Iga Kumihimo: the Long Tradition of the Braided Cord

Iga Kumihimo: the Long Tradition of the Braided Cord

Iga City in Mie Prefecture has so much to offer tourists. It’s known for everything from Haiku (Japanese poetry) to ninjas and beef. There’s a gorgeous castle with a large park around it and it’s just a nice, quiet town to escape to when your trip consists of hopping from one megalopolis to the other. But you can’t really bring beef, ninjas, or castles back home with you. What you can do is learn a traditional handicraft in one sitting, and bring that knowledge and what you’ve made home with you.

Written by Chad Martin
-Author's Introduction
My otaku side brought me to Nagoya, Japan in 2012, but I stayed for the food, countryside towns, and gorgeous mountain scenery. I was born and raised on the east coast of the US, but I dare say I never grew up. I never shut up about Japan.

Caption: A really complicated-looking machine for braiding Kumihimo! It lets you twist together many different threads into one braid. Check out the shuriken on the wall! The staff even gave me a couple really good ones. 

Caption: By Uenoshi Station in downtown Iga on a sleepy winter morning. Ueno Castle looms over it all in the distance.

I’ve never been very good at making art, or any sort of crafts. My mom has kept a pot that I made in junior high school all these years, and I’m embarrassed whenever I see it, so I’m worried that whatever I make today won’t be something I can confidently show off. But I’m gonna try my best, so here we go! 

Caption: The Iga Kumihimo Kumi no Sato is right next to Ueno Park, where you’ll find a lot of Iga’s attractions.

The Iga Kumihimo Kumi no Sato is an all-in-one souvenir shop, museum, workshop, and hands-on attraction. Heading inside, the very friendly staff greeted me and left me to wander around the souvenir shop to check out the huge variety of things that can be made out of kumihimo braided cords.

Caption: If you head over to the ninja village and learn about the ninja, you’ll find out that navy blue is the most historically accurate color. Ninjas found that it’s actually better than black for blending in to the environment at night. 

Caption: Kumihimo neckties would feel so nice. Gotta be really durable too! If anyone out there is wondering about a birthday present for me...

Caption: it’s amazing that simple threads can be twisted up into complex items like this. 

They had a massive selection of modern kumihimo products made with traditional methods. I saw a lot of interesting stuff, but decided I’d wait to see what I could make during my own kumihimo experience. 

At a touch, it’s clear how durable the cords are. The strands are wrapped so tightly that they become a really solid material. To learn more about the methods, tradition, and history behind the braided cords, I headed up to the museum on the second floor.

There is a video you can watch in the small museum that explains a lot about the history and process of kumihimo and how the materials are dyed, etc. Old looms and other devices line the walls. Even if you can’t understand the Japanese that’s on most everything, you’ll still be able to get the gist of what was happening, and what the kumihimo braided cords were used for.

Caption: Here are two different looms used for making the braided cords. The circular one on the left is exactly what you’ll be using to make your own!

Caption: It’s easy to see all the kumihimo used in the bindings and fine details of this samurai warrior’s armor. Not only is it tough, but the braided cords are vibrantly colored and stylish. They can also be found in ninja gear and kimono.

Also on the second floor is a huge workshop. They’re capable of hosting very large classes of people learning this fine art.

Caption: I can only assume the notes on the board are some kind of advanced braiding theory. I joke, but they do say in their materials that they employ traditional kumihimo techniques and more modern ones. 

Well, the time had finally come. I was pretty worried I’d be trying the patience of the staff ladies with my poor coordination, lack of Japanese. I was just going to have to make up for that with my earnest disposition.

But thankfully, one of them spoke English pretty well and stepped up to help me!

Caption: Really cool, traditional setting with tatami floors and everything. Great atmosphere.

This was my target product, a strap for a phone, bag, or key chain. I would make a strap just like these, and barring any massive disasters, it was only going to take about half an hour. Bracing to disappoint my very patient teacher, I began.

Caption: I got pretty anxious and excited before class. It looked so complicated!

First off was choosing the colors I wanted the strap to be. Each of the looms in the classroom were already prepared for someone to begin, and each one was readied with different color combinations of thread. So I walked around until one jumped out at me. Red, black, and shiny gold thread! 

Caption: My ever-so-patient kumihimo sensei demonstrates the correct method. She was really good at giving clear directions in English!

Below the top of the loom hangs a weighted pouch that your thread is attached to. The spools act as counterweights. In this way, the thread is always pulled taut, ensuring that each wrapping of the cord is nice and tight, crucial for the final product. For these cords that are three colors, there are at least two spools of each color that are on opposite sides of the loom.

To wind the thread into a cord, you simply grab each color in turn, on both sides, and rotate them once around the loom. Switch colors and repeat, while occasionally stopping to unwind more thread from the spools. Pretty simple, yet fun! I certainly had a sense of accomplishment after making mine, even though I’m sure children could do it. I only messed up a few times, but the teacher was there to sort things out in a jiff. 

Caption: Not too shabby if I do say so myself.

The staff lady kindly handled all the gluing of the cord into the plastic bit, and passed the finished product on to me. I’ve been proudly sporting it on my backpack ever since. I usually don’t buy souvenirs, but I see this one every day, and it brings back great memories of Iga and keeps reminding me to return! I never feel like I’m done with that city. Maybe I should just move there and become some kind of professional ninja or kumihimo artist or something. Definitely one of the two.

Tourist attractions covered by this article