To pep up a 95-year-old futon business, a Kyoto company injects a modern twist into the good ol’ zabuton, aka floor cushions.
IN the Japanese context of a living space, zabuton, or floor cushions, are like that humble servant who lurks in the background, unobtrusive yet handy. Typically square and flat, the cushions are used for sitting or kneeling on the floor in lieu of chairs.
Zabuton date back to the 12th century. Traditionally, these padded “seats” were reserved only for the aristocrats and venerated Buddhist monks. But from the mid-19th century onwards, zabuton became a regular fixture in Japanese homes.
“In a traditional Japanese home, there would be a dedicated tatami room for receiving guests and a set of fine-quality zabuton reserved for guests,” explains Nanako Matsuo of Takaokaya, a Kyoto-based zabuton and futon manufacturer established in 1919. By the 1940s, Takaokaya was supplying ready-made futons to large department stores. While the guest zabuton are fashioned from premium textile like finely woven silk, a plain, no-frill version, usually made from cotton or polyester, is designed for everyday use in the family living space.
Over the decades, as Japanese lifestyles evolved, most Japanese have adopted Western-style living, switching from a floor-centred lifestyle to a chair-centred one, Matsuo says in an e-mail interview.
Although zabuton and futon mattresses are still widely used in hotels and ryokan (traditional inns), or during cultural activities like tea ceremonies, machine- and mass-produced ones are cheaper alternatives. As demand for handmade soft furnishings ebbs, companies like Takaokaya are feeling the pinch.
“We are the only workshop still located in the heart of Kyoto,” says Matsuo. Most futon companies have either moved to the outskirts and downsized, or switched to subcontract work.
To breathe new life into the business, Takaokaya launched the ojami – a one-of-a-kind cushion inspired by the ancient Japanese beanbag toy called otedama (similar to batu Seremban or five stones). “Ojami” is the Kyoto dialect for otedama.
Painstakingly handcrafted by Takaokaya’s artisans using age-old techniques, these modish, geometrically-shaped cushions come in a all sorts of colours, textiles and sizes. Stuffed with a mix of cotton and polyurethane, they come in more than 50 varieties of fabric, from luxurious Kyoto silk and Welsh wool to designer textiles from brands like France-based Casamance and Britain’s Osbourne and Little.
Pretty and versatile, the ojami doubles as seat cushions or accent pieces to jazz up your sofa and interior. Takaokaya also offers a bespoke service to turn your material of choice into a sui generis ojami.
“Our customers bring in kimono and obi (sashes) they don’t wear any more that we turn into zabuton and cushions they can use every day,” says Matsuo.
On a crisp winter day in January, I dropped in on Takaokaya’s workshop in the heart of Kyoto to see how an ojami is crafted.
Famed for its World Heritage Sites, antiquated temples and shrines, and machiya (traditional townhouses), Kyoto has long been the hub of Japanese arts and crafts.
For centuries, artisans from all over Japan flocked to the ancient capital to hone their skills, hoping to produce ware fit for the aristocrats. To be appointed craftsmen to the imperial family was the ultimate honour. Consequently, the tradition of refined craftsmanship prevails, from high culture products like lacquerware and tea ceremony utensils to everyday utilitarian objects like wooden buckets and zabuton.
It’s no surprise that Takaokaya prides itself on its lofty standards of craftsmanship.
In a sunlight-filled workshop on the second floor of an office building, 12 artisans knuckle down to fashion ojami, zabuton and futon bedding. From the precise cutting of the fabric to stuffing the cushion and blind-stitching the hems, everything is done manually. A sewing machine is only used for joining the rectangle of fabric to make the cushion cover.
I observed one of the artisans, Yasuhito Taniyama, deftly shoving a massive pile of cotton mixed with polyurethane into an ojami cover in what seemed like mere seconds.
“It takes at least three years to perfect the technique for stuffing cushions,” explains Taniyama, 28. The cotton-poly mixture (70/30 ratio) is piled and folded in alternate directions to increase its density and strength.
A good-quality cushion should be firm yet cushy, provide support yet not flatten easily.
Another artisan laboriously stitches the cushion to hide the hems.
One final touch is the addition of a toji stitch, or an X-shaped stitch, in the centre of the cushion to stabilise the stuffing and prevent it from shifting around when in use. But Takaokaya’s signature is its Y-shaped stitch. The zabuton should always be placed so that the tail of the Y faces away from the guest, as a reflection of Kyoto’s culture of omotenashi (the spirit of selfless hospitality).
Today, the ojami rakes in more than a third of Takaokaya’s total sales, which include traditional zabuton and futon blankets. Outside of Kyoto, the funky cushions are available from online retailers and sold in The Netherlands and Kuala Lumpur.
Takaokaya also collaborated with illustrious furniture company Tendo Mokko to produce the Ojami stool, an ojami cushion paired with a specially made stool. Famed for their bentwood technique, the 74-year-old Yamagata Prefecture-based company is best known for producing the iconic Butterfly Stool designed by Sori Yanagi in 1956.
“We will continue to develop new and novel products that offer handcrafted value to our customers,” says Matsuo.“We are eager to collaborate with designers all over the world to expand our horizons.”
Takaokaya’s third generation owner Koichiro Takaoka sums it up best: “People in Japan are re-evaluating their lifestyles and what matters most to them. While mass production has brought benefits, something is missing. That is heart and soul.
“If we use products with soul, our lives will be made much richer and more meaningful.”
If the current global handmade movement is anything to go by, Takaokaya is certainly on the roll.
> Ojami cushions are available at lifestyle store The Jekyll & Hyde Project at the Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur
(thejekyllandhydeproject.com). For more information on Takaokaya, go to takaoka-kyoto.jp/en.