Author: Ai Kanazawa

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.

Introducing Sasaki Shoko: Making Original and Elegant Kiln Formed Glass

Sasaki Shoko is one of the exciting new talents in Japan’s glass making community. This young and energetic glass artist has a creative vision that is reflected brilliantly in the tasteful combination of shapes and colors that distinguish her kiln formed glass works.

Sasaki Shoko at her studio in Tokyo Japan (photo courtesy of Sasaki Shoko)

Studio KotoKoto came across Shoko’s work in a show at a prominent department store in Tokyo in October 2011.  The show featured handcrafted items for contemporary tea ceremonies and was organized by an artist collective called Enishi.

Kiln formed glass plate by Sasaki Shoko
Kiln formed glass plates by Sasaki Shoko

Shoko explains her approach: “I always try to bring out the best in the ability of glass to create interesting expressions by layering colors”. She strives to bring out the beautiful yet subtle Japanese colors such as gunjyo (ultramarine), sumire (violet), and kurenai (crimson) into her fused glass. Shoko’s exquisite works instantly attracted our eyes.

Glass artist Sasaki Shoko’s base drawing and design of her plates
(Photo courtesy of Sasaki Shoko)
Scoring glass with a glass cutter (photo courtesy of Sasaki Shoko)
A running plier is used for breaking the glass along the score line
(photo courtesy of Sasaki Shoko)

An interesting twist is that the colored glass that Shoko works with is produced in the U.S. by Bullseye Glass Co., which has been providing fusing compatibility tested glass to artists around the world since 1974. By layering, sandblasting, and firing and re-firing this glass to precise temperatures in the kiln, Shoko masterfully allows the glass to express the delicate and sometimes slightly muted colors that are uniquely Japanese.

Placing the glass on a slumping mold in the kiln
(Photo courtesy of Sasaki Shoko)

Shoko grew up in Niigata, a prefecture in the island of Honshu on the coast of the Sea of Japan. After moving to Tokyo to attend Musashino Art University, she was instinctively drawn to glass as a medium because of their transparent and colorful nature. During her formal training at the university for a Masters of Fine Arts, she was especially drawn to kiln-formed glass because it allowed her to accomplish numerous expressions by understanding and manipulating the kiln temperatures.

“My work may not be flamboyant, but I design them to have a distinct presence when people use them”, Shoko points out. The work she creates are stunning and elegant indeed!

A selection of kiln-formed glass plates made by Sasaki Shoko is available from our shop.

Visit to Saratetsu Dye Studio Part 3 – Butterflies and Fern: Bringing Back the Magnificent Stencil Patterns of the Past

Saratetsu linen furoshiki with vintage stencil pattern in our shop ->

Saratetsu, the last yuzen wrapping cloth (or furoshiki) dyer in central Tokyo, has accumulated a treasure trove of stencils since opening for business in 1910.

KotoKoto was especially fascinated by the design of old paper stencils that Saratetsu used before switching to computer generated screens 22 years ago. These old paper stencils are called katagami, and are made by layering multiple pieces of Japanese paper glued together with persimmon tannin. Kimono and other fabric dyed with these waterproof paper stencils were extremely popular in Japan from the mid Edo (around 1800) to the early 20th century.

Old Paper Stencil with Yabane (Feather of Arrow) Pattern

We wanted to pick two stencil patterns to be used for our new linen designs. But with such rich choices available, making a decision was incredibly difficult.

Many were not just beautiful but had special meaning to the Japanese people. For example, the ‘feather of arrow’ pattern had the power to ward off evil.  It also was often used on gifts to a bride to wish her a happy marriage. As an arrow never came back once it was shot, the gift senders wanted to wish that the bride would not return home because of a broken marriage.

After taking many pictures of the old stencils, countless hours were spent back in California contemplating all these attractive patterns and the meanings they convey. We are finally happy to announce the selection of the butterflies and fern patterns!

Butterflies
Fern

According to the book “Symbols of Japan – Thematic Motifs in Art and Design” by Merrily Baird, the butterfly is a symbol of joy and longevity. It is also a symbol of rebirth, a sentiment that we strongly wish for the Japanese people as they continue to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2011. We also thought that it was appropriate for KotoKoto’s launch in our hope to be an ever changing and exciting website for people to discover new things. The butterfly motif has enjoyed widespread popularity in Japan since the Nara period (710-794).

The fern is a symbol of long life and family prosperity because of the numerous spores on its leaves. We especially liked this pattern because the fern represents elegance and hardiness, characteristics that we seek in the skill and craft of artists. The fern motif has been popular in Japan since the Heian period (794-1185) and has also been fashionable in the West since the ‘pteridomania’, or a craze for ferns, struck Victorian Britain in the 19th century.

Color Testing on Linen

We are now testing colors with Saratetsu and will be starting to print these fabrics very soon!

Read all of the previous postings about Saratetsu here.

