On my recent trip to the Kumano region in Wakayam prefecture, I met Yasuo Shiba, the last craftsman in Japan to make hats out of hinoki – Japanese cypress. The hats are worn by mountain ascetics known as Yamabushi, who follow the Shugendo faith.
Shiba-san lives in a small village in the mountains of Kumano, near the town of Hongu and Kawayu Hot Spring. His house and small workshop backs into a steep forested hillside.
The hats are made by hand, and he can make one or two per day. Each hat sells for about 5,000 Yen ($60). It’s not difficult to see why young people do not want to take up the profession.
Now 91, and slightly hard of hearing, Shiba-san still works each day. Many of his hats are bought by temples in Kyoto.
Shiba-san sits cross-legged in his workshop, deftly weaving the strands of cypress. He explains that cypress wood contains oils that make the hats very weatherproof – necessary with rains that frequent the area.
On his wall, a magnificent plaque is displayed, sent from the Imperial Household in Tokyo. It is his designation as a ‘Living National Treasure’, signifying his contribution to the traditional crafts of Japan.
It’s sad to think that when he passes away, so will his craft. Making these hats by hand cannot compete with cheap factory-made imports. And what will the priests of Kyoto do?
This is story often repeated across Japan. Few young people want to commit themselves to such a hard life for so little financial reward.
For the time-being, Shiba-san is happy to explain his craft, and obviously very proud of what he does.