360 degree view of the expansive scenery as they eat, as well as a vintage arcade for kids. Rather than walking between the ropeway drop-off point and the visitor center, for a truly unique experience, ride the Carlator; the only seated escalator of its type in Japan.
Address: 5-3-2 Ichinotanicho, Suma Ward, Kobe (see map)
Hours: The ropeway is open from 10am to 5pm. It is closed on Tuesdays.
Transport: From Kobe Station, ride the Tokaido-Sanyo line approximately 20 minutes to Sumaurakoen Station.
After an afternoon of leatherworking and sightseeing, a bit of well-deserved relaxation is in order. In Hyogo Prefecture, there is no better place to do so than in Arima Onsen Town. This mountainous area is home to one of Japan’s three greatest onsen, the Japanese term for hot springs. Here, geothermally heated water, rich in iron and sodium, make for the ultimate stress-relieving experience. As you explore the hilly streets dotted with craft stores, bakeries, and cafes, it’s not uncommon to find groups of fellow travelers soaking their feet in public rest spots located throughout the town.
One place to enjoy the waters in a little more privacy is the Arima Grand Hotel. You can take part in a kaiseki, a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. The dishes are prepared with local ingredients, including seasonal vegetables, locally caught fish, and Kobe wagyu beef.
After dinner take a soak in the numerous indoor and outdoor onsen. The hotel features both a kinsen (water rich in iron and sodium) and ginsen (water with trace amounts of radon), both of which are said to have unique therapeutic properties and leave the skin feeling incredibly soft.
Address: 1304-1 Arimacho, Kita, Kobe, Hyōgo (see map)
Transport: From Kobe Station, ride the Tokaido-Sanyo line approximately 20 minutes to Sannomiya Station. From here, take the Arima Onsen bus line to the Arima Onsen bus stop.
And of course, if you haven’t already, you should visit the White Heron Castle in Himeji. Find out All You Need to Know Before You Visit!
This article is sponsored by the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO).