Nagano: Raised under an umbrella

Inheriting a job is easier for some than others.  My Dad was an accountant; my grandfathers were a printer and a dairy farmer.  As a tour leader in Japan, I can hardly say I have followed in their footsteps.  A good job too, I would have soon got lost had I tried.

78-year-old Yoshihiro inherited his job, an unusual one.  He makes umbrellas, exactly as his father and grandfather did.   Inside Mikawaya, his zelkova wood  shop, Yoshihiro works while sitting on tatami – sitting on a chair is too time-consuming, he told me.  He has no plans to retire – he is too busy.

The 3 generation family business began by chance.  In the open port of Yokohama over 140 odd years ago, Yoshihiro`s  grandfather spotted an Englishman holding a yogasa, a western umbrella.  The umbrella must have been quite something – perhaps a Gents Solid, it inspired him to set-up an umbrella business back home in the mountains of Nagano.

When I told Yoshihiro I was from England, he got excited, bringing out an old newspaper article about Fox Umbrellas – Keeping You Dry Since 1868.  In respectful tones, he referred to the UK as Eikoku.  His deference made me feel proud, and slightly ridiculous.  His image of umbrella-wielding John Bulls would be crushed if I told him about my umbrella-less upbringing (In Devon rain rises.  Umbrellas are useless).

Not to be outdone, Yoshihiro outlined Japan`s contribution to umbrella-technology.  The tale of Japanese umbrellas (I know you`re desperate to hear it) is a story of adaptations: first fiddling with karakasa, the bamboo and oil paper imports from China, then developing push-button and collapsible features to add to the yogasa arriving in Yokohama.

By borrowing and developing foreign models, Japan became umbrella pioneers.  It`s a great story, isn`t it?  Western and Chinese knowledge combining with Japanese spirit to put a portable roof over your head.  Isn`t that a great story?  ISN`T IT?  Are you still there?

Soon converted,  I bought a wide span, sturdy western collapsible for 1,800yen.  Now a treasured possession, it is securely stowed away under my bed.  I won`t waste it on showers.

I left Mikawaya a happy man, feeling better about the world, and even better about umbrellas.  Yoshihiro`s enthusiasm for his job convinced me following footsteps does not have to be dull.  It can inspire a lifetime`s labour.  Now, is it too late for me to start milking cows?

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2 Responses to Nagano: Raised under an umbrella

  1. Rurousha says:

    It’s a great story.
    I’m still here.
    PS: Is he really sitting on the floor, or is the chair simply hidden by umbrellas one meter deep?

    • tomointokyo says:

      Thank you, he is sitting on the floor, somehow. I am looking forward to seeing him again in August – I`ll see how many of my group I can get to buy an umbrella. Mine is still in mint condition – although it helps that I left it in Tokyo.

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