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Past, Present and Future
As the capital and seat of the Imperial Court for over 1,000 years, Kyoto is a city of exquisite craftsmanship; home to a wide variety of traditional Japanese craft traditions. Members of the Imperial Court were influential patrons and practitioners of the arts, and their influence created a flowering world full of refined beauty and breathtaking artistry.
This precious heritage of traditional industries continues to this day, handed down by the skillful hands of artisans and kept alive with the support of ardent, local residents. This month, KVG meets young craftspeople who have inherited craft traditions from their ancestors-develop it even further today-and will pass them to future generations.
Makyo's Last Craftsman
Japanese Mirror Maker: Akihisa Yamamoto
Spotless, shiny mirrors reflect reality as it is-and thus, mirrors have been regarded as sacred objects since ancient times. Mirrors have been counted as one of the Three Sacred Treasures -along with gems and swords- since Japan's pre-history. Unlike utilitarian glass mirrors in use today, these traditional ceremonial mirrors are made from nickel or bronze. Such mirrors can be traced back to the ante-Christum time. Mirrors were also often used as burial accessories during the Kofun period (3rd-7th century). Then, in early modern Japan, mirrors were one of the essential components of religious and ceremonial occasions -as well as an important dowry item for brides from daimyo class families.
Mirrors were essential tools in the lives of Japanese people for so many years, so naturally, there have always been people who have produced and cared of them. These people were called Kagami-shi, or ''Master of Mirrors.'' However, as modern technology for producing glass mirrors emerged, demand for old copper or bronze mirrors decreased and thus, the number of Kagami-shi diminished as well.
There is a Kagami-shi in Kyoto who continues the ancient tradition of mirror production today. Akihisa Yamamoto is the Kagami-shi who takes over the 5th generation of the workshop, Yamamoto Gokin Seisakusho. Since 1866, Yamamoto Gokin has focused only on traditional Japanese mirror manufacturing, and many of their mirrors were delivered to temples and shrines as scared objects for prayer. While helping his father and grandfather, who were also the Kagami-shi, the young Yamamoto discovered joy and fun in mirror making and decided to become a Kagami-shi after graduating from university.
The mirror production process is roughly divided into three divisions: Casting, rasping and polishing. First, a cast is made with sand. When the mirror has a design on the back, Yamamoto forms it with different kinds of small paddles. The cast is fired and dried, then, melted mixed metal (copper and tin, for example) is poured into the cast. When the metal cools down, the cast is broken and the body of mirror is taken out. Next is rasping. Rasping the surface with a special tool is the most difficult and painstaking process. First with a rough rasp and then, a finer rasp is used to make the surface flat and smooth. Finally, during polishing, the surface is further polished with a grinding stone and a special charcoal, for an extended time.
There is another reason Yamamoto Gokin is recognized as special. They are the sole studio in Japan that still can make the extraordinary mirror, Makyo. A Makyo looks like any other bronze mirror. However, their secret is hidden inside. How this secret was born is strongly connected to Japanese history. Christianity arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century and quickly spread throughout the country. However, during the Edo period (17-19th century), the Tokugawa Shogunate strictly banned Christianity, as they were afraid of its effect on their power. In those days, Japanese people who believed in Christianity were oppressed and weren't allowed to live as Christians. However, these ''underground'' Christians tried to find a way to continue their religious beliefs, and came to the brilliant idea of Makyo.
When a Makyo receives strong light, the reflected light makes an image of Jesus on the wall. But no such images can be seen on the surface of the mirror. The secret is that there is a hidden image of Jesus on the backside of one of the exterior plates and only an extraordinary plate rasping technique can achieve this special effect. This is how persecuted Christians secretly protected their religious faith.
When a Makyo receives strong light, the reflected light produces an image of Jesus on the cross, with two people praying at his feet.
It was Yamamoto's grandfather who revived the technique of Makyo making, and Yamamoto learned it from him. Rasping the mirror for Makyo requires such painstaking work and concentration -otherwise the delicate light reflection will not be achieved. He has to rasp the inside mirror plate as thin as 1 mm. The thinner the plate is, the clearer the image will be seen. ''The most difficult part is knowing when I should stop rasping,'' Yamamoto says. In 2014, when Japan's Prime Minister Abe visited Pope Francis, Abe brought a mirror as a gift, and it was the Makyo that Yamamoto and his father made with the best of care.
Yamamoto's Japanese mirrors can be purchased at the Fureai-kan (Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts); www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika/
''It's been nearly 20 years since I started to work as a Kagami-shi, but I feel I can still improve my skills. I like being a Kagami-shi because I can take care of every single process to make a mirror: Which, at the same time, means I must also take all the responsibility. But I feel honor in my job because a mirror is not a mere tool in the house, but the object of people's prayers and wishes since ancient times. Every mirror has a soul,'' Yamamoto says proudly.
While he keeps traditional mirror making methods, Yamamoto also strives to seek new forms of the traditional craft for modern life. For example, he uses a 3D printer and a laser cutter if it is necessary to meet the clients' demand and budget. He also joins contemporary art projects that promote craftsmanship and art to the world. ''I understand the true essence of our job, which must not change,'' he says. When asked why he doesn't take advantage of new technology if it can reduce much of his painstaking work and lessen his workload, Yamamoto answers immediately, ''That's simply because traditional techniques will be lost if we stop today.'' Thus, thanks to his conviction, the spirit of Kagami-shi is still alive in Kyoto, and will live on into the future..
Yamamoto Gokin Seisakusho: Tel: 075-351-1930; Advance contact is necessary if a visitor wishes to visit the studio.
Kyoto and Fukuoka, Two Traditions Meet to Create a New Form of Ceramic
Potters: Soryu & Madoka Wakunami
There are a number of types of ceramics in Japan, but there are two main categories: One is ''Toki,'' or earthenware made with clay. The other is ''Jiki,'' or porcelain, made with powdered stone. Toki and Jiki are totally distinct in appearance and make different sounds when hit. Soryu-gama, led by their 4th generation master, produces wares that are a fusion of Toki and Jiki -a unique ceramic style no other studio can follow.
Soryu Wakunami, born in 1977, took over the lineage of the 4th generation of Soryu Wakunami in 2009, when he was only 22 years old, some years after his father's sudden passing. Although he made up his mind to succeed the name, the young Soryu was still wondering if he could take over such a big responsibility. With conflict in his heart, Soryu went to learn pottery in college in Kyoto. There, he met Madoka, his future wife and career partner.
Madoka Wakunami was born in 1976 to the family that has produced Koishiwara ware in Koishiwara City, Fukuoka