A few years ago, a friend gave me a wooden cooking spatula that I’ve used almost daily since. Shaped like a pirate’s cutlass, the spatula is now my go-to utensil for sautéing any kind of chopped vegetables, frying rice, and cooking minced meats. Its curved edge is perfect for breaking up and stirring foods that tend to clump along the arc of my pan.
Japanese woodworker Okubo Kotaro is one of Japan’s most prolific woodworkers, known for making this distinctive curved wooden cooking spatula called “Kibera,” that he developed with input from professional chefs. His other wooden utensils include sleek urushi coated spoons. He carves each piece by hand using a shave tool called “Nankin ganna,” a version of a spoke shave with a made-to-order blade by a metalsmith precisely tuned for his use.
I knew of Kotaro for several years, but finally connected with him this summer through Jarrod Dahl, an American woodcraftsman. Jarrod hosted a sold-out spoon carving workshop with Kotaro this past August at his craft school, Woodspirit School of Traditional Crafts, in Ashland, Wisconsin.
At the end of September, I, along with my friend and photographer Doug Matsumoto, visited Kotaro and his wife Shuko, in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Their studio and gallery are a little over 20 minutes by taxi from Matsumoto Station. From their place on a hill away from the city bustle, Hida mountain range can be seen on a clear day across the valley that cradles the city below.
Kotaro’s typical workday, which he repeats over 350 times a year, begins before sunrise with the ritual of brewing coffee. “I respond to emails on the computer while drinking coffee for a few minutes, and then go to work at the studio,” he said. “I stop and eat breakfast after sunrise, go back to work. Eat lunch, go back to work. Work until around 8 pm, eat dinner, take a bath, and go to sleep.”
Kotaro makes around 6000 utensils annually, which means an astonishing rate of 500 pieces a month. Work-life balance experts may think that Kotaro’s work regime is a disaster, but working with wood nourishes Kotaro with constant discovery and inspiration. “I can’t wait to get up and work,” he cheerfully explained. “When I shave spatulas for 5 days straight, for example, I really start to get into the groove on the third day.”
Shuko also finds this wood working life with Kotaro very rewarding. “I love watching him work,” she said. “Sometimes, after I finish my work, I grab a beer and sit by him and watch him work. It’s the happiest time of the day for me.” Aside from helping with the day-to-day studio and housework, she applies Urushi lacquer onto the utensils that Kotaro carves. Shuko also operates her craft gallery “Sen” next door on weekends.
Kotaro is originally from Matsumoto. In 2006, he moved to Kyoto and started working for a company that sold wooden home fittings like sliding doors, windows, and shoji screens. He worked there for 5 years, and met Shuko in Kyoto who was studying textile art at a university. They married in 2011 and returned to his hometown because Shuko yearned to live in Matsumoto. To see if it would work out, Kotaro moved back and attended a local wooden furniture making school for a year. “It gets really cold here in the winter, so I wasn’t sure if she would change her mind”, Kotaro mumbled. Shuko laughed and quickly interjected, “I really loved it here.” They decided to permanently settle in Matsumoto and opened their studio in 2012.
In the beginning when Kotaro started carving wooden utensils, he could only make 2000 or so a year because he used a lot of energy on each piece. “The wood was hard, my hands hurt, and my arms ached,” he said. He was carving dry wood, the raw material available for woodworkers under the current supply system. “Then I did some research and found out that past woodworkers, like from the Edo period, often soaked dry wood in water to soften it. This is counter to modern convention of carving dry wood to prevent warping,” he said. Wood blanks softened in water can be shaved like butter with his sharp Nankin Ganna.
To make a wooden utensil, Kotaro cuts out rough blanks from dry wood using a bandsaw and soaks them in water. He then carves the wood into shape using hand tools, mostly his Nankin ganna. The pieces are then dried and carved again to touch-up and finish. He doesn’t sand any of his utensils, so the edges of the wood stays fresh and crisp.
Throughout the years, Kotaro maximized efficiency by improving the Nankin ganna blades with metalsmiths, using different blade angles and openings, and even adjusting the incline of his shave-horse. “I don’t have trade secrets,” Kotaro said. “I share everything I learned over the years with anyone.” Kotaro thinks he has reached the maximum efficiency in the last few years so he hopes to organize more woodworking master class workshops like the one he held with Jarrod this summer.
Occasionally, Kotaro’s fans copy his work, but rather than getting upset, he becomes very excited. “Ultimately if a shape is useful and good, it will be replicated over and over, and the maker’s name will disappear,” he observed. He dreams of a future where woodworkers working with Nankin ganna can be found all over the world making Kibera like the one he designed, even after he is no longer here. His comment reminded me of what Yanagi Muneyoshi, the founder of Mingei philosophy, wrote about good craft designs and how they are anonymous.
Three hours with Kotaro and Shuko flew by, and the sun was beginning to set. I suggested maybe we could go down to the city together and eat dinner. Kotaro beamed and said, “Thank you, but I’ll go back to the studio and shave a little more wood.” Shuko and I looked at each other and smiled. “I’ll drive you back to Matsumoto and drop you off at a restaurant that I recommend,” Shuko said. We then left Kotaro in his studio and walked to her car.