Creativity is woven into the fabric of Gunma
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Gunma’s traditional crafts are an integral part of its identity. A wander around Takasaki will reveal the city’s pride in its Daruma dolls, with images of them on signs, snacks, and shops. The cities of Kiryu and Tomioka are both widely known for their strong connections with the textile industry, and authentic souvenirs of brocade silk are sold in shops and boutiques across the prefecture. To foster the next generation of creators, local artisans share their knowledge at hands-on workshops and craft villages across the prefecture. Explore Gunma’s cultural side through its traditional arts and crafts.
Gunma has been a major textile producer for over a thousand years. Kiryu is known for Kiryu Textile, an intricate brocade often used for kimono estimated to have been around for more than 1,300 years. The Maebashi Hatsuichi Festival, a January event with large bonfires of burning Daruma dolls, has its roots in a raw silk market held centuries ago.
Gunma’s importance in the textile industry leveled up in 1872 with the opening of the Tomioka Silk Mill. The state-of-the-art factory played a huge role in Japan’s industrial revolution. It was a model factory and the country's first modern silk mill to process silkworms cocoons into raw silk. Women from across the country moved to Gunma to work at the factory, and many went on to spread the techniques throughout Japan. From the end of the 1800s to the early 1930s, Japan was one of the world’s biggest silk exporters, with Gunma leading the charge.
Gunma’s textile industry is just as vibrant today. It is still Japan’s biggest silk-farming prefecture, producing around 40 percent of the country’s silk cocoons.
Kokeshi dolls are wooden, pin-shaped dolls that date back around 150 years. Sosaku kokeshi are a creative, modern take on the traditional design, with dolls crafted to look like popular cartoon and anime characters, stylish kimono-clad ladies, and even Star Wars characters. They make popular souvenirs from Japan or unusual collector’s pieces. The master woodworkers at Usaburo Kokeshi help make Gunma a leading producer of these dolls. At Usaburo Kokeshi, located in Mt. Haruna’s foothills, you can watch these craftspeople wheel, polish, paint, coat, and assemble the dolls. You can even try and paint your own sosaku kokeshi to take home.
The Daruma doll originated in Takasaki, and most of these lucky dolls are still made in the city. More than 50 member stores of the Takasaki Daruma Manufacturing Cooperative mold and hand-paint these papier-mache pieces. Traditionally, Takasaki Daruma have cranes for eyebrows and turtles for a mustache as symbols of longevity, but more contemporary designs, like Hello Kitty, are a fun alternative. Head to Daimonya Co., Ltd. to try painting your own.
There are plenty more opportunities for hands-on craft experiences in Gunma. Takuminosato in Minakami is a rural village where you can wander around a farmer’s market, browse arts and crafts shops, and try your hand at woodworking, bamboo-working, dyeing, and washi papermaking.
Tsuchi to Hi no Sato is another craft-focused area of Gunma. It is a small cluster of facilities in the mountains where you can participate in creative workshops held by local artisans. Try dyeing, pottery, and glass making.
Kawaba Denen Plaza is a roadside station, but it is worth going out of your way for. The facility offers woodworking and pottery-throwing workshops alongside local cuisine and craft beer. Stroll the grounds and relax among the tranquil riverside scenery.