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#050 SUNKI Branding CO.,LTD.2016/08/23

Returning to the source of the classic patterns of Ise-katagami while creating new value that reflects local artisan traditions (Tokowakaya)

Actively showcasing goods connected with Ise at the gates of the most important Shinto shrine in Japan

The bustle and high-pressure atmosphere of the Ise-Shima Summit have now passed, and the area around Ise Grand Shrine has returned to its usual quiet calm. After paying our respects at the shrine, we visited SUNKI Branding in Futamigaura, a location that has long been regarded as a holy site for sun worship. The studio is located in a single-family home along a tranquil residential area that spreads out from the banks of Isuzu River in Ise-Shima National Park. It was there that we spoke with the president of the company, Jun Nakamura.
The mood was warm and homey as President Nakamura personally ground coffee beans, explaining that they were the same ones served during the luncheons at the Ise-Shima Summit. He also offered us pounded mochi rice cakes from the oldest confectioner in Ise. The entire crew was delighted by the authentic hospitality that spoke so strongly of local traditions.

Cloth napkins used at the spouse luncheons given at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit, which were led by Ms. Akie Abe, the wife of Japan’s prime minister. The design of seasonal flowering plants is an Ise-katagami pattern from the early Showa period (1926-1989), and is hand-printed on high-gloss sateen weave linen.

An Iga braided cord used to decorate the commemorative bags issued at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit. Flecks of subdued blue and lively pops of orange are woven into a field of green to express harmony, while the traditional kano-musubi knot expresses a wish for peace.

The first two items that President Nakamura showed us were the luncheon napkins and the braided cords used as souvenir bag charms at the Ise-Shima Summit. Both of them are original pieces designed and produced by Nakamura himself. Although SUNKI Branding has designed and manufactured numerous Ise cotton products using traditional Ise-katagami stencils and a hand-dyeing technique called chusen, they were able to create the final napkins and braided cords that secured the Ise-Shima Summit account through collaboration with other companies. Ise cotton fabric is typically woven to be between 35 and 40 centimeters in width, but the standard width for a dinner napkin is 50 centimeters. In searching for the right fabric for the project, President Nakamura discovered a linen that was used in some of the fine traditional Japanese restaurants in Kyoto. He told us that to get a dyeing method that would work with the linen, he asked Nishida Senkou Co., Ltd., a company that works in hand printing in Kyoto, to dye the traditional pattern using his Ise-katagami stencils.

With his SUNKI Branding company, President Nakamura is committed to turning out original brand concepts that feature a deep and lasting connection to the Ise Shrine.

SUNKI Branding also worked with local Mie artisans trained in traditional Iga braided cord craftsmanship to create bag charms for the Ise-Shima Summit

“The chusen dyeing method doesn’t work well with linen,” President Nakamura told us, “so we went to the hand-printing specialists Nishida Senkou—whom we had met earlier during a Rincrossing exhibition event—for help. Although we both work in the same field, we practice different dyeing methods. We had talked about the possibility of collaboration sometime down the road, but the opportunity ended up coming sooner than we thought.” For the bag charms, President Nakamura’s team worked with local Mie artisans who make Iga braided cords in order to turn out a silk product.

Powerful pushes from behind the scenes have turned traditional local crafts into modern products

President Nakamura told us that his first attempts to start an Ise-katagami business were just before the regular rebuilding of Ise Shrine, which takes place every twenty years. “I had accumulated a great deal of experience working for a major retailer in the Kansai area,” President Nakamura explained, “but there was talk of transferring me to Shikoku. I was active in the local group dedicated to caring for and transporting the sacred festival floats in my childhood hometown, and it was so important to me that I would travel there and back from Kansai on the same day to participate in the training. Moving to Shikoku would have made that impossible. That’s when I decided to put everything on the line, move back to Ise, and start my business here.” When he returned, Nakamura discovered a huge stash of Ise-katagami just sitting in his family’s old storehouse—patterns that his great-grandfather collected during his time working in the shipping business. He got his start by using the patterns to make hand towels that he sold to tourists.


Ise-katagami designs reflect the unique local color and customs of Ise. These okage (“thank-you”) hand towels have been painstakingly hand-dyed by artisans using the chusen technique on traditional Ise cotton.


A commemorative photo of the local volunteer group dedicated to the regular rebuilding of Ise Shrine. Ise’s unique and powerful sense of community, plus President Nakamura’s affection for his childhood home, brought him back to Ise to start up his business.

President Nakamura explained a bit more about the names he chose for his business. “SUNKI is a combination of the English word sun and the Japanese character ki, which can mean ‘energy’ or ‘feeling.’ I wanted to communicate the energy of the sun rising in Futamigaura. The name of our shop is Tokowakaya, which is written with the characters for ‘always’ or ‘ever’ and ‘young,’ plus ya for ‘shop.’ The idea is one of constant rebirth or cycles that maintain a permanent state of youthfulness. Just as traditional temple carpenters are able to keep their techniques alive because Ise Shrine is rebuilt every twenty years, I want us to be part of linking traditional crafts to the next generation.”