How are these used? Read our furoshiki blog post ->

 

Visiting the Old Pottery Town of Bizen and Kurashiki Craft Show in Okayama

If you are a traveler interested in Japanese crafts and like to visit places that are not major tourist destinations, we suggest that you travel to Okayama prefecture in Western Japan. In May, Studio KotoKoto visited Okayama, home to the famous Bizen pottery and also known for glass, Japanese paper, and other local crafts.

Bizen vases filled with water to test for leakage
Ichiyo Gama Bizen

You can get to Bizen from Okayama station by taking the Japan Rail (JR) Ako line and getting off at the sleepy station of Imbe, about 40 minutes east of Okayama. We were excited to visit this famous pottery town with more than 1000 years of history because we have great respect for what Bizen stands for: crafts that are close to the earth. We also love the natural and modest beauty of these unglazed and unadorned pots.

The starting point for any visit is the Bizen Pottery Art Museum where many Bizen masterpieces and works of art from Japanese artists deemed to be living national treasures are on display. After feasting your soul on this splendid artistry, walk around the streets to see how pottery is at the core of this town’s life and identity.

We strolled along the main street and noticed that many pottery shops are right in front of the kilns that produce their wares. While visiting one of the most established kilns in Bizen called Kimura Ichiyo-gama, we had the fortune to meet its owner, Mrs. Kimura, who gave us a thorough tour of her studio and noborigama kiln (“climbing” kiln.)

Woodstack for firing the noborigama
Bizen greenware
Noborigama at Kimura Ichiyo gama
Matcha tea served in a Bizen tea bowl

Kurashiki is another delightful town in Okayama that we were able to spend time to uncover its charms. The town is dominated by stunning old wooden storehouses (or Kura) built in the 17th century with white plastered walls and black tiles. The storehouses are built along a beautiful canal where you can watch colorful Koi fish swimming gracefully.

Kurashiki Bikan Chiku and canal by night
Kurashiki Bikan chiku and canal by day

Some of these storehouses have been converted into museums. The most famous is the Ohara Museum of Art, the first-ever Western art museum in Japan. But our favorite was the Japan Folk Toy Museum where hundreds of handmade and antique toys from different parts of Japan are displayed in a converted rice storehouse. The museum’s owner Ohga Hiroyuki is listed in the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records for spinning a large handmade top for an hour and 8 minutes!

Japan Folk Toy Museum
Kurashiki, Okayama

 

Photos: Ohga Hiroyuki spinning a top; A top on a tightrope, Folk Toy Museum, Kurashiki, Okayama

We enjoyed wandering around the back alleys of Kurashiki, especially in the Honmachi and Higashimachi districts that are full of old houses, cute shops, and wonderful sake shops.

Back alley
Kurashiki, Okayama
A sake shop
Honmachi Kurashiki, Okayama

If you are going to Kurashiki, we highly recommend going in May when the town hosts one of Japan’s best annual craft shows called “the Field of Craft Kurashiki”.  This high-quality show is hosted by the town and features more than 70 artists. This year’s event took place on 12-13 May and we had a fascinating time enjoying and being impressed by the rich offerings on display!

Our Itinerary

  • Day 1 Tokyo-(3hrs 30mins)-Okayama-(40 mins)-Imbe-(1 hr)-Kurashiki
  • Day 2 Kurashiki craft show
  • Day 3 Kurashiki museums and sights-(20 mins)-Okayama-(3hrs 30mins)-Tokyo
A Potter’s stall at the Field of Craft Kurashiki

The Inseparability of Food and Craft: Hand-Woven Bamboo Tray by Takami Yasuhiro & Shrimp and Avocado Canapé

Do you think food only looks good and tasty in plain-colored, uniformly mass-manufactured vessels? At Studio KotoKoto, we believe that appreciating and enjoying the vessels that contain the food should also be an important and fun part of the dining experience. We want people to ask not only what is on the plate but also who made the plate.

In this food blog, we want to inspire the notion that food and craft are inseparable by offering ideas and thoughts about this relationship. To do this, we will feature a handmade piece by an artist and suggest a dish to go with it.

Today we are using a double-layered mesh (ajiro) woven bamboo tray by Takami Yasuhiro of Chikuseikan*.

Double-Layered Mesh Ajiro Hand-Woven Bamboo Tray by Takami Yasuhiro
14″W × 2.5″H

The refreshing summer look of this vessel is perfectly suited for plating delicious, bright appetizers, and so we decided to serve shrimp and avocado canapés. A simple chip and dip recipe with a fine dining twist by Ai makes them really attractive!

