A quaint mountainside city stretching its breadth from the Sea of Japan to untouched forest treasures, Toyooka City’s diverse array of scenery and inhabitants is tied together by the ancient waters flowing throughout the Maruyama River.
With local rice harvests harrowed by torrential rains and river floods during the past millennium, the Maruyama River, once a colossal hurdle to the economic development of Toyooka, proved to be a blessing in disguise once residents of centuries-passed honed the bounty of the Maruyama River for their prosperity.
Willow trees that thrived in the damp, humid riverside habitat were harvested and used to create yanagi-gori (willow craft) baskets and bags, and this tradition is still carried on to this day.
Thanks to the prosperous willow craft industry, Toyooka City has secured itself a spot among the ranks of high-end bag and luggage designers.
Modern-day local artisans have also taken up other types of bag craftsmanship, such as leatherworking and textiles, with many of their creations becoming registered under the Toyooka Kaban brand label.
From drafting to the finishing touches such as hardware and zippers, Toyooka Kaban designs are imagined and given life in Toyooka under stringent standards.
Even with over 30 brands producing pieces under the Toyooka Kaban label, every handmade product is inspected individually for compliance with Toyooka Kaban's quality control standards, and only those products that are found to fulfill them are marked with the trademark blue and red label.
Caban Street in the center of Toyooka City, home to many local craftsmen’s shops, is also where the official Toyooka Kaban boutique is located.
Toyooka Kaban Artisan Avenue houses collections from all of Toyooka Kaban’s participating brands, and customers can rest assured that every product decorating the shelves of the two-story boutique is marked with the coveted Toyooka Kaban label.
While shoppers are assisted by the attentive sales associates below, professional Toyooka Kaban artisans and their fresh apprentices carry on the millennium old tradition and commitment to luxury quality at the Toyooka Kaban Artisan School on the third floor.
Thirteen students rigorously selected for a spot in the school’s one-year program receive education in the genesis of luxury bags and small leather goods. From drafting designs, practicing stitching techniques, and to attaching the finishing hardware, teachers with decades of experience in the luxury bag industry lead the way along students’ journeys to becoming professional designers and artisans.
Yoshihisa Takeshita, a Toyooka City native, has been a head instructor at Toyooka Kaban Artisan School since its establishment in 2013.
Yoshihisa’s lifetime connection to handbags started with his first job as a traveling salesman specializing in Toyooka City’s celebrated designs.
“No matter how hot, no matter how cold the weather was, I was out there selling bags,” he recalls among the whirring of sewing machines behind him.
At 29, moving to Osaka City jump started him in a 40-year long career at a large Japanese luggage company. It was here where he learned the art of bag creation through sewing display samples. “The first bag I made? I think it was a shoulder bag, a denim one.”
From his first denim bag to becoming a three-time winner of the bi-yearly Japan Bag Creation Contest’s prestigious Prime Minister Award, Yoshihisa eventually retired back to his hometown of Toyooka City. That is, until he received the call at 72 years old to teach Toyooka Kaban Artisan School’s first set of students - at 82 years old and 10 sets of students later, he hasn’t looked back.
“I was born in Toyooka and lived here until I was 29. I always dreamed of returning home."
Along with his work as an instructor, Yoshihisa also is one of the few certified inspectors of Toyooka Kaban Products.
Every month, product inspectors gather at the Toyooka Kaban official office in Toyooka City to appraise each and every product’s durability, materials, and quality of craftsmanship.
Products from various brands participating in Toyooka Kaban under inspection can range from approximately 5 to 30 pieces per month, and only those that pass the rigorous inspection are graced with the Toyooka Kaban label and sold.
Of the thirteen students at Toyooka Kaban Artisan School, around half are expected to join one of the companies already participating in Toyooka Kaban after graduation, while the other newly certified masters will create their own labels.
While these bearers of tradition carry on the Toyooka Kaban legacy, visitors to Japan’s town of bags are encouraged to stop into Toyooka Kaban Artisan Avenue, and perhaps acquire one of these rare vessels of time-honored elegance.