Author: Ai Kanazawa

Reflecting on Girl’s Day in Japan

Sunday March 3rd was Ohinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day, in Japan when we celebrate the health and well being of young girls. In a country where so many seasonal celebrations are male focused, it is a refreshing change and a special day to recognize the contributions made by women in Japanese society. It is also a day to enjoy the wonder of Girl Power, Japan-style.

Girl’s day celebration with a traditional display of dolls at the Kanazawa household in Singapore circa 30 years ago

In thinking about the place of women in Japan, I looked into the relationship between women and craft. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranked a disappointingly low but not surprising 101st of 135 countries in the gender gap index (*The updated 2017 Global Gender Gap report ranked Japan 113rd of 144 countries). It is embarrassing to see my home country hovering so far down in the rankings and well behind other major developed states. The U.S., for example, stood in 22nd place while Nordic countries dominated the top 10 (*the U.S ranked 49th in the 2017 report).

In the old and rigid world of Japanese traditional craft, it seems that we continue to be bound by male-dominated hierarchies. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry designates traditional craft products and certifies master craftsmen in their effort to promote and preserve traditional Japanese crafts. As of 2011, there were approximately 4500 certified master craftsmen, of which less than 600 or 13% were women.

Despite these grim statistics, in the more globalized and populist contemporary craft community that Studio KotoKoto is a part of, we have come across many successful and vibrant female artists in Japan as well as the U.S.

Talented and successful Japanese nerikomi ceramic artist Sakai Mika showing her work at a show in 2012. Mika’s work can often be seen at department stores and galleries across Japan.

My visits to several craft shows in Japan over the past year offer a simple insight into how successful and influential Japanese women artists have become. In all of these high quality juried shows, roughly half of the participating artists were women. I also found that a large majority of visitors to these shows were women and they also were the biggest supporters of these artists. Many women travel around the country to visit artists and purchase their work.

A majority of visitors to craft shows are women, and they are the biggest supporters of craft artists

Moreover, while many Japanese male artists are quiet and rather insular, I have found that Japanese women artists are very open and willing to work with us in California.

So on Ohinamastsuri, I salute all of the fearless Japanese women artists that have made Studio KotoKoto such a wonderful and fulfilling experience. At least in the world of contemporary Japanese craft, girl power is a phenomenon to be reckoned with.

 

The Ties That Bind: The Quiet Bonds That Connect Artists and Users

In our blogs, we write about the lives, philosophies, and talents of those who make the beautiful handmade creations that can be found on Studio Kotokoto’s website. At the same time, the way these items are used by people in their daily lives are equally important to the story of these objects.

A couple of years ago, I invited a friend to my house for tea. It was a warm spring afternoon and the peach trees were in full bloom. When my friend arrived, she walked in with a handful of peach flowers and a slightly distressed look on her face. “I snagged my car into one of your tree branches and these flowers fell”, she apologetically explained. My friend walked into my kitchen and found a small hand-pinched plate, filled it with water, and floated the flowers on it.

Peach flowers on water in a mamezara by an unknown artist

I remember vividly how this innocuous incident moved me. On the one hand there was this simple hand-pinched plate and on the other the flowers. But when my friend put these two things together so naturally and unpretentiously, they were in a beautiful harmony.

Cafe au lait in a rice bowl by Hanako Nakazato

Everyday episodes such as this remind us that it is the boundless creativity of users that make the objects come to life. In our interactions with people, we have found that handcrafted items are used with great imagination and in sometimes surprising ways. These uses are often spontaneous, casual, and full of warmth and they forge a special connection between the artist and the user.

Cut pear served in glass cups by Nitta Yoshiko

We created a page called Mingei in Everyday Life that can be accessed by clicking on the kettle symbol on the bottom right hand corner of our homepage. This is where we share pictures that are sent in from users showing how they use their handmade items.

We would be delighted to receive contributions from you to share with us your imaginative ways of using Mingei in your everyday life. Your stories will illuminate the special unspoken bond that connects you with the makers of these beautiful and functional objects that you hold in your hand. You can write us or send a photograph to info (at) studiokotokoto.com

 

New Works by Hanako Nakazato

Studio Kotokoto first featured Hanako Nakazato in September last year. Since then, her elegantly crafted pottery have taken pride of place in my kitchen and are constantly being used.

Washed teacups by Hanako Nakazato drying on linen

As Hanako was about to depart for her annual six-month pilgrimage back to Japan and her studio in Karatsu in Kyushu, We were fortunate to get our hands on another collection of her new porcelain works.

