Japanese arts and crafts are known worldwide for their deep but simple beauty and balance. With a sensibility that goes back centuries, it is always surprising to find they are just as much at home in today’s modern world. But did you ever stop to think about where and how they’re made and, more especially, who are the people behind these beautiful works?
Fukui — known in the past as the Echizen region — is an off-the-beaten path in a part of Japan that is overflowing with Japanese crafts and culture. Its treasures range from washi paper, pottery, lacquerware, knife and swordmaking, Buddhist culture and Zen cuisine, and many food delicacies. All have links to history and tradition that seep clear into today.
The government and artisans of Fukui want the world to know more about its treasures and the people who make them, and it set up a virtual tour and online conversations with artisans to do just that.
Crafts, Cuisine, and Connections to Deeper Meaning
With the virtual tour it becomes clear that Fukui is overflowing with Japanese crafts and culture.
Among the products that come from this region, food vessels have an important role. It turns out that they have a symbiotic relation with Japanese cuisine, which is very dependent on particular varieties of plates and bowls in Japanese craft making. This is the case for Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (Shojin Ryori), as well as for regional delicacies such as crab and soba.
We spoke to Toshikazu Yoshida about this. He is an exponent of Echizen pottery. This pottery is famous for being moulded very thinly, a feature which derives from a history of recycling the clay, leading to particles becoming progressively thinner and more pliable. This in turn adapts beautifully to how one holds bowls and cups in one’s hand in Japanese culture, thereby perfectly melding together functionality and aesthetics.
Urushi lacquer maker Naoto Tsuchida, head of Tsuchinao, also told us his unique story. He is a traditional lacquerware artisan focused on new challenges, such as minimalist design vessels which are useful to the modern household. For example he designs stackable plates inspired by Buddhist cooking, and experiments with bringing lacquer to modern tumblers and water bottles.
Despite the image urushi has of being very delicate, Tsuchida explained that in fact the products can be very durable. “One piece of lacquerware can last even 10 years, which is a very long life for a vessel. In addition, if customers buy products which then get damaged or chipped, they can always bring them back and we will repair them.”
Among the most popular crafts from the region is knifemaking. This in turn is derived from the art of swordmaking, an art praised to the point that there is a state exam before becoming a licensed sword maker, explains swordsmith Sadazane Kawase.
He takes time to explain how Echizen knives are hand-forged, just like swords, and unlike western knives that are poured into a mould, they are manually forged and pounded into shape. The craftsmen therefore make best use of the clean water and steel of the region, resulting in some of the sharpest and most durable knives in the world.
In addition, the local knifemaking craftsmen are constantly trying to keep in pace with the times, as can be seen at TAKEFU KNIFE VILLAGE. Several decades ago, a handful of knife makers were struggling economically, business was tough, and many had no successors to carry their craft into the future. Instead of giving up, they shared money in a pot and created a cooperative working space and shop. Today they share costs, engage with each other, inspire a new generation, and sell their knives side by side.
In short, hundreds of years of knowledge were suddenly made open and accessible, giving an opportunity for artisans to create new direct bonds with the customers and attract future generations. Moreover, there is great pride of craftsmanship. Here, knives are sold with the name of the craftsman who made them, when often shops would just list the region or prefecture. This means that if you buy your knife at TAKEFU KNIFE VILLAGE you can also have it sharpened and repaired from the knifemaker you purchased it from.
Traditional Crafts in Today’s Daily Life and Design
Another art from the region is Echizen washi paper, with a history of more than 1,500 years. Fun fact about washi paper is, in contrast to common belief, it can be extremely strong and durable. An example that helps to illustrate this is ukiyo-e art. The many ukiyo-e traditional woodblock prints go back several centuries, and most are printed on washi paper.
Learn from Hiroshi Ishikawa, head of Ishikawa Paper Mills, that the characteristic of Echizen washi paper is that it uses water unique to the area and a natural, almost gel-like substance called neri, which helps the paper fibers spread evenly. It’s a subtle trick, but it can make the fibers much longer, and thereby the paper more durable.
People like Ishikawa also are experimenting with machinery to streamline the process. Recently, in order to fight COVID-19, the company has created a viral-repellent paper.
Finally, discover the appeal of local crafts with the younger generation. Yukou Yamaguchi, the head of Furnitureholic, decided to come back home to the region and learn about traditional Echizen wooden furniture making. Historically, indestructible chests of drawers come from this area. They use wood fitting techniques instead of nails, and apply traditional, natural techniques of protein coating to avoid rusting of the metal infixes.
Yamaguchi dips into this tradition, while also pushing the boundaries of innovation by experimenting with new products. By designing a stylish chest of drawers in the style of a carry bag, he has won the Lexus New Takumi Project Award in 2017.
Creating a Sustainable Future
One strong common thread which can be seen throughout these crafts is sustainability.
The region’s products have a history and tradition to keep up. Items such as plates, lacquer bowls and cooking knives, paper and even furniture are known for their durability, but they were also created in a spirit of endorsing re-use by recycling and restoring them when there is damage.
The region therefore offers hints to business and individuals wanting to learn something about a culture of no waste and long-lasting products.
But also it shows how the resolve of these artisans to overcome COVID-19 creates sustainable ways of doing business, moving forward, and attracting visitors.
After all, even after the world starts coming out of the pandemic, if locals manage to rely on the networks they create now, recovery and new levels of creativity will be at closer reach.
Work-related travel will be the first to resume as the world reopens after the pandemic. Virtual travel and new ways of interacting, however, provide ways to create long-term links with the area now, better equipping both sides as we come out of the economic crisis brought by COVID-19. And if the model works in one region, might it not perhaps also work elsewhere?
Next time you are in Japan,you might consider visiting Fukui Prefecture. It might just be where you will find the secret to the next business opportunity for a sustainable world in the future.
About Our Online Tours
All in all, the online event format used by Fukui Prefecture offers a unique opportunity for participants to engage with artisans and learn about the philosophy and special practices behind their craft. Interested in doing business? Since you meet the artisans, you can also establish connections to do business, both online now and in person in the future.
Some tour members use the opportunity to pursue their passions in one or more traditional Japanese crafts, such as Japanese sword aficionados who were impressed by the requirements to become a swordsmith, and others who joined despite the time difference in the middle of the night.
If you weren’t able to participate but would like to do so in the future, let us know, and we can make this opportunity happen again!
Author: Arielle Busetto