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A dance performance by Atami Geisha

Summer is upon us again, which reminds me of the first time I saw a Japanese woman cooling herself with a fan, and instantly I knew: I want one of those!Over the years I’ve acquired a modest collection of Japanese fans, some of them purchased in souvenir shops, some given to me as presents, some passed out free by companies as advertisements. While I appreciated their practicality and their beauty, it wasn’t until I visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts that I also grew to appreciate the work and skill that goes into crafting the slats of wood that form the ribs, producing the paper, and painting the designs that grace the very best.

No one knows exactly how the idea of fans originated (though my money is on a middle-aged woman experiencing her first hot flash), but the Chinese were using flat, rigid fans by the 2nd century B.C. and exported their invention to Japan some time around the 7th century, whereupon the Japanese improved on the concept by inventing the folding fan. Before long, folding fans, made of cypress ribs covered with parchment, evolved from being merely functional to becoming an essential accessory, the rage of the Heian court (794-1192). As the centuries passed, they also assumed an importance in Shinto religious ceremonies, dances, the tea ceremony, and theatrical arts.

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Fans for sale at the Japan Traditional Craft Center in Ikebukuro

Today, Japanese fans range from inexpensive souvenirs to handmade, exquisitely crafted folding fans that can cost more than $400. For me, however, fans remain mostly a means to stay cool (I don’t have air conditioning at home), and I keep my collection handy to pass out to visiting friends. I also keep one in my purse, and when I pull it out to fan myself in line at the post office, at an outdoor concert, or a baseball game, someone will invariably turn to me and say: “I want one of those!”

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