Before coming across Hanako’s porcelain, I had always preferred to use stoneware on my dining table. This is because while porcelain is prized for its hardness and pristine beauty, it can seem cold, overly formal, and a little intimidating for use by a casual cook like me.

Fruit served in Hanako Nakazato’s oval bowl trio

So using Hanako’s creations for the first time was a revelation. Contrary to preconceived notions, her porcelain work is unpretentious and full of warmth and elegance. It is also easy to glimpse the depth of her skill from the suggestion of fluent speed and rhythm that are left in the grooves of her wares. There is no hesitation in the strokes, just simple grace.

Fluent and rhythmical finger grooves on spouted bowl by Hanako Nakazato

Whenever I use Hanako’s wares, I am always impressed that they do not discriminate what they are being used to serve. Even a piece of cut fruit is inviting in her oval bowl. With any type of food looking so appealing on her wares, it is little wonder that she has become a firm favorite in my kitchen.

Orange segments in Hanako Nakazato’s chocolate oval bowl

As we at Studio Kotokoto and her growing legions of admirers await her return to the U.S. this summer, we will be following her blog to catch a glimpse of her life in the idyllic pottery town of Karatsu. Her blogs are often funny and accompanied by beautiful photographs. If you have the time, I highly recommend that you visit her website too.

Wood Artist Nakaya Yoshitaka: Chronicling the Lives of Trees in His Work

Woodwork by Nakaya Yoshitaka in our shop ->

‘Organic’ and ‘precise’ are two words that usually do not go hand-in-hand, but they were the adjectives that immediately came to mind when I first saw the exquisite work of Japanese wood artist Nakaya Yoshitaka.

Footed square plates by Nakaya Yoshitaka

His footed square plates are examples of stunning construction and clean lines. The natural rings of the wood create a beautiful contour map and it does not take long to notice how much careful planning goes into his work.

Such meticulousness is not surprising from an engineer-turned artist. Nakaya-san started out studying mechanical engineering at the prestigious Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “After graduating from university, I worked as a mechanical engineer drafting plans everyday. When I worked there, I had this vague but insistent feeling that this was not the career for me. I then remembered how I enjoyed building and making experimental machines at university, far more than executing the actual experiments.”

Wood artist Nakaya Yoshitaka working on a lathe at his studio.
Photo courtesy of Nakaya Yoshitaka

When Nakaya-san realized how much he enjoyed making things by hand, the daily routine of drafting plans at the office became unbearable. So the engineer left his drafting job 12 years ago and went to work for a furniture maker in Takayama.

View of Mt. Fuji from Nakaya Yoshitaka’s studio in Fujinomiya city

In 2009, Nakaya-san moved his young family to Fujinomiya city at the foot of Mt. Fuji and set up his own studio, which specializes in wood products. “I had no hesitation in choosing wood as my principal working material because I spent many happy hours in the mountains and rivers as a child” he says.

He thinks that the most difficult aspect about working with wood is that its shape can change depending on the environment. He cleverly uses his insightful perspectives on such nature of wood to his advantage.

Wild cherry bowls by Nakaya Yoshitaka

Take for instance the wild cherry bowls that Studio Kotokoto is offering. The bowls are shaped before the wood is dried and are left to warp as they dry naturally to form their unique shape. These bowls are then finished off through careful refining that is a signature of Nakaya-san’s work.

Nakaya-san has recently been focusing on using local trees that were toppled during typhoons or by silvicultural tree felling. “I hope to let the forests thrive even as I utilize the wood for my work”, he explains.

Nakaya-san carving texture onto the foot of a cherry bowl
Photo Courtesy of Nakaya Yoshitaka

This deep love for wood comes through in the prominence that Nakaya-san gives to the natural beauty of wood rings, which transforms his bowls, plates and other products into dazzling organic and utilitarian works of originality. His work is an inspiring tribute to the grace and splendor of trees.

 

Please Use Often: The Philosophy of Wood Artist Maeda Mitsuru

Woodwork by Maeda Mitsuru in our shop ->

Wood artist Maeda Mitsuru strongly believes that the special beauty of wood is only achieved after repeated use. He strives to make his designs as simple and utilitarian as possible to encourage continued use by the owner. “I create things that are used everyday so I hope that people grow to love them more as they use them.” He says.

