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Step inside the workshops of five fascinating Japanese craft studios

Posted on 09 Jul 2020

These artisan makers represent the very best in contemporary Japanese craft, as they carry on centuries-old traditions with skill and ingenuity. Here are five craft studios working in the arts of Japanese papermaking, lacquerware, iron casting, indigo dyeing and wood-turning.

Tray, bowl and other tableware made by Kobayashi Shikki using the regional Tsugaru lacquerware style.

Kobayashi Shikki | Lacquerware

Dust on a freshly painted workpiece would usually be a disaster. But here, seeds or charcoal powder are deliberately trickled onto the moist surface, to be scraped off again after drying. These are the unusual ingredients that, among others, are used in the making of traditional Tsugaru nuri lacquerware. The finely worked polychrome patterns are applied exclusively by hand and Kobayashi Shikki, a family business from Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, is a sixth-generation producer.

The technique originated around the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Tsugaru nuri objects developed a high reputation, serving as status symbols for feudal lords and samurai. Today, the variations of this lacquer art adorn countless everyday objects, from tables and boxes to bowls, cups, chopsticks and accessories such as jewelry and even smartphone covers.

Although Kobayashi Shikki have dedicated themselves to the traditional lacquer art, they regularly develop new patterns and product ideas. The family has recognized that even a historic craft so embedded in the Japanese cultural landscape must renew itself in order to appeal to future customers.

Shigeo Suzuki corrects small details on a cast iron tea pot at Suzuki Morihisa Studio.

Suzuki Morihisa Studio | Iron casting

Suzuki Morihisa Studio mainly produces pots for boiling water for the tea ceremony (chanoyugama), tea kettles (tetsubin) and sake decanters (chōshi). Inside their workshop, the almost 400 years of family knowledge and the remarkable craftsmanship of generations are palpable.

During iron casting, molten pig iron, heated to over 1,300°C (2,370℉), is poured into the space between the engraved outer mould and the plain inner mould. Once demoulded, the result is visible for the first time. After deburring and grinding, the kettles are heated in a coal fire, creating a layer of natural oxide that protects against rust. Finally, a slightly coloured urushi lacquer is applied to the outside of the hot workpiece.

The complexity of the process means that only around twenty kettles are produced per month, and demand is such that the studio’s order books are full for years ahead.

Indigo-dyer Tokiko Kajimoto inspects the result of a silk scarf just dyed with a gradient in her atelier ISSO.

Tokiko Kajimoto, ISSO | Indigo dyeing

Products from ISSO include the tender-looking, airy, almost transparent silk scarves woven in Kiryū, Gunma Prefecture. Their long, narrow shape is perfect for beautiful colour gradients, but there is also a blue split curtain with charming white polka dots.

Another speciality of Tokiko Kajimoto is her large tapestries dyed in graphic patterns. Using the complex and precise technique itajime shibori, she can also create small colour transitions with high contrasts. In this way she gives the fabrics a strong graphic feel, as in artistic commissions for upscale hotels and Japanese holiday resorts.

One of Tokiko Kajimoto’s tapestries in her indigo-dyeing studio ISSO.

Yamaichi Ogura Rokuro Crafts: With the help of chisel and facing lathe, Kazuo Ogura works on a bowl.

Yamaichi Ogura Rokuro Crafts | Wood-turning

The makers at Yamaichi Ogura Rokuro Crafts create up to 100 different products from solid hardwood pieces: vases, cups, saucers, plates, bowls, dishes, trays and various containers, from small to large, fine or robust.

Common to all works is the accentuation of the natural beauty of the grain, the colour and the visible annual growth rings of each piece of wood. It was out of the ability to read the felled tree trunks that the art of Nagiso rokuro zaiku developed. With many years of experience, studio owner Kazuo Ogura only has to look at a trunk to recognize its inner structure and which part is suitable for which work.

Example of a series of vases made of sen and keyaki wood by Yamaichi Ogura Rokuro Crafts.

Kazuo Ogura accompanies the wood from its origin in the forest to the lacquering work. In the wood yard below the showroom and workshop, tons of valuable wood lies in tall stacks – thick unsawn trunks, tree slices sawn across the grain, slabs cut into blocks, boards sawn lengthwise, shorter beams and slats. Much patience is required, as the timber is usually seasoned for one to three years, up to ten for larger pieces, or even thirty with enough space and good ventilation.

After sufficient seasoning, the wooden blocks are machined on special lathes using up to twenty different turning chisels. Each craftsman forges his own tools in a small forge and sharpens them constantly during the work. The choice and use of the right tool, suitable for the wood, speed and workpiece, can be mastered only after a long period of learning.

Different containers made from paper fibres by Yanase Washi in Echizen.

Yanase Washi | Papermaking

It’s freezing cold in the large, high hall of the old wooden Yanase Washi paper workshop, though the two craftswomen who scoop sheet after sheet of paper from the large metal vat are unmoved by the chill.

The omnipresent water is particularly cold there; pure, soft and bubbling in large quantities from the company’s own spring. This is something that the five small communities in the hills of Fukui Prefecture appreciate. Legend has it that in ancient times a princess appeared in the Okamoto River and taught the villagers the art of papermaking. Since then, she has been worshipped as Kawakami Gozen, the deity of paper, and the guardian of paper production for all Japan. Today, the city of Echizen is one of the three most important centres for the production of genuine Japanese paper (washi).

Extracted from Craftland Japan by Uwe Röttgen and Katharina Zettl.

All images © Uwe Röttgen and Katharina Zettl

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