Ise-katagami patterns are elaborately carved out of processed Japanese paper using a variety of special knives, and are a tradition that boasts over a thousand years of history. The designs are used primarily to dye clothing material, such as yuzen for kimono, summer kimono fabric, fine patterns, and more.

Making Ise-katagami demands an extremely precise level of craftsmanship. The artisans capable of making the stencils needed to make chusen-dyed cotton are getting on in years, and there are almost no successors to take their place. President Nakamura is passionate about keeping this traditional craft from dying out, and tells us that he has begged the artisans in Suzuka to find some way to teach young people their skills—promising to continue sending work.


In chusen dyeing, the Ise-katagami pattern is used to apply paste to the fabric. Dye is then poured onto the fabric, resulting in a print that goes all the way through to the back surface of the textile. Unlike surface printing, this superior dyeing method does not destroy the fine texture of the fabric resulting in high water absorption.

“It’s now been eight years since we got our start,” President Nakamura said, “but I feel like we’ve had some powerful pushes from behind the scenes to make it happen—thinks like getting the account from Ise Shrine during the rebuilding and the opportunity to be a part of the recent summit.”

Bringing the unique characteristics of Ise cotton to a variety of familiar everyday objects

These Oisesan-brand shirts have the unique feel of Ise cotton, which starts by twisting premium-quality cotton into a yarn, sealing it with paste, and then carefully weaving it into fabric. The shirts take on a richer feel the longer they are worn, making them pleasant and comfortable against the skin.

Along with Ise-katagami patterns, SUNKI Branding is also passionate about the traditional Ise cotton craftsmanship. Known for its supple feel that seems to hug the skin, Ise cotton is a precious kimono fabric that has to be slowly and carefully woven with soft threads spun from a single yarn on hundred-year-old Toyota looms—meaning that it’s only possible to turn out a single bolt of material each day. SUNKI uses Ise-katagami patterns to develop variety of products dyed with Ise-inspired designs, including okage hand towels and tote bags. They have even made shirts finished by highly-skilled artisans making good use of the texture. The shirts get softer with every wash, and are already attracting offers from major apparel interests. This is just one of many ways that President Nakamura’s passion for bringing traditional materials into the modern world by incorporating them into familiar everyday items is starting to bear fruit and take off.

Sewing professionals carefully sew each garment one-by-one from patterns crafted down to the smallest detail

Modern design meets classic motifs, seamlessly ushering timeless patterns into the modern world

SUNKI Branding continues to design and manufacture products that have the modern designs people want today, but going forward, the company plans to shift to a more exclusive focus on classic patterns. President Nakamura described this transition. “At first, we wanted to gain some attention by turning out punchy designs. We wouldn’t have had a lot of draw if we started people with the classic patterns. Personally, of course, I think nothing’s better than the traditional look. One of our new items takes the old scarlet shogun seal pattern and translates it into a modern context.”

One chusen pattern typically lasts for around 10,000 dyes. The SUNKI team making digital versions of these precious cultural treasures so that it can store the Ise-katagami templates and ask modern patternmakers to cut them out.

“The old Ise-katagami give you a glimpse of manual work so precise, it’s almost a shock to modern patternmakers,” President Nakamura said.

The new Ise-no-Mon Shogun Seal is another classic design that is uniquely Ise, joining Ise’s natural monument, the Yokowa cherry tree; the official flowers of Toba, the Yamato tachibana citrus and Ise chrysanthemum; and the Garyubai plums said to have been hand-planted by the renowned Heian-period poet Sugawara no Michizane.

With the revitalization of rural areas having become key theme in Japan’s national policy, Ise is not the only city to be experiencing a “hollowing out” due to fewer children being born and the outflow of young people to bigger cities. It’s not just the business of Ise Shrine to perform its regular rebuilding—if the local people don’t band together, their traditions simply won’t survive. And if people start creating jobs locally, the young people may come back. These ideas are rooted deeply in President Nakamura’s mission of using local, traditional crafts as a basis for keeping his native culture alive.
“Being involved with Rincrossing has allowed us to have the opportunity to showcase our work at a variety of venues and develop connections with other businesses working in the same field,” President Nakamura told us. “Meeting Nishida Senkou, who collaborated with us to make the original Summit products, is one example, encounter between Ise and Kyoto. It wasn’t something that occurred to me originally, but now I’m eager to look for more ways to combine different traditional ideas. Of course, when it comes down to it, we’re looking for things that are going to sell. I’m going to keep steadily reaching out to make quality connections in Japan.” We’re confident that Nakamura and his team will be able to showcase the fresh potential of traditional crafts on a broad world stage while remaining deeply rooted in their home community of Ise.

SUNKI Branding CO.,LTD.

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