Wood artist Maeda Mitsuru at his studio in Tokyo
Photo courtesy of ki-to-te

As a young boy, Maeda-san spent many hours carving wood at the workshop of his uncle who was a carpenter. He also had a mother who enjoyed making things by hand so it was only natural for him to eventually become a wood artist after growing up in such practical and creative environment. After graduating from university and spending 15 years working in furniture companies, Maeda-san started creating his own work with wood at his studio in Tokyo in 2005.

Maeda-san’s selections of carving knives
Photo courtesy of ki-to-te

Maeda-san’s care for his work is evident in the beautiful lines and slight but elegant curves that he adds to each item with a carving knife. He carves the spoons so they are easy to scoop and extremely comfortable to hold, while the spouts on his bowls never dribble. “Each piece of wood is unique, so I look at their grain and consider their quality before deciding what I make out of them” Maeda-san says.

Carving the spout of the bowls
Photo courtesy of ki-to-te

 

I have been using one of Maeda-san’s wooden spoons for a while now to taste as I cook. The spoon never leaves my coat pocket as I move around the kitchen and is ideal because the wood does not slip even when my hands are wet, nor does it get hot when I pour boiling sauce on it to taste.

Apart from tableware, Maeda-san also makes custom-made furniture at his studio in Tokyo called “ki-to-te”, which means “wood and hand”. I think it is such an apt name for his handmade work and his wish that his wooden creations never leave the hands of their owners.

A Short History of Craft Shows in Japan and Their Surprising Origin

I was traveling in Japan over the past few weeks and one of my destinations was to visit an open-air craft show in Sakai, a suburb of Osaka, called Tomoshibito-no-tsudoi. This well-curated show, held in a quiet park, features 100 artists from all over Japan and takes place annually at the end of October.

Panoramic view of the Sakai craft show on a sunny Osaka day

The Sakai show attracted large crowds of people from the surrounding areas. The atmosphere was festive and family-friendly. Besides the many rows of artist booths, there were also plenty of delicious food stalls to feed the hungry masses.

Helped by the excellent weather (at least for the day I was there), the show was packed. Some artist booths had long lines of people waiting to get their hands on the creations of their favorite artists. It is hard to believe that this show was only in its fourth year.

A crowd waiting to meet their favorite artist

Craft shows are fun occasions for the artists too. These venues are opportunities for the artists to get out of their studio, meet their fans and the general public, other artists, and people like me who want to spread the word about them outside of Japan. Few if any of them are known or sell their wares outside of the country.

When I go to these shows and meet the artists, I always think about how tough an occupation it is to be an artist. They spend the vast majority of their working hours in solitude, and we have the privilege to enjoy the results of their hard endeavors.

A glass artist happily chats with some admirers

There are more than 300 craft shows held around Japan every year. To put this in perspective, imagine 300 of these shows taking place within the state of California, which is roughly the same size as Japan, in one year!

You might also be surprised to find out that these very popular shows only began in Japan in 1985 with Craft Fair Matsumoto. The artists who organized the Matsumoto show saw some outdoor craft shows in the U.S. and Britain and wanted to start something similar in Japan. So these shows have their origins from the West.

Before these shows became popular in Japan, artists were limited to showing their work at galleries and department stores. It appears that there has been a renaissance in the popularity of handmade craft and tradition in the last 5 years in Japan that has been helped by these shows that provide venue for artists, especially promising younger artists, an outlet to show their work.

A potter’s booth at the Sakai Craft Show

In the coming months, I will update information about Japanese craft shows on our “links” page that will be accessible from the navigation button at the bottom of our homepage. If you are visiting Japan, there is an excellent chance that one of these shows is taking place during your stay. If so, I highly recommend that you visit the show if you can.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup Served in a Ribbed Cup Made by Hanako Nakazato

Autumn is here and that means butternut squash and apple season has arrived! As the temperature drops (even in Southern California), I start to crave hearty hot soups and so decided to make a delicious soup with these seasonal ingredients and share the recipe with you.

When serving a meal with several courses, I like to serve soups in small vessels so that the guests have plenty of appetite left for the rest of the dishes. Hanako’s ribbed cup (or shinogi sobachoko) carries about 6 oz of soup per cup and is the perfect ‘goldilocks’ solution: not too little and not too much.

Don’t forget to put on your favorite music before you start cooking!

Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Makes about 48 oz (about 8 x 6 oz servings)

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup served in a ribbed cup made by Hanako Nakazato

Ingredients

  • Butternut squash, diced                              2 lb (approximately 1 butternut quash)
  • Granny smith apple, diced                          8 oz (approximately 1 apple)
  • Yellow onion, small diced                           8 oz
  • Garlic, chopped                                              1 clove
  • Chicken stock                                                 1 quart + 1-2 cups
  • Nutmeg                                                           pinch
  • Olive oil                                                          2 tbsp and as needed
  • Bay leaf                                                           1 each
  • Salt and Pepper                                               TT
Squash and apple are in season

Garnish

  • Leftover bread, small dice                   ½ cup
  • Parsley, chopped fine                            2 tbsp
  • Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced      16 slices
Mise en Place
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  2. Dice the butternut squash and apple into even cubes and toss in olive oil. Roast in the oven until cooked and lightly browned.
  3. While the squash is roasting, chop the parsley and make the croutons. Use small diced bread and coat in olive oil or melted clarified butter and toast in the oven until nice and crunchy. Remove from oven.
  4. Remove the squash and apple when done, and turn down the oven heat to 300F.
  5. Slice the apple in single layer and lay flat on a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put in the oven and roast until they become dry, crispy and lightly brown.
  6. Turn off the oven and place the cups inside to warm with residual heat.
  7. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and sweat the onion and garlic.

8. Add the roasted squash and apple and 1 quart of chicken stop. Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf and cook until the squash and apple are soft.

9. Remove the bay leaf, puree the mixture in a blender, strain through a chinois.

10. Add the remaining chicken stock until the soup is at the preferred consistency, bring to a simmer, add nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.

11. Pour the soup in the ribbed cup and garnish with croutons and chopped parsley. Place the apple chips on the side.

The apple chips on the side is to silently tell the guest “there is apple in this soup”

Bon Appétit!

The portion is perfect when the guests feel they want a tiny bit more

 

Takami Yasuhiro: Master Bamboo Basket Weaver

Baskets by Takami Yasuhiro in our shop ->

The most remarkable aspect of Takami Yasuhiro’s baskets is the stunning beauty of every bamboo splint woven into them. Their evenness and glow create lines that are refreshing to the eye, and give his work a unique air of grace.

Double Weave Tortoise Shell (or Kikko) Basket featuring bamboo segments on the rim by Takami Yasuhiro

I met Takami-san in May 2012 at a special exhibit of crafts in a Tokyo department store. It was sheer luck to be able to meet this soft-spoken artist in Tokyo, because he is usually based in Yufuin city, Oita prefecture, in the southern island of Kyushu. He has been using bamboo to make a wide range of items from small trays to large ceiling installations for over 30 years.

Takami Yasuhiro at his studio in Yuhuin, Oita
Photo courtesy of Chikuseikan

When I saw his work, I was enamored by the contemporary look of his baskets that cleverly featured bamboo segments. Usually the segment part of the bamboo is trimmed off because it makes it more difficult for the artist to weave the splint. I loved that Takami-san uses the segment in his work because this, in my view, is the most iconic and beautiful part of bamboo.

Triple splint bamboo tray
Photo Courtesy of Chikuseikan

 

Takami-san manually splits every bamboo splint (called Higo in Japanese) using traditional tools and methods. It is hard to imagine the amount of patience required in splitting and matching the width of the splints. Being adept at splitting bamboo is the most important skill for a basket weaver, because the beauty of each splint determines the appeal of the end product. It is said that this skill alone takes three hard years to master.

Master basket weaver Takami Yasuhiro splitting bamboo
Photo courtesy of Chikuseikan
Evenly cut splints
Photo Courtesy of Chikuseikan
Takami Yasuhiro’s tools used in bamboo basket weaving
Photo courtesy of Chikuseikan

When asked why he chose to become a bamboo basket weaver, Takami-san simply said that “I wanted to become a person that absorbed all aspects of bamboo”.  What I think he meant by this statement is that he deeply cherishes the qualities that makes bamboo special and has striven to emulate these attributes in his work: the importance of endurance, flexibility, strength, and continuing maturity.

Takami-san seems to have successfully achieved his long-sought goal after spending three decades in mastering this highly demanding craft. He passes on this gift to us in his spectacular work.

Kobayashi Katsuhisa: A Japanese Woodworker’s Homage to Shaker Design

Woodwork by Kobayashi Katsuhisa in our shop ->

These beautiful Shaker-style tea boxes are made by Kobayashi Katsuhisa, a woodware and furniture maker from Okayama, Japan.

Shaker-style Tea Boxes in Oak, Red Cherry, and Walnut by Kobayashi Katsuhisa

I met Kobayashi-san at a craft show in Himeji in May. He has been making Shaker-style oval boxes for several years now, and feels that the Shaker design philosophy has truly helped to instill in him the importance of restraint in his creative process.

