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

and friends.

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’s sashiko (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, wornout pieces of cotton fabric were precious. Stitching

patches to handwoven 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 the magewappa 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.

Magewappa 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

from akebi 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. Snowcovered 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.