Shrimp and Avocado Canapé           Makes about 16 canapés

Shrimp and Avocado Canapé on Takami Yasuhiro’s Bamboo Tray

Base

  • Round Corn Chips                             16

Spread

  • Avocado                                              2 each
  • Lime Juice                                          1 tbsp
  • Garlic, chopped fine                          2 cloves
  • Cilantro, chopped fine                      1 tbsp
  • Salt and Pepper                                 TT
  1. Put the avocado in the blender and add lime juice.
  2. Take the avocado paste out of the blender and mix in garlic and cilantro. Salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish

  • Small-Medium sized Shrimp           16
  • Red Onion, brunoise (see photo)   2 tbsp
  • Lime Juice                                          1 tsp
  • Cilantro, chopped fine                      1 tsp
  • Cilantro leaves                                   16 each
  • Olive Oil                                              TT
  • Salt and Pepper                                  TT
Red Onion Brunoise
    1. Boil shrimp and put in ice water to cool. Pat them dry. Add lime juice, cilantro and coat with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
    2. Brunoise red onion. This will be the “wow” factor of this dish to show your knife skills so spend time to make them nice! Coat this with a little olive oil also.

Now all the parts are ready to build the canapé.

  1. Pipe out the spread onto corn chips.
  2. Scoop some brunoise red onion on top.
  3. Position the shrimp on top of the spread.
  4. Garnish with a leaf of cilantro.

 

Visit to Saratetsu Dye Studio, Part 2 – The Technique for Printing on Both Sides of Japanese Linen (Hint: It’s Very Difficult)

Hagiwara Ichizo of Saratetsu, the last yuzen dye studio of wrapping cloth (or furoshiki) in Tokyo, is an expert at dyeing a variety of natural fabrics, so Studio Kotokoto asked him to print a pattern from their collection of old paper stencils onto Japanese linen.

Hagiwara Ichizo

We chose Japanese linen because it becomes more beautiful with time and use. Moreover, this fabric has deep roots in Japanese history. It was among the most popular fabrics used in the country until a century ago but was pushed aside by cheaper imports. It has been making a slow comeback in the past few years.

However, linen is also notorious for its resistance to dye transfer, and today’s dyed linens are mostly piece or yarn dyed. Despite these production challenges, Hagiwara-san not only took on the task but said that he could also dye a different color on the back. This is a truly amazing feat and he is probably the only dyer in Japan or elsewhere who can make this happen!

The factors that control colors are the mixing of dyes and the duration of steaming to fix the dye. Hagiwara-san tests each color and combination and carefully records the results in a logbook.

Color Logbook
Red Yuzen Dye

After the dye is applied, the fabric is steamed to bring out and fix the color. Hagiwara-san gave a demonstration to show how the duration of steaming can change the hues of the same color.

Identical Dye on Silk Steamed for 4, 1, and 0 Minutes
Fabric Steaming Box
Steaming Box in Action

When a fabric is dyed on both sides, the color on one side adds to the hue on the other. So Hagiwara-san and his colleagues undertake constant experimentation and testing to achieve the intended effects.

Front and Back Color Combination Experiment

Controlling the dye and preventing seepage into the back is a special skill that has taken several generations for Saratetsu to perfect.

Crab Patterned, Double Sided Cotton Facecloth (Tenugui) by Saratetsu
©All Rights Reserved

In the next blog post we will share some of Saratetsu’s collection of old paper stencil patterns and decide which of these styles to apply to our linen.

<-Read the previous post about Saratetsu

Read the next post about Saratetsu ->

KotoKoto Visits a Dye Studio Engaged in the Disappearing Art of Yuzen Hand-Dyeing

Hand-dyed wrapping cloth by Saratetsu in our shop ->

Take a look at this silk fabric that has been dyed into deeply contrasting colors on its two opposing sides.

Silk wrapping cloth by Saratetsu Tokyo.
Silk wrapping cloth by Saratetsu Tokyo.

This is the work of Saratetsu, the last remaining hand-dyer of wrapping cloth (or furoshiki) in the central 23 wards of Tokyo. Owned and operated by Hagiwara Ichizo, Saratetsu has been dyeing yuzen-style for three generations since 1910. Ai was given a tour of their studio in early May.

Yuzen is a method of dyeing fabric by using sticky rice husk resist. Hagiwara-san says that by only using this traditional dye resist is it possible for a thin fabric such as silk to be dyed into a different color on each side. While many dyers in Japan have switched to machines and other more economical methods, Saratetsu has continued to carry on the yuzen tradition by dyeing everything by hand.

Yuzen dyeing is extremely labor intensive, involving detailed accuracy and care at each step of the process.

In the following photographs, yuzen-dyer Harima Jun of Saratetsu demonstrated the dyeing process for KotoKoto:

Preparing the wooden dye board by misting it with water to activate the rice resist
Placing the fabric on the board
Placing the paper stencil with pins

 

Applying dye resist onto the fabric

 

 

 

 

 

carefully removing the stencil
Sliding the stencil to continue the pattern.
Then going back and repeating this process many, many times!

Saratetsu specializes in free hand and stencil yuzen-dyeing, and their attic is full of hand carved paper stencils that were previously used. The patterns of old stencils are beautiful and continue to appeal to our modern eyes. KotoKoto is discussiing with Saratetsu to revive one of these old paper stencils onto fine linen.

Can we do it?

Read the next blog post about Saratetsu ->