Kobayashi Katsuhisa
Photo Courtesy of Kobayashi Katsuhisa

The Shakers were the pioneering masters of simple and utilitarian design, which is the heart of mingei as mentioned in our previous blog post. The Shaker creations, including the oval boxes that were first made over 200 years ago, are the very embodiment of their famous tenet that “beauty rests on utility”.

Shaker-style Japanese Tea Set by Kobayashi Katsuhisa
Photo Courtesy of Kobayashi Katsuhisa
Shaker-style Tea Box with Inner Tight Fitting Lid Holding Nutmeg Seeds

Putting “beauty rests on utility” into practice is not easy. Kobayashi-san believes that perhaps the most important aspect that a woodworker needs is the ability to resist the temptation to be individualistic, which too often results in unnecessary form that serves no purpose. These simple yet comfortable chairs that he makes are models of utilitarian beauty.

Beautiful Chairs with Clean Utilitarian Design by Kobayashi Katsuhisa, Taken at Himeji Craft Show in May 2012

Making oval boxes requires much skill and patience. Kobayashi-san faithfully follows the Shaker design from the swallowtail fingers to the copper tacks securing the wood. To him, the Shaker oval box design is a perfect form that should not be altered.

Swallowtail Fingers
Photo Courtesy of Kobayashi Katsuhisa
Bending the Wood by Hand Around the Elliptical Form
Photo Courtesy of Kobayashi Katsuhisa
Securing the Bent Wood with Copper Tacks
Photo Courtesy of Kobayashi Katsuhisa

Meeting Kobayashi-san made me realize that a good design has no boundaries. It speaks a universal language that is understood throughout different generations and cultures on opposite sides of the world. In this sense, the Shaker design is a unique and extremely valuable American cultural treasure and heritage, whose spirit can even be found in the heart and workshop of a quiet and talented Japanese woodworker.

Kobayashi-san’s Shaker-style tea boxes are available at our shop.

Hanako Nakazato: Expressing the Natural Beauty of Clay

Ceramics by Hanako Nakazato in our shop ->

A bowl made by Hanako Nakazato is so succulent that the clay seems as though it is still pliable.

Hat Bowl by Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

“I try to bring out the natural beauty of the clay and glaze”, says Hanako. She finds that the beauty of clay is in its unique plasticity, receptive to the slightest pressure from the fingertips. That characteristic of clay is masterfully brought out in her works. It is hard to resist the urge to pick it up and hold it in your hands.

Production at Monohanako by Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

And pick it up you should because Hanako creates wares that are intended for regular use. “A ware’s significance is only complete when it is used” she explains. “The same ware will manifest different expressions depending on the food it carries. I want people to enjoy that variation.”

Katakuchi by Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

Among the assortment of plates and bowls in the cabinet at home, a select handful keep getting used over and over to serve different kinds of foods. They are chosen because the cook can visualize how well the food fits with the vessel. Hanako’s creations easily trigger such visualizations. The Shinogi sobachoko, for example, is ideal for serving appetizers, soups, ice cream, and many more dishes.

Shinogi-Sobachoko by Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

Hanako wants her wares to be used often and for many years by their owners. She explains that the key to making such wares is to keep a neutral mind and to “go with the flow” during the production process. Too much planning, eagerness, and intent by the potter will result in works that suffocate and bore people over time. Hanako never measures her wares as she throws.

Production at Monohanako by Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

Hanako can only pull off such a feat because she is an extremely skilled potter. She is from the Nakazato lineage of potters that have been throwing pottery for 14 generations in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, Japan. Refined expertise can only come through rigorous study and learning from the best, and Hanako went through many years of tough apprenticeships under her father, renowned potter Takashi Nakazato, and also Malcolm Wright in Vermont, a student of Tarouemon Nakazato XII, Hanako’s grandfather who was designated as a living national treasure by the Japanese government in 1976.

Monohanako Studio
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

Hanako’s unique approach is also shaped by the way that she is able to harmonize and find balance between the dual worlds that she inhabits. Born and brought up in Japan, Hanako went to high school in Florida and subsequently studied Art at Smith College in Massachusetts before returning to Japan to apprentice with her father.

Hanako Nakazato
Photo Courtesy of Monohanako

This bicultural potter has expertly synthesized the deep traditions of the Nakazato heritage with her own modern American interpretations and experiences. Hanako now spends half of her time in Japan and the other half in her studio in Union, Maine.

Select wares made by Hanako Nakazato and Monohanako West is available at our shop.

Read more about Hanako Nakazato here.