Bamboo is an remarkable plant. It’s actually a grass, but some varieties are as strong as wood. It’s light, which can be an advantage in some situations. It’s also flexible, which means it can be bent into curved or rounded shapes without breaking. Bamboo reeds are smooth on the outside, so they don’t always have to be stripped. And they can be split to make them flatter, or used whole in their more rounded form.
There are 1,200 different varieties of bamboo growing around the world; 600 of these grow in Japan. Some types are as small as a few inches; others grow to more than 100 feet tall. Bamboo’s varying characteristics give it many different uses, of which the Japanese have taken advantage for the many centuries they’ve been working with it. The one consideration is that bamboo doesn’t take well to mechanical processing; it’s best worked by hand. As a result, it has remained a craft-but it is one which many Japanese craftspeople have elevated to an art.
Baskets are probably the most common items made from bamboo. This is true in Japan, but the styles and types of baskets differ by area.
Suruga baskets, which come from Shimizu, were first made and sold by samurai warriors as a way to supplement their incomes. Suruga basketmakers use a combination of round pieces-called “splints”-for the sides of the baskets, and flat splints, woven into patterns, for the bottom and the lid. They make ordinary “utility” baskets, cages for insects and birds, and other items, like lampshades.
Beppu basketry was started by the local people as a way to make money from the tourists visiting the nearby hot springs, and eventually developed into a full time business for some people. Beppu baskets use flat splints, and are usually either natural-colored (if they’ve had minimal processing) or black (if they’ve been dyed and lacquered). The weaves used for these baskets can range from plain over-under patterns to quite intricate hexagonal and octagonal designs.
Ikoma craftspeople have chosen to use bamboo for other items. One of their most popular is the tea whisk, so important to the Japanese tea ceremony. Whisks can vary, mainly by handle length, number and length of splines, and head shapes, depending on the type of tea being prepared. But however they’re made, they’re a good example of a very functional object that also has a very beautiful form.
In Miyakonojo, bamboo has been used to make archery bows since the 12th century. There was a period of time after World War II when martial arts, including archery, could not be taught, and bowmaking almost stopped during this time. Today, though, archery has been revived as a sport, and bamboo bows are back in demand. Their types depend on the degree of skill of the person using them-from beginner to expert.
Other objects made from bamboo include kitchen utensils, fishing poles, flutes, vases, and furniture. It’s even possible to make walls from bamboo splints that have been woven together.
Bamboo is an amazingly versatile medium, and Japanese craftspeople have learned to make the most of this versatility. Considering that bamboo takes only a year to reach maturity-unlike trees, which can take much, much longer-it’s likely that these people will be able to explore its potential for a very long time.