Step off the train at any point in Japan and you are likely to find yourself in a place that proudly announces whatever it is that makes it different: a particular item of fresh produce or a unique craft. It probably has its own mascot and a renowned local dish. Japan is a nation of regions. You don’t need to delve too deep into Japanese history to know that until the monarchy was restored in 1867, Japan was run as a feudal state with the shogun at the top and a host of local lords, or daimyo, vying with one another underneath.
Regional identities were strong and further hardened by Japan’s extraordinarily diverse topography. The barriers that nature threw up, such as the Japan Alps, could make a neighbouring region seem as distant as another country. Nature played another role, too, providing the materials that forged regional crafts: the trees for carpentry, the clay for pottery or the mulberry trees for paper. Families produced generation after generation of craftsmen who followed their forebears into whichever craft they happened to pursue and barely moved.
Of course there is much more mobility now but one of the most surprising things about crafts in modern Japan is that those links with the past – long since dissolved in most industrialised countries – remain largely intact. Crafts that developed many centuries ago have rarely strayed from where they first started and towns across Japan continue to be connected with a specific trade or industry. The old feudal boundaries might have disappeared but Japan remains a country divided, today into its 47 prefectures – each with a clear view of its own distinct identity.
Coming in to land over the dense, snowy forests of Akita, it is easy to see why this rural area became famous for its wooden crafts. One small town, Odate, earned its renown through the perfection of a single craft: magewappa, or bentwood. The tree that started it all is the Akita Sugi, a majestic native cedar with a particularly fine grain. In the hands of Odate’s craftsmen this fragrant wood has, for hundreds of years, been turned into bento boxes, rice containers, trays and cups.
Today there are eight small companies and 70 people working in the magewappa business in Odate. The maestro is Yoshinobu Shibata, a spritely 74-year-old who could be enjoying his retirement but instead continues to work. He is sitting on the floor of the workshop that he started in 1966, replicating an antique wooden basin he picked up in Tokyo. “The older I get the more I appreciate how good craftsmen in the past were,” he says.
In town, Yoshinobu is acknowledged to be the top man when it comes to doing things the traditional way. His secret has always been his refusal to compromise on technique and quality, and a genuine love for what he does. He collects pieces, old and new, from Japan and further afield, eager to learn more about bentwood techniques in other parts of the world.
Yoshinobu’s son Yoshimasa now runs the business. He has inherited his father’s stringent approach, buying his cedar from an auction that only deals in the best timber. No other maker in Odate buys such expensive raw materials.
The wood is cut, soaked, shaped and left to dry before being pieced together. Decoration comes in the form of cherry bark and some trays are given a lacquer but in truth, the finest pieces are simple and unvarnished. “You should accentuate the natural character of the cedar,” says Yoshimasa. He feels strongly that for the craft to survive it has to be practical. “Once you use these products you see how good they are,” he says. “Cedar is good for storing cooked rice. It keeps the moisture and even adds flavour.”
Over at Kurikyu, Shunji Kurimori, who is a sixth-generation magewappa maker, has devised his own custom-made tools and machines to standardise the process. Everyone is trying to secure the future for this unique craft. Shibata and Kurimori have both been approached by firms looking to harness their skills. Kurimori helped designer Toshiyuki Tani to create a series of lampshades and Yoshinobu was called on by Louis Vuitton to make a tea-set container. The ideal wood for magewappa is Akita’s native cedar, preferably no younger than 200 years old, but in 2013 the government banned the felling of these trees. Sourcing materials could become a concern for the Odate magewappa makers. Yoshinobu is reluctant to use farmed or young trees, saying that the grain and the quality just aren’t the same.
Yoshimasa has attracted a young workforce to Shibata – and Odate – and the future looks positive. “When I joined the company I wasn’t thinking about the future,” he says. “I just looked at my father; he always seemed so happy with what he was doing.” And it’s true: Yoshinobu is the picture of contentment. “I’m doing honest work and I have a successor – I’m very grateful.”
For the past 800 years the city of Seki in Gifu has been synonymous with one craft: sword-making. The occupying US military clamped down on production after the war but traditional ties are strong and Seki reinvented itself as a centre of hamono – kitchen knife and blade – making. Today 350 companies are involved in the industry and the city holds a bustling hamono festival every October. “Ever since the days of katana [sword]-making, Seki has been very good at dividing up the process of making a knife,” says Shigeru Yamato, who runs Seki’s cutlery association. “Each part is done by a different specialist and then put together.”
