Treasures from the Heart: Preserving Japan's Timeless Artisanship
“All the good things in life have been made by hand since the prehistoric Jomon period,
including food, utensils, homes, bridges, and Buddhist statues. . .” This is a comment I
read somewhere that made a very deep impression on me. Our ancestors made
everything they needed for their survival on their own, utilizing the plants and animals
near at hand. Japan’s traditional handicrafts, consequently, embody the ingenuity born
of a lifestyle in deep affinity with nature and through close contact with their neighbors.
This no doubt gave rise to the country’s beautiful yet utilitarian handicrafts that have a
universal appeal. Life today has become very convenient, but at the same time we have
also lost touch with something very precious; this is something we are reminded of
every time we run into a meticulously handcrafted item or are in the midst of family
Yuzuriha Gallery and Shop on the shore of Lake Towada in Aomori Prefecture have
been showcasing the handworks of northern Japan for 22 years. The items on display
have been painstakingly chosen by visiting the artisans in person one by one. Through
a process of trial and error, I worked with them to explore how craftworks can help
enrich the modern lifestyle and endeavored to convey to customers the story behind
each handmade product.
The long, forbidding winters make many parts of the Tohoku region of northern Japan
nearly inaccessible, but they have also engendered a rich assortment of handicrafts.
One example is Aomori’ssashiko (embroidery) made by women, including during the
months of heavy snowfall. It was originally a way of repairing torn daily garments and
work clothes with patches in the shape of familiar flowers or animals, but this
functional stitching technique is used today to produce highly decorative and
beautifully refined quilts and embroidery. Tohoku’s winters are too cold to grow much
cotton, so even tattered, worn‐out pieces of cotton fabric were precious. Stitching
patches to hand‐woven linen cloth provided greater warmth, enabling people to
survive the frigid winters. Fabric was more than a daily necessity; it was as important
for survival to the people of northern Japan as the food they ate, and women treated
pieces of cloth with as much as care and love as they showed for their families.
One item produced by men in mountain villages is themage‐wappa box made from
thinly sliced pieces of Akita cedar. The slices of cedar wood are steamed, allowing them
to be curved into shape, and spliced together with the bark of the cherry tree.
Mage‐wappa boxes are suited to storing lunch, as cedar keeps away bacteria and absorbs
moisture, so food items remain fresh and delicious. The pattern formed by the cherry
bark served as a “signature” of the person who made the box, so when they ran into an
accident in the mountains, they could release the box into a nearby stream as a way of
alerting villagers further downstream. The mountains were also sources of vines, taken
fromakebi and wild grape trees, which were woven into kago baskets that served an
invaluable role in people’s daily lives. People expressed gratitude to the mountains for
“sharing” the vines with them, despite the severe seasonal limitations on when such
blessings could be gathered.
People of the past held the powers of nature in deep respect and adapted their lives to
the harsh conditions, acquiring in the process a steadfast will to live, pride in their
lifestyle, and humility. In this age of material affluence and the emphasis on mass
production and cost effectiveness, we must not forget that the objects we require for
daily life were originally all made by hand, and that the materials used were obtained
from nature. All handicrafts, including those that are no longer produced today,
recount a rich and engaging tale of people’s intimate ties with nature and with others.
They also embody the spirit of the Japanese people, unchanging despite the changing
times, that serves as the wellspring of Japanese culture.
The forests of Towada in Aomori Prefecture are resplendent in their natural beauty.
With each winter, the leaves on the trees fall one by one until none are left, and while
on the ground they serve as fertilizer until next spring under a blanket of pure white
snow. Snow‐covered forests are so beautiful, people say, because they clothe so much
underneath. The same, perhaps, can be said of people, developing a natural richness
and luster as we go through life’s experiences. Preserving such richness for future
generations is a mission
toward which I feel we should all contribute what we can.