Bamboo has been used from times immemorial. It is very sturdy and does not spoil easily, even in the most severe conditions or environments.
People tend to forget it is not a tree, but a grass. It can grow in inclement climates and withstand frost and snow, although severe droughts will kill it.
It flowers only once in its long (60 to 120 years) life before suddenly dying away.
Bamboos (there are many varieties) are also the fastest growing woody plants in the world. They are capable of growing up to 60 cm (24 in.) or more a day due to a unique rhyzome-dependent system. However, this astounding growth rate is highly dependent on local soil and climatic conditions. But the same growth rate can make it an environmental hazard in some regions where it supplants real trees.
Bamboos are of notable economic and cultural significance in Japan (and Asia) where the stems and even the leaves are extensively used in everyday life as building materials and as a highly versatile raw product, and the shoots as a food source.
Bamboo, when used for construction or utensil-making purpose must be harvested when the culms reach their greatest strength and when sugar levels in the sap are at heir lowest, as high sugar content increases the ease and rate of pest infestation.
Bamboo is extensively used as a food, medicine and construction material.
It also contributes to the manufacture of everyday utensils from chopsticks to baskets, from textiles to musical instruments, and even in water processing and transportation (bamboo bicycles!).
Now, because of its comparatively mild and wet climate, Shizuoka Prefecture has been the home of bamboo handcraft for a long time.
Its major guild, called Suruga Takesen Sujizaiku/駿河竹千筋細工 (literally, Suruga Bay Bamboo Thousand Lines Thin Works) or “Suruga Zaiku” for short, has been in existence since 1620 and quickly achieved fame thanks to the Shogunate and the Old Tokaido Route.
At first craftsmen concentrated on the manufacture of utilitarian objects from baskets to small boxes and trays actively sought by the travelers for their own use or as valuable souvenirs and tradable artifacts.
Their products achieved international first in Austria in 1873 where they were exhibited at the Wien International Exposition. Since then the craft has witnessed lows and highs, but in this present world of cheap plastic and metal utilities, bamboo has increasingly achieved a deserved status of artistic value and even that of a politically correct environment-friendly material.
At present the Guild accounts for 14 craftsmen and craftswomen of all ages specializing in some form of the handicraft. The next generation is well provided for and collectors and buyers can be assured of a continuous, if limited because of the sheer hard work and artistry, supply.
There is an almost unending line of products available depending on your needs:
Vase baskets to hold or carry pottery or glass vases, protecting and adding to the aesthetic value of their contents. There are some 80 models of them that can be laid on tables or tokonomas or hung on walls and pillars.
Many exquisite “kaze suzu/風鈴”, or “wind bells” resonating inside very fine bamboo lined balls.
More than 20 cake boxes and trays to serve or preserve Japanese cakes/wagashi.
Beautiful “handbags” lined with hand-dyed cloth.
Insect collectors, especially “suzu mushi/鈴虫/ring-bell cricket” beloved by the Japanese during the hot season, can choose among more than 20 delicately built cages where they can keep and feed their little pets.
Lamp shades (more than 25 of them) can not only make for very utilitarian devices, but also for lovable souvenirs to bring back home as the oriental note in your western abodes.
But my favorite, if I may be allowed a personal comment, are the trays, either made of bent bamboo lines or interwoven bamboo fibers!
Consult their homepage (Japanese) for the entire array and direct purchase at:
Visit their guild in Shizuoka City if you wish to be directly introduced to the artists at work:
Shizuoka Takesen Kougei Kyodokumiai, 420-0078, Shizuoka Shi, Aoi Ku, Hachi Bancho, 7-1
Or if you happen to stop at Shizuoka Station, spare a minute to admire all the art works at Sumpu Raku Ichi Shop!