There is perhaps no image from Kyoto more iconic than a geisha making her way along cobblestone streets beneath a colorful parasol. Boldly hued or delicately decorated, the design has remained virtually unchanged for centuries—a combination of bamboo, washi paper and tightly woven thread that artisans hand craft into surprisingly durable, lightweight treasures.
“To this day, I always smile when I see a parasol ...”
When I first saw one up close, the intricately woven threads and thin bamboo strips that held the canopy upright when opened were astonishingly artful. It was inside a tiny parasol shop in the geisha district of Gion I had discovered in an alleyway, where I'd been drawn inside like a songbird to a sparkling gem. I pointed toward a red one hanging from the ceiling, but the owner shook her head and said that parasol was intended only for dancing. After pointing to another, she smiled and shook her head again, explaining that one was heavily lacquered for use in the rain. It amazed me to realize there were so many different kinds of parasols (especially since the only paper parasols I knew about previously came with tropical juice drinks in Hawaii).
My heart skipped a beat when I glanced one in a beautiful shade of purple, with a scattering of cherry blossoms across the top. When the owner open and spun it, the flowers seemed to dance and I knew it was The One.
As she wrapped it in paper, the owner shared that parasols were first introduced in Japan to protect the imperial family and nobility from the elements and evil spirits, but quickly gained popularity because of their practicality and elegance. Although most parasols are now machine made, nothing compares to the quality of those hand-made in the traditional way—a process that involves more than 100 steps.
To this day, I always smile when I see a parasol, whether geisha spin them like wheels as part of a dance performance to represent a cart or simply bobbing along a busy sidewalk as men and women use them to protect themselves from the hot summer sun.
It's been many years since I bought that first parasol, and I have long wanted to find a way to make them available to those outside of Japan seeking the original style instead of the machine-made commercial versions most commonly available.
My heart skipped again when we discovered that the oldest parasol-making company in Japan would partner with us to make an exclusive parasol for Tatcha. We chose a shade of sky blue that reminded me of the beautifully clear Kyoto skies, rimmed with silver and gold as a reminder that beauty surrounds us always. We called it Kokage because it is one of those words that doesn't exactly translate into English because it is more emotionally evocative than descriptive—recalling the refreshing feeling that comes from finding a shady spot beneath a leafy tree on a hot afternoon, truly one of the best feelings ever (kind of like sliding into fresh, crisp sheets after a long day).
Parasols have also become one of my go-to gifts to give, especially for weddings because they are often held over a bride as she makes her way to her wedding ceremony. They have also been traditional wedding gifts because the round shape, when opened, symbolizes a long and happy life and also because the Japanese character for parasol, 傘, comprised of the symbol meaning “four people,” under a triangular canopy, representing an expanding family.
Even as the weather cools and my parasol spends more time leaning against the wall than outside, it still fills me with happiness. I hope that whether you have a parasol or a beloved sunhat, or a sunscreen that you love to use every day, that you always protect yourself from the sun so your skin and spirit remain as beautiful as today.