Noren are ubiquitous throughout Japan and are typically found hanging outside entrances to public baths, hot-spring spas, traditional Japanese pubs, ramen shops and last but far from least, sushi counters.
Noren fulfil several roles: they act as a partition and a decoration, but also carry out a more prosaic function not unlike a billboard.
The origins of noren
Noren are likely to have first appeared during the Heian Period (794-1185) when the country’s capital was located in modern-day Kyoto. Back then, Kano says, noren were used to protect goods left outside a shop, as well as to guard entranceways against the elements. These noren were unadorned; designs and lettering were innovations that would come much later.
“Originally, Japanese curtains were used by all households — in farm communities, fishing towns and mountain villages — a simple cloth used to guard against the sun, wind, dust, as well as nosey neighbors,” Kiyoshi Takai writes in a book titled “Kyo Noren.”
While Katsuyama noren have helped the town generate a remarkable level of interest, it’s hard to argue against Takai’s assertion that “Kyoto is the noren capital of Japan.”
What historically set Kyoto apart when it came to textile production was the availability of different colours of dye, which in turn attracted weavers and dyers and helped establish a nascent textile centre in the city. Production has survived until this day, most notably in the labor-intensive production of kimono.
Noren ranks below kimono in the unofficial hierarchy of textile production, but they are inextricably linked through their production processes and personnel.
Kyoto-based noren maker Miwako Nagano, 67, set up her business after apprenticing in the dyeing industry.
Nagano spent 15 years making kimono using the yuzen-zome technique, an elaborate dyeing process invented in Kyoto around the end of the 17th century.
The intensity and long hours involved in making kimono wore down her health and, ultimately, she decided to get out of the industry. However, utilizing her experience in the dyeing trade and tapping the creativity that appears to run in the family — she shares her studio with her son, a furniture maker trained in Finland — she decided to try her hand at noren.
Nagano says that producing a noren is similar to making a kimono, if less intricate. First, a design is created and then sketched onto the fabric. Following this, the noren maker will paint over the design with wax.
After the wax has dried, the fabric is dyed. To remove the wax — which brings out the design — the noren is typically steamed, then left to dry, before being ironed and altered in the tailoring stages. Different steps might be repeated along the way depending on the design of the noren, or if more than one colour is used in the dyeing process.
Noren makers have traditionally favoured working with fabrics such as linen or cotton; hemp is occasionally used because of its durability. A set of noren, depending on its size and the number of people working on it, can typically take anywhere from three to 10 days to complete.
Daigokuden is a sweets shop in Kyoto that is as famous for the noren that hangs outside its entrance as it is for its mochi treats inside.
Located in a somber machiya townhouse in downtown Kyoto, the shop changes its noren half a dozen times a year in accordance with seasonal or festive activity.
Proprietor Yasuyo Shibata said the curtains are primarily changed out of a sense of enjoyment.
One of the most striking noren Daigokuden displays is of forks of white lightning set against a jet-black background. It’s a strikingly modern noren that is displayed just prior to the city’s most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri that is held annually in July.
“It was historically said that the rainy season ends when the thunder rolls in,” Shibata says, “so this is why we chose this noren — to make the rain stop.”
It’s a lot to ask of a simple curtain, but this fabric appears to be capable of ensuring plenty.
Haruka Iwamoto contributed research to this report.
Hanayome Noren Museum (Bridal Curtain Museum), the world’s only noren museum, opened in the Ishikawa city of Nanao in 2016.
The museum celebrates the region’s custom of hanging bridal noren, which are traditionally hung at the entrance of the Buddhist altar room in the groom’s house. During the wedding ceremony, the bride passes through the ornate curtain, which is often decorated with the family’s crest using a special dyeing technique endemic to the region. The ritual is believed to confer blessings on the newlyweds.
In order to keep the tradition alive — the noren are only ever used once before being folded away and stored — the museum was opened in 2016 with a rotating display of bridal noren. Visitors can also dress up in traditional wedding outfits and re-enact the noren ritual.
click here for modern Norenz from Australian Artist Aylie