The lost umbrellas of Japan


Red Ramia in Myrtleford, Victoria. Photo: Megan Lansbury

Red Ramia gives forgotten umbrellas a second chance.

“Umbrellas. $5 each. Give a lost umbrella a new life. When the rain cleared these umbrellas were forgotten, left on trains by Japanese travellers. Auctioned off by Japan Rail, given another chance by Red Ramia.”

The lost umbrellas of Japan Rail have found themselves an unlikely home in the Alpine region of Victoria, among the many artefacts of Red Ramia Trading. Walking into Myrtleford’s Red Ramia you are transported through time to different countries and cultures, with goods from the likes of Morocco, China and Japan.

You can indulge in Lebanese food at the on-site restaurant, Café Fez, or wander through a warehouse full of obscure and fascinating items. All the items are bought from overseas after inspection and transported many miles to the small country town.

People travel from far and wide to experience the cultural feel the business offers, with its rich atmosphere and unique ability to experience the world in one place.

Among impressive sculptures, homewares, garments and jewellery you’ll find hundreds of umbrellas littered throughout the store, with owner Maroune Ramia giving them a second life.

“On the first trip I bought 1000 and they sold really quickly, so I bought another 5000…All in all, I’ve bought 6,000 umbrellas,” he said.

Every year thousands of umbrellas are collected on Japan’s public transport system, left behind by travellers as they commute to work. Found in almost every corner store, they are a necessity in the bustling city.

Mr Ramia discovered the Islands department store while searching for goods in Japan a couple of years ago. The store had recently bought thousands of umbrellas auctioned off by Japan Rail and he thought it would be a good idea to sell a handful from his store.

“I get a whole container of goods from Japan and within that container, wherever they can fit umbrellas they put them,” he said.

The distinctive umbrella culture in Japan has been evolving for more than a millennium. Many would recall seeing them featured in traditional images of geishas, or brides using them as an accessory in wedding shoots.

But umbrellas in Japan are for more than just rain and photoshoots; many have been developed to deflect UV rays to be used in the warmer months, to protect the fair skin of the Japanese.

Umbrellas are so entrenched into Japanese culture that many hotels, sports centres and offices provide umbrella lockers to keep your accessory safe and sound. Restaurants and stores aren’t far behind as they allow umbrellas inside, provided they have been dried of with a spin-dry pad or fitted with a cover to avoid dripping.

The 2014 global umbrella survey found Japan at the top of the list with the most umbrellas per capita – the average person owned 3.3 umbrellas in comparison to the world average of 2.4.

But it doesn’t take a survey to show how popular they are – all you have to do is walk the streets of Japan and you’ll witness hundreds of umbrellas propelling to the sky in unison as a drop of rain hits your skin.

The large array of colours forming a rainbow blanket across the street has attracted many photographers to the sidewalks of Tokyo to capture the unique visuals.

It’s unknown how the long the umbrella has existed in Japan’s history, but many sources claim that oil-paper umbrellas were introduced between the sixth and eighth centuries and were known as tengai.

It wasn’t until later on that a foldable umbrella was developed to provide protection from sun and rain.

What were first reserved as luxury accessories for aristocrats became widely used amongst commoners.

Nowadays Japan has moved to the use of modern westernised umbrellas, and the plastic transparent variety is very common. Despite popular belief that this variety represents a fashion trend, they are actually the most readily available type – they can be found at almost any convenience store and are both cheap and disposable.

Mr Ramia has taken advantage of Japan’s disposable umbrella culture selling more than 2,000 umbrellas at Red Ramia trading. He says that many people like the idea of owning an umbrella from another country and enjoy looking through the colours, patterns and sizes.

“People will come in and buy them as gifts (or) for themselves, they can put one in every car if they like,” he said.

So, if Japan is a country on your bucket list, immerse yourself in its unique culture with a traditional umbrella and wander the streets, or simply park yourself on the sidewalk on a rainy day and watch the event unfold. While we’re prevented from travelling overseas, take a trip to the small Victorian town of Myrtleford and lose yourself in the Red Ramia warehouse –  make sure to leave with an umbrella.