A Guide to the Traditional Japanese Craft: Kyo-Sensu Fans

“Sensu” (folded fans) are believed to have originated in Japan, and among these, “Kyo-Sensu” fans have been designated as traditional Japanese crafts, with a history that goes back approximately 1,200 years. These fans are popular Kyoto souvenirs, but there are a few things to know before you settle on one, such as the history and characteristics of these fans. We will explain all of this in this article, so read on to learn all about Kyo-Sensu fans.

History of Kyo-Sensu Fans

Gryffindor / Wikimedia Commons

Sensu are believed to have originated in Japan, dating back 1,200 years to the beginning of the Heian period (ca. 800) in Kyoto. Early prototypes of the sensu are thought to be “hiogi” which were being crafted in Kyoto. At the time, hiogi were bound with “mokkan” (thin 30 cm long pieces of wood) which were used to keep records instead of paper, which was precious during this period. The oldest existing folding fan is a hiogi dated back to 877 that was found in the arm of To-ji Temple’s Senju Kannon Statue in Kyoto. Subsequently, sensu became an item that male members of the imperial court always kept on their person. This custom later spread to the ladies of the imperial court, who then decorated them with prints and paintings, turning them into the elegant sensu as seen in the picture above.

猫猫的日记本 / Wikimedia Commons

During the middle of the Heian period (ca. 900), sensu called “kawahoriogi” or “kawahorisen” (fans that could be spread and resembled bat wings; see the picture above) were being produced. The craftsmanship was still quite simplistic, and there were only around five thin “senkotsu” (also known as “ogibone,” referring to the skeleton of the fan), with paper attached to only one side. Moreover, at the time, sensu were only used for the imperial court and aristocrats’ artistic endeavors, or for monks and priests’ religious ceremonies, meaning that the general public was not allowed to use them. 

This was largely overturned during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Before this, during the previous Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), sensu were exported to China (then called “To” or “Kara”), where the design was changed by applying paper to both sides. These “new” fans were named “Karaogi” (Chinese fans) and exported back to Japan in the Muromachi period. Due to this, the sensu that originally were only made with paper on one side adopted the Chinese style of applying paper to both sides. They also became available to the masses and became more widely used, such as in noh theater and Japanese tea ceremony.

The craftsmanship and industry behind Kyo-Sensu fans became extremely important during the Edo period (1603 – 1868),  so much so that it received government protection, and sensu became an indispensable part of the everyday lifestyle of the common people.

Since then, Kyo-Sensu fans have continued to develop, still doing so even today.

Related articles:

▶ A Guide to the Traditional Japanese Craft: Edo-Sensu Fans

▶ The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Crafts

Characteristics of Kyo-Sensu Fans

There is a wide variety of the historic Kyo-Sensu fans, ranging from those for everyday use to those for ceremonial purposes. Variations include “natsu-sensu” (summer fan, can also be used outside of summertime), an elegant fan used for cooling oneself down; “mai-sensu” (dance fan), used during traditional Japanese dance performances; “shimai-sensu,” fans with ornate and lavish designs used for noh plays; and “gishikiyo-sensu” used at ceremonies such as weddings.

Additionally, different from Tokyo’s famous “Edo-Sensu” (Edo folding fans) which are made by one craftsman from beginning to end, Kyo-Sensu fans are made by skilled craftspeople who break down the 87 steps into a division of labor.

In order for fans to be acknowledged as “Kyo-Sensu,” they must fit three criteria: 1) they must be made with materials from Kyoto (the fan’s surface) and Shiga (bamboo), 2) they must be made in Kyoto, and 3) they must be made by a producer that is part of the Kyoto Folding Fan and Round Fan Association of Commerce and Industry.

Kyo-Sensu Today

Kyo-Sensu fans and the traditional techniques that they are made with have not changed over 1,200 years, and their refined appearance translates well to the modern day.

Even so, craftspeople are working at creating innovative fans backed by reliable crafting techniques, such as by collaborating with popular anime and even offering fragrances (shown above) that use the delicate skeleton of the fan as decoration.

▶ Click here to browse more beautiful Kyo-Sensu items!

Featured Products

[HAND FAN] WOMEN’S PAPER FAN NIGHT CHERRY BLOSSOMS | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This somewhat small and delicate women’s Kyo-Sensu fan was made by layering and pasting three sheets of thin Japanese washi paper onto the surface. The design is an illustration of cherry blossoms at night, which offers an entirely different kind of ephemeral beauty from the flashy daylight blossoms. The fan perfectly expresses this beauty, capturing the transient moment the blossoms fall onto the river’s surface and are carried away. Considering its quality, the price is surprisingly reasonable.

