Once the capital of mighty Mataram Kingdom, the city of Yogyakarta, remains the cultural hub of Java. In recent years, this inspiring atmosphere has been attracting modern artists as well, leading to the opening of galleries and regular performances. Still, to a tourist, traditional crafts are perhaps of more interest. It would be hard to find a region in Indonesia capable of matching Yogyakarta on this front, too. True to the old traditions, artisans here settle together, forming specialized craft villages. You could easily spend weeks visiting them; some of the most attractive ones are listed below.
Immediately south of Yogyakarta, the village of Kasongan is focused on pottery. Anything that can be fashioned out of clay is made here, in the numerous workshops. Toys and tea sets, ashtrays and vials will cover the craving for souvenirs, should you have it, while photographers will gladly crawl on muddy floors seeking the best angle to capture potters at work. The entire process is manual, from kneading the raw clay to shaping vases and human-sized pots on throwing wheels. Bamboo walls of the older workshops and smoke from the kilns often provide that classical optical effect, beams of light in the gloom. Try to come early on a sunny day to take advantage of it.
Tari topeng, the masked dance, is a historical dance drama typical for Central Java. The art is well preserved, and performances can be seen at both kraton (royal court) and village events. The demand for masks is sufficiently high to justify the existence of a craft village dedicated to mask carving. Each mask represents a character of a traditional play, from Hindu heroes of Ramayana to Javanese legendary princes. Again, purely decorative versions of the classical masks are offered for sale as souvenirs.
Keris, the magic dagger, plays a special role in Javanese culture. It is believed to possess healing powers, the ability to ward off curses, or to kill evil spirits. Most families have at least one such weapon as an heirloom, and it is believed to concentrate and embody the family spirit, the bloodline. Royalty and nobility perform elaborate ceremonies yearly to cleanse their keris, and night vigils with the daggers are normally held on the 1st of Suro, the sacred date in the old Javanese calendar. This calendar also governs keris production: it takes months to create one, and work should only be carried out on auspicious days. Most m'pu - magic blacksmiths - would fast and pray for three days before starting a new job. Needless to say, it is all done by hand - machinery would rob the dagger of its power. Here in Girirejo, one can see the entire cycle of bringing keris to life: from the m'pu knocking them out to woodcarvers making and decorating elaborate sheaths to hold them.
The village of Malangan mainly focuses on bamboo weaving, but there's a hidden gem here, too: the most renowned m'pu, keris blacksmith, in the district, or quite possibly in the entire country. This old man, Pak Djiwo Harumbrojo, is a living legend - many of the m'pu all over Java and Bali proudly admit to being his students. His age does not seem to hinder him the slightest bit, and he can be seen hammering red-hot steel into the shape of a new keris on most days (except the inauspicious ones, of course). Bamboo workshops are definitely worth a look, too. The biggest ones produce anything from baskets to lampshades, dye and dry them on the spot. The smaller ones often restrict themselves to just one type of product: gift boxes, rice baskets, decorative bags.
Finally, if there is one traditional art associated with Java, and with Yogyakarta in particular, it is batik. There are at least a dozen craft villages dedicated to hand-painting batik around the city, and numerous workshops in town as well. The village of Giriloyo is as good as any other, and it is located close to Girirejo, making it easy to combine them into one day trip. Walking from workshop to workshop, you will see every stage of manufacture. Artisans use a special tool for painting, a brass pen with a reservoir for heated wax and a tube. Wax patterns are applied to the fabric with this device, then the cloth is immersed in the dyeing vat. The process is repeated for every color. Batik villages are more tourist-oriented than the rest, but still completely authentic. There is a lot of textile for sale, and after all, batik probably does make the best souvenir from Java. Do not expect hard sell tactics, though - it is Indonesia, it is mellow by nature.
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