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 Silk Fan Unryu Paper Butterfly Blue | Kyoto Folding Fans

Source: BECOS

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 | Kyoto Folding Fans

Source: BECOS

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 | Kyoto Folding Fans

Source: BECOS

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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*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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