At the city’s “Knife Hall” there are more than 2,000 knives, scissors and nail clippers. The highest-prized knives are the ones by Seki’s finest makers using multiple layers of glimmering steel. They are cut at an angle to reveal a wood-like grain and then polished to a mirror-like sheen. Some come from small workshops, others from bigger brand names that feature in every kitchenware shop in Japan. One man’s knives can’t be bought at all: Masumi Goto, a rare craftsman in that he still makes blades entirely by hand. Ever since appearing on national broadcaster nhk, orders went through the roof and the two-year waiting list is now closed.
The workshop of the 83-year-old master craftsman is a dark corrugated shed in his nephew’s garden. Goto’s brother was a pre-war sword-maker who taught his younger sibling the skills he needed to get started. “You can only be taught so much,” says Goto. “It’s experience that counts.” He works at a small coke furnace, repeatedly heating a layer of steel sandwiched between two layers of iron to terrific temperatures and hammering them flat, cooling the rough blade in a box of dusty rice straw then shaping and sharpening. It’s an almost primal process and it means that Goto can make only two knives a day. The handles are made by a specialist in Fukui.
At the other end of the manufacturing spectrum, although not unconnected to that dimly lit workshop, is Kai. It started out in Seki in 1908 and today is Japan’s leading kitchen knife-maker, with over 40 per cent of the market share. The company’s immaculate factory is in Gujo, up the road from Seki, where they make 10,000 knives a day. This might be large-scale production but it is detailed manufacture: Kai’s top-end Damascus knives are made with 33 layers of steel. All are checked, polished, sharpened and given a final sheen the traditional Seki way: with leather.
The extraordinary Goto proves the heartbreaking truth that skill and hard work don’t bring riches. In spite of his lengthy waiting list and the lifetime of effort he has put into his knives, he charges far less for his beautiful efforts than he could. “I’m not motivated by money,” he says. Nor does he have any intention of retiring. “While people still want my knives I want to keep going,” he says modestly.
If you are wearing a pair of Japanese glasses then they were almost certainly made in Sabae, a small city in Fukui prefecture that makes 95 per cent of the glasses sold in Japan. Even if you didn’t buy the glasses in Japan, chances are they still came from Sabae: the city also has 20 per cent of the global market in premium specs.
There are around 500 companies involved in manufacturing glasses, most focused on one small part of the overall process. Sabae even has its own eyewear museum, which has a shop selling frames from dozens of local makers.
The industry came to Fukui in 1905 when a forward-thinking local man, Gozaemon Masunaga, thought that eyeglass-making would be a good industry for an agricultural area that was all but closed off in the snowy winters. Gozaemon’s grandson, Makoto Masunaga is still based in Sabae and making glasses. Now 85 years old, he set up his own company, Makoto Optical, in 1970.
“There’s an impressive division of labour in Sabae – everybody has a part to play,” says Makoto’s son Shoji Masunaga, who now runs the business. “That system has kept the skills and know-how intact.”
At one time Sabae was mostly dependent on OEM but once luxury labels started switching production to factories in China, Shoji Masunaga saw which way the wind was blowing and came up with his own label. Ayumi is as handcrafted as it gets in today’s market. Made of celluloid rather than cheaper acetate, these glasses are cut, filed and polished in Makoto’s small workshop.
Rectangles of pressed celluloid are cut with a hand-operated machine (a job that mass production has passed on to robots) then shaped, polished and smoothed. Makoto, his thumbs worn by years of working with his hands, is drafted in for the most skilled part of the process: filing the nose of the Ayumi glasses. “A machine can’t make these subtle curves,” he says, with eight different files laid out before him. “You need to feel the shape with your hands. Experience is essential.”
Other companies are realising that there is a market for handcrafted celluloid glasses. Kaneko Optical, which started as a glasses wholesaler in Sabae in 1958, has now moved into manufacturing. In 2009 it opened a state-of-the-art factory, where it now makes its top-end celluloid glasses, Kaneko Gankyo, with a youthful team of 30 led by Jun Ichikawa. “We introduced the brand to represent Sabae craftsmanship,” says Ichikawa.
Once you slip on a pair of celluloid glasses from Sabae, mass-produced acetate glasses won’t do. “Our priorities are comfort and the durability of every tiny part of the glasses,” says Shoji Masunaga. “Nobody can match Sabae craftsmen for their level of attention to detail.”