Due to the delicate nature of Kyo-Sensu, we highly recommend storing your fan in a special fan case to prevent it from getting wet. These cases are not expensive, so if you want to ensure your Kyo-Sensu stands the test of time, definitely purchase one alongside your fan.

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▶ Check out these Kyo-Sensu fan cases

[HAND FAN] MEN’S PAPER FAN THIRTY-SIX VIEWS OF TOMITAKE AKAKANAGAWA OKINAMI URA | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This men’s Kyo-Sensu fan boasts a bold illustration of a crashing wave alongside a glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the background. It is a depiction of ukiyo-e master Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” one of the most famous of his “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. The artist was active during the latter half of the Edo period (1781-1867) and inspired famous Western painters like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. This masterful rendition features a delightful contrast between the wave’s shades of blue and the golden sky and is very well priced.

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[HAND FAN] MEN’S PAPER FAN BAMBOO SPARROW | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This men’s Kyo-Sensu fan features a relaxed, casual tone suiting all kinds of occasions, including professional settings. Its refreshing character makes it feel almost like an India ink painting. However, the faint touch of red added to the sparrow resting upon the bamboo leaves and branches adds a splash of color and prevents it from becoming monotonous. With a reasonable price tag, it’s the perfect gift for lovers of Japanese aesthetics. 

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[HAND FAN] WOMEN’S PAPER FAN SPRING CHERRY BLOSSOMS | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This is a women’s Kyo-Sensu fan exuding a soft, warm impression and adorned by a picture of Japan’s springtime cherry blossoms. The cherry trees bloom elegantly amongst the faint pink background, forming a delightful and utterly adorable fan! The reverse side was intentionally colored a faint gray, working to make the cherry blossoms on the front appear even more impressive when fanned – a clever design perfectly encapsulating the appeal of Kyo-Sensu.

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[HAND FAN] HAKUZU MILKY WAY BLACK 7 SUN | YASUTO YONEHARA | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This men’s Kyo-Sensu fan boasts a stunning Milky Way design using extravagant gold and silver leaf atop a surface dyed a deep black. Each time you look at it, the way the light reflects and glitters will be different, making it feel almost like the real thing! Perfectly suited for formal occasions, the fan itself is considered to be a lucky talisman in Japan, making it a fantastic present for special events like anniversaries.

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[HAND FAN] MEN’S PAPER FAN PINE AND MT. FUJI | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

This is a men’s Kyo-Sensu centered around Mt. Fuji, Japan’s greatest icon and most sacred mountain, alongside a pine tree, which is considered a symbol of good fortune. Similar to the bamboo and sparrow fan introduced above, this product also exudes the graceful, calming tone of India ink, making it easy to pair with a wide range of outfits. The reverse side also features a faint illustration of Mt. Fuji, adding to the overall charm. With such an affordable price, we particularly recommend this fan for first-timers to Kyo-Sensu.

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[HAND FAN] MEN’S PAPER FAN THIRTY-SIX VIEWS OF TOMITAKE RED FUJI | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

A complete change from the above, this is a men’s Kyo-Sensu fan centered around a dazzling red Mt. Fuji forming a bold contrast against the blue sky. Commonly known as “Akafuji” or “Red Mt. Fuji” and formally titled “Fine Wind, Clear Morning,” this image is another of the previously introduced “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” woodblock prints by Hokusai. Thankfully, this masterpiece is also very affordable!

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[HAND FAN] WOMEN’S SILK FAN UNRYU PAPER BUTTERFLY BLUE | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

An elegant yet cute Kyo-Sensu fan with vivid blue butterflies dancing across it. The fan’s surface is made with silk and polyester, and the size is perfect for ladies.

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[HAND FAN] WOMEN’S SILK FAN CHAJI NADESHIKO DAISHOKUCHI | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

A finely-crafted Kyo-Sensu fan with adorable, tiny flowers painted on. Perfect for the ladies.

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[HAND FAN] MEN’S SILK FAN GOURD TEA BONE LARGE SHORT GROUND | OHNISHI TSUNE SHOTEN | KYOTO FOLDING FANS

A Kyo-Sensu fan with “hyotan” (gourds), known to be a good luck omen, spreading out across the skeleton of the fan. Designed for male customers, this fan is perfect for business settings.

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Related articles:

▶ 18 Best Japanese Folding Fans – From the Traditional to the Cutting-Edge

▶ A Guide to the Traditional Japanese Craft: Edo-Sensu Fans

▶ The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Craft

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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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