Visit to ... Kaneko Shoten, bamboo shop
It was completely by accident that I found Kaneko Shoten the first time. I was on my way to visit Shimano-san the woodblock supplier, and was lost, as usual. The Moto Asakusa area of Tokyo is laid out in a simple grid pattern, not winding twisty lanes, but that doesn't make it any easier to find your destination when all the streets and shops look exactly alike. Every time I visit the area I get confused anew, and end up circling around and around searching for landmarks, gradually drawing closer to my goal. I had heard that there was such a place as a 'bamboo skin' shop in Tokyo, but had not yet got around to looking it up. Luckily, on this particular day when I bumped into it, I had time to spare and went in to see what I could see.
Of course, it is an old place. I use the word shop, but it doesn't look like a store as such. One steps directly from the street into the storage area, and is immediately surrounded by bale upon bale of bamboo skins. How can these people make a living? Are there that many woodblock printmakers still at work? Of course not. Printmakers make up only a tiny fraction of their business. Most of these bamboo skins are destined for use as ... food wrappers. Rice balls, blocks of sweet yokan paste, and many other foods were being wrapped in these tough, flexible coverings centuries before the invention of plastic wraps, and there are a few old-fashioned shops that still like to use them.
Modern Japanese language usage has all but erased the distinction between skins of animals and plants, and the same Chinese character is commonly used for both, but Kaneko Shoten's name card proudly carries the obsolete character for 'takenokawa' (bamboo skin). This business has been in existence since the Ansei era (1850's), and in the present location since Meiji 17 (1884). It has been razed to the ground twice this century, once during the great Kanto earthquake, and then again during the war. The present proprietors, the brothers Yasuo and Mitsuo Kaneko, tend to both the business and their 97 year old mother. During my visit to gather information for this little story I sat and listened to them argue about when this or that ancestor lived or died, and I tried to compare their long heritage to my own very short one. (I don't even know the names of my grandparents, let alone what they did, where they lived, or where they are buried).
There can't be very much about bamboo skins that these two don't know. They were able to tell me where the 'best' skins for use by printmakers are to be found in any given area; a certain place in Chiba, an area near Osaka, even a particular hillside in Gumma Prefecture. The structure, thickness and strength of the skins are obviously determined both by the composition of the soil in which the plant grows, and by the micro-climate surrounding it.
In the Kanto area, the skins are gathered in July, or perhaps I should say, were gathered. This was traditionally kid's work. Village children would be organized to search the bamboo groves for the fallen skins, which would then be bundled up and shipped off to Kaneko Shoten. It is easy for me to imagine such a scene from a few decades ago: groups of children in raggedy summer clothes and straw sandals gathering masses of the skins, and bringing them back to the village to exchange for a handful of sen (mon? ri? yen?). It is not so easy to imagine today's youngsters doing so. Even if they were not otherwise occupied with homework or video games, Japanese kids nowdays of course have no need to go 'hunting' on hillsides for their pocket money. Kaneko-san is thus finding it much more difficult to obtain bamboo from Japan, and is turning to other sources of supply, notably Taiwan. (If you think it strange that this blue-eyed printmaker should be using a 'non-Japanese' material to make his Japanese prints, wait until you hear what goes into the washi ....). And all over Japan, the bamboo skins lie where they fall ...
What of the future for Kaneko Shoten? Well, for them the future simply means just doing what they've always been doing - buying the best bamboo they can find, and supplying them to those who find that no modern substitute will do the job, whether it be covering a printmaker's baren, or making a simple wrapper for a traditional food. Of course printing presses are 'better' than barens, plastic is 'better' than bamboo skin, and it is right that they should have taken over. But if our society becomes so enamoured with efficiency and profit margins that there is no longer any place for such a 'low-tech' but 'high touch' product like the 'takenokawa', then that will be a sad day indeed.
Yasuo and Mitsuo Kaneko, guardians of an old tradition, thank you for your assistance and advice with my printmaking studies. But most of all, thank you for your regular supplies of that miracle product ... the takenokawa. And from now on, I too will use that obsolete old kanji. (If only it didn't have quite so many strokes ....)