A Look at Japan’s Traditional Artisans in Honshu and Shikoku

A 14-year resident of Japan, Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong has traveled across the islands of Honshu and Shikoku in an ongoing project to document the artisanal histories of the county’s traditional craftspeople. Here, he shares images and insights from visits to 10 generations-old businesses that are keeping Japan’s rich craft heritage alive.

Words and photographs by Irwin Wong.

Third-generation cooper Shuji Nakagawa cutting a stave for one of his beautiful cypress-wood buckets.

Bucket List: Nakagawa Mokkougei
Buckets might sound like prosaic items, but the fragrant cypress-wood ki-oke crafted by third-generation cooper Shuji Nakagawa are anything but, with 700 years of carpentry tradition behind them. Nakagawa’s grandfather, a skilled woodworker, founded the family business in the 1960s and was later succeeded by Shuji’s father, Kiyotsugu Nakagawa, who in 2001 was named a “Living National Treasure of Japan.” While Nakagawa senior still oversees the main workshop in downtown Kyoto, his son works out of a studio in Otsu, some 10 kilometers to the east on the shores of Japan’s largest lake. The tools of his trade line the walls: crescent-shaped blades, mallets, and every imaginable shape and size of kanna—Japanese wood planes capable of shaving mere microns off of an uneven surface. Nakagawa makes his buckets—traditionally used for bathing rituals and for storing rice and miso—entirely by hand, from chopping wood blocks into staves that fit together into a perfect circle, to sanding down the edges so that the seams are near invisible. And not only buckets. Keenly aware that the demand for ki-oke has dwindled in modern times, Nakagawa has extended his product line into things like champagne coolers and sushi bowls. He also collaborated in the production of the minimalist Ki-oke Stool—a bucket-shaped seat designed by Danish firm OeO that has earned a place in the Japan Gallery at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

419 Hachiyado, Otsu, Shiga Prefecture; 81-77/ 592-2400; more information here.

Tango Tanimura with a completed tea whisk.

Whisk Factor:  Tango Tanimura
Japanese tea whisks, or chasen, look like works of art. Carved from a single piece of bamboo, their ends flare out into two layers of incredibly thin tines designed for mixing and frothing matcha (powdered green tea) during tea ceremonies. The best are made in Nara Prefecture by Tango Tanimura, the 20th-generation scion of what is arguably the most famous chasen-making family in Japan. His home atelier, in the rural town of Takayama, supplies two of the country’s three main tea ceremony schools with their whisks; it also hosts demonstration classes for visitors wishing to watch Tanimura at his craft. It’s a meticulous process. The tines—all 160 of them—must be cut, shaved, and delicately curved according to the needs of each particular school or practitioner, because the quality of the tines—their strength, springiness, and thinness—affects the taste of the tea. All the work is done by hand, and the resulting whisks are beautifully symmetrical, almost flower-like. And yes, they do make my matcha taste better.

5964 Takayama-cho, Ikoma, Nara Prefecture; 81-743/781-755; more information here.

Kazuki Nishiyama in his Tokyo studio, where he makes decorative paddles known as Edo oshi-e hagoita.

Paddle Power: Hagoita Shiryokan
This museum-cum-studio on the upper floor of Kazuki Nishiyama’s Tokyo home is dedicated to Edo oshi-e hagoita—padded collage paddles that originated in the Edo era as a means to bring good fortune to Japanese households. Inside, there are two worktables. Nishiyama’s father occupied one until he passed away a few years back; now, Kazuki works alone, helping to preserve a craft that requires mastery in several disciplines, notably silk collage and painting. The motifs on the paddles—large trapezoidal boards used in a traditional shuttlecock game called hanetsuki—typically portray classic bijin-ga (beauties) and Kabuki actors, their faces painted on canvas and then affixed to the boards along with beautiful kimono fabric. They’re luxury items that few can afford these days. With no one to take over the family business, Nishiyama doesn’t expect it to outlast him. “I have no apprentice and at this stage I’m not prepared to take one on,” he says. “Once I’m gone, that will be it.”

5-43-25 Mukojima, Sumida-ku, Tokyo; 81-3/3623-1305.

A Noh mask by Kyoto-based master carver Koukun Otsuki.

Face Time: Koukun Otsuki
Tucked away on a quiet Kyoto backstreet, the second-floor atelier of Noh mask carver Koukun Otsuki is filled with a bewildering variety of painted wooden faces: men and women of all ages, demons and animals with articulated jaws, all of them eerily lifelike in appearance. Otsuki, a compact man with a graying goatee, is one of the last true masters of his art. Noh is a very prestigious form of Japanese theater, and the masks worn by the main actors to signify their characters are central to the drama. Carved from a single block of aged cypress wood, they are treasured works of art in their own right, often found on display at national museums and highly sought after by private collectors.

Koukun Otsuki surrounded by his private collection of Noh masks.

Otsuki’s personal collection of masks represents a staggering amount of talent and labor, and is undoubtedly worth a small fortune. Of his craft, he says one difficult decision for the Noh mask carver is how symmetrical to make the face. Just as in nature, no face should be perfectly symmetrical because it makes the viewers uneasy. Yet if too asymmetrical, the piece could be ruined. “This eyelid’s a bit too large,” he tells me as he puts the finishing touches (shiagebori) on a new commission. Then he deftly chisels off one last sliver of wood before holding it up for inspection. “There, that’s better.”

81-75/441-5232; more information here.

Making tea caddies at Kaikado.

Tea Service: Kaikado
Tucked behind a showroom lined with handcrafted tea caddies made from copper, tin, and brass, Kaikado’s small workshop inhabits a nondescript townhouse off one of my favorite canal walkways in Kyoto. The six-generation family business was established in 1875, back when it was commonplace to store tea in earthenware jars. Kaikado’s cylindrical metal canisters were a revelation to tea merchants of the time, and they quickly became popular in households across the country. Watching them being made is a special treat. It’s an almost contemplative process, not loud at all, just the sharp sound of an ancient metal slicer, the hum of a grindstone, the delicate tapping of the artisan’s hammer as he meticulously shapes the metal cylinders on an anvil that has been in use for more than 140 years. It’s a symphony of quiet professionalism performed by a mere handful of skilled craftsmen as they painstakingly create canister after perfect canister, each one stunningly minimalist and yet somehow quintessentially Japanese.

84-1 Umeminato-cho, Shimogyo, Kyoto; 81-75/351-5788; more information here.

The embossed back of a makyo (magic mirror) from the Yamamoto workshop in Kyoto.

Working Magic: Yamamoto Gokinseiskusho
The modest workshop of Fujio Yamamoto and his son Akihisa lies on a quiet street to the west of Kyoto’s Nishi Honganji temple. The sign over their door translates as Yamamoto Metalworks, which is laughably banal given that they are the only people left in all of Japan—if not the world—who know how to make makyo, the so-called magic mirrors. Made from forged bronze discs and using techniques that hark back to ancient China, these mirrors are primarily religious objects to be placed in temples or shrines. The reflective side is smooth and brightly polished, while the back is decorated with an embossed design (nature motifs, inscriptions, perhaps a figure of Buddha). The “magic” part comes when you reflect a beam of light off the mirror and onto a wall. Even though the mirror’s face is featureless and solid, the image on the back is somehow projected through the metal, appearing like a ghostly apparition. Akihisa is now the fifth generation of his family to make makyo, and he keeps his trade secrets close to his chest. I later learn that the laborious process of buffing and sanding the bronze countless times causes the metal to buckle on a microscopic level, in a way that follows the pattern on the mirror’s back. But knowing that does nothing to lessen the magic of the phenomenon.

6-6 Ebishunobanba-cho, Shimogyo, Kyoto; 81-75/351-1930; more information here.

Haze berries provide the wax for the candles made at the Omori workshop in Uchiko.

Waxing Poetic: Omori Warosoku-ya
There was a time when Uchiko, a small town on the northwestern coast of Shikoku, was synonymous in Japan with wax making. The pure white wax that local artisans produced from haze berries, a kind of sumac, was used by Edo-era beauties to sculpt their elaborate hairdos; it coated paper umbrellas and brought a sheen to wooden furniture; and it provided clean-burning fuel for candles, besting beeswax and tallow. After a successful showing at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Uchiko wax began to be exported internationally. Little is left of the industry today, though vestiges of the town’s heyday can be seen in the well-preserved merchant houses of its compact old quarter, and in the tools displayed at the Kamihaga Residence and Wax Museum. Another must-stop is Omori, Uchiko’s sole surviving candle shop. Here, sixth-generation craftsman Taro Omori and his son Ryotaro produce just 100 candles a day, many of which are destined to burn at Buddhist altars. In a small room that’s temperature-controlled to maintain the malleability of the wax, each candle is made by repeatedly dipping a flaxen core into molten wax and then rolling it across a palm until smooth. In cross-section, they resemble the rings of tree trunks, with more than 20 successive coatings visible. It’s fascinating to watch, as is the processing of haze berries that takes place in a compound just down the road.

2214 Uchiko, Kita District, Ehime Prefecture; 81/893-43-0385; more information here.

Sakai Tohji knives at the Izumiriki premises in Osaka.

Look Sharp: Izumiriki Seisakusho
The Izumiriki knife company was established in Osaka’s Sakai area in 1805, though the history of metalworking here goes back to at least the fifth century, when local blacksmiths began forging rudimentary plows. Sakai today is renowned for its chef’s knives, and the blades produced by Izumiriki under its Sakai Tohji brand are among the sharpest in town. They’re not manufactured under one roof, however. To show me where the first steps in production take place, one of the company’s employees takes me on a short walk through the neighborhood.

Kyoto blacksmith Yoshikazu Tanaka.

First, we visit the blistering-hot forge of Yoshikazu Tanaka, a blacksmith whose task is to give the blade its shape. I’m then led to another tiny workshop situated in an ancient, rundown house. Here, a master polisher with a perpetual squint spends his days hunched over a grindstone, transforming dull, blackened steel into shining, razor-sharp knives. Once the blade is sharpened, it’s off to the final step—attaching the handle. This is done back at the Izumiriki headquarters. First, the tang of the blade is heated to a cherry-red glow; it’s then inserted into a wooden haft, which emits an impressive billow of smoke. The craftsman has a narrow window for making minor adjustments before the handle fuses completely onto the blade. A series of quick hammer taps by a practiced hand is all that’s needed to complete the knives for use in kitchens around the world. They don’t come cheap—prices range from ¥12,000 (about US$110) to as much as ¥100,000—but as embodiments of centuries-old craftsmanship, they’re worth every yen.

1-1-5 Kuken-cho Higashi, Sakai, Osaka Prefecture; 81-72/238-0888; more information here.

Yodoe umbrella artisan Emiko Yamamoto.

Shady Business – Yodoegasa Denshokan
Much as the fortunes of Uchiko were once tied to wax, Yodoe, a seaside precinct of western Honshu’s Yonago City, used to be a center of oil-paper umbrella (wagasa) production. At its peak in the 1940s, there were some 71 workshops producing 500,000 so-called Yodoegasa umbrellas annually, an output rivaling that of Kyoto and Kanazawa. But with the postwar years came a flood of mass-produced umbrellas from the West; the last workshop closed in the 1980s. Thankfully, a group of artisans established the Yodoegasa Denshokan (Yodeo Umbrella Museum) shortly thereafter to help preserve the craft. Led by a diminutive woman named Emiko Yamamoto, they host workshops and demonstrations that are fascinating to watch.

Weaving a design onto the frame of a Yodoe umbrella.

On my visit, apart from the distant chatter of the radio and the occasional clank of the bamboo-cutting machine, all is silent in concentration. A lady in one corner begins the mind-bogglingly complex task of assembling an umbrella frame from hundreds of tiny bamboo spindles. Yamamoto occupies another section of the room, papering a frame with bolts of thick washi paper. Next, she moves on to weaving a complex decorative pattern on the underside of the umbrella, wielding a needle and colored silk thread as she constructs it completely from memory. During one of her rare breaks, Yamamoto tells me they haven’t been able to keep up with orders. Then, with a weary smile, she goes back to work.

796 Yodoecho Yodoe, Yonago, Tottori Prefecture; 81-859/566-176.

Painting a lantern at Ozeki & Co.

Let There Be Light: Ozeki & Co
Founded in the onetime castle town of Gifu in 1891, family-run Ozeki & Co. is a lantern maker nonpareil, well known in the art world for collaborating with renowned 20th-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi to produce his award-winning “Akari” series of geometrically gorgeous lanterns. At Ozeki’s busy factory (there’s also a showroom located a short stroll to the north), you can watch a team of special-ized artisans assemble mostly traditional Gifu-style lanterns with top-quality mulberry-bark washi paper and ribs of locally harvested bamboo. Each step of the process is carried out at a different station: here, a man builds the lantern skeletons out of thinly sliced and dried bamboo; there, a woman glues lustrous washi onto completed frames. Ensconced in a corner, another artisan sits surrounded by unadorned lanterns; his job is to decorate them with intricately painted details, primarily floral motifs. This finishing touch requires an unerring hand and an incredible amount of concentration—there is no room for error. And the results are lovely. I’m not surprised to learn that Ozeki supplies lanterns to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

30 Sasadoicho, Gifu, Gifu Prefecture; 81-58/263-0111; more information here.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“National Treasures”).

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