By Christopher Weiss & Monica Reskala.
As craftspeople, being able to travel and spend time with other craftspeople is, for us, perhaps one of the most ideal trips imaginable (right alongside sampling all the culinary wonders of a country). Being an architect and builder trained in the Japanese tradition, the ideal destination for such a trip would naturally be Japan. So when a Japanese delegate offered to put our showroom/store, Turtle & Hare, in the running for an all-expense-paid trip to Japan, we of course, jumped at the opportunity. Though the list of potential winners was short, having only opened Turtle & Hare less than a year prior, we weren’t holding our breath… Well, maybe just a little.
What we did have going for us, however, were all of the carefully selected objects that filled T&H, which Monica had been tirelessly tracking. She had literally spent years creating a “must have” collection of glass, ceramic, wood, and metal objects, all functional and beautifully crafted in a contemporary aesthetic that would compliment our furniture. And, of course, many of these objects hail from Japan.
Long story short, we were selected, but with just a month’s notice. We hardly had time to prepare ourselves for what was to come… and nothing could have prepared us! The trip was to Gifu Prefecture, a landlocked region in the center of Japan that has preserved many of its millennia-old crafts to this day. We spent one week accompanied by a government guide and translators, shuttling around the region’s diverse craft centers visiting shops, factories, and workshops, and another week on our own doing much of the same while trying to digest the intense week before.
Gifu Prefecture is world renown for four major craft industries:
Seki for its cutlery and blade making
Mino for its washi paper making
Tajimi for its ceramics
Takayama for its woodworking
The morning of our first day, we had a small press conference with the Director of Trade and Commerce of the Gifu Prefectural Government (while terribly jet-lagged). This was followed by our first visit with a master craftsman, Mr. Kano, washi paper maker.
Mr. Kano works by himself in his workshop/home at the edge of town along the Nagara River. He makes paper the same way it was made when it was first introduced to Japan in the seventh century: one sheet at a time. Mr. Kano’s paper defies description. It is at once delicate and ephemeral, and incredibly strong. It is soft and light to the touch, yet more like cloth than paper with its ability to resist creases.
It is made by pounding kozo, or mulberry bark, and adding fermented hibiscus root, which gives the mixture a slimy consistency. A bamboo mat is lowered in to the solution and sloshed back and forth, and side to side to orient the fibers.
The visit with Mr. Kano was like a trip back in time. After a couple hours, we left thoroughly elated and excited about the possibilities of working with such a talented and humble craftsman.
Although we had a tight schedule each day, sometimes with the president and founder of large companies waiting for us, we also had some wonderfully unexpected detours. One such diversion deserves mentioning: On day two, we visited the region famous for pottery and ceramics: the city of Tajimi and its surrounding area. Everything here revolves around ceramics. What a sight to walk into a local izakaya restaurant and see that every piece of tableware has been handmade by a local ceramist!
The finale of the day was also unexpected. It turned out that the Gifu newspaper did a short article about our trip, and a representative for a master stone carver saw it, contacted our Government guide, and demanded that we find the time to visit Mr. Sekisangin, a man who is possibly the next Living National Treasure. We made the long detour to his house and found it fittingly situated outside the walls of an old Buddhist monastery, with a rice field for a front yard.
In his small workshop attached to his home, Mr. Sekisangin bends stone—lava stone, nonetheless. A ceramic teacher to the Prime Minister, this wonderful gentleman in his 70s gathers lava stone from nearby Mt. Fuji, turns the pieces on a lathe, carves and chisels the vessels by hand, then fires them in a small kiln. What happens to the pieces next is a mystery, but the pieces emerge with a glaze and a shape (which he can manipulate) that is pure shibui.
After a tea ceremony, night began to fall. A light drizzle could be heard on the tin roof of Mr. Sekisangin’s workshop and all we could think was: Does this day need to end?
And, truth be told, it didn’t, at least for the two of us. After letting loose with our Government hosts at a very old izakaya restaurant (think lots of sake and laughter), we moved to a new hotel, a ryokan, for our last night in Gifu. A ryokan is a traditional-style hotel with onsen (hot spring fed spas), kaiseki breakfast, and tatami mat rooms. Our room had a handmade ceramic ofuro tub on the balcony, overlooking the Nagara river. It was incredible.
Before leaving Gifu City, we stopped at a lumber yard. We call it a lumber yard, but in reality, it was quite a different animal than American lumber yards. Lumber in Japan is practically a religious object. It is so carefully managed and harvested and graded, compared to what we get in the US, that it’s no wonder we fail to appreciate the natural resources in this country.
Of course, in the US, the preference in architecture is to paint wood so that it will last, rather than leave it natural as both a structural and aesthetic element, but in Japan, the traditional concept of what a house should be, is required to be, is more akin to a piece of clothing. The art of improvisation is certainly involved: a house is not going to always keep you warm (just put on another sweater), or cool (don’t wear anything), and it won’t last forever (it’s not maintenance free). Architecture should be resourceful in its means, age beautifully, and make the most use of space.
But we digress. After our stay in Gifu City, we headed to Takayama in the northern reaches of Gifu Prefecture, which is often referred to as the Japanese Alps. This town, too, seems to exist in another time, with its beautifully maintained merchant houses and sake breweries dating back some 400 years! Located high in the heavily forested mountains, Takayama and nearby Hida have long been know for their builders and skilled craftsman, which is precisely why we went to visit. We spent two days visiting both small and large woodshops, and were able to see all types of furniture and wooden accessories being made. One of the highlights was visiting Oak Village, a woodworking company that produces everything from children’s toys and furniture to architecture.
We were thrilled to see the application of an urushi finish on very elegantly crafted eye glasses. Urushi is a sap that is extracted from the Chinese Lacquer Tree and, through a special process of applications and drying, produces an incredibly durable, waterproof finish and, if pigmented with iron, a very unique ebonized appearance.
In order to do our best to take in full spectrum of crafts in Gifu, our last stop of the day was a 100-year-old furniture company with 150 craftsmen. One of the foremost chair manufacturers in Japan, this company got its start applying western steam bending techniques on the Thonet style chairs, eventually developing lines with some of the top Japanese designers.
Since our return to the Bay Area, we have continued our conversations with many of the Japanese craftsmen we met on our amazing trip, and hope to represent their work in our store soon. As for now, we are delighted to have received several of Mr. Sekisangin‘s stone vessels, which are now for sale at Turtle & Hare!
Turtle & Hare
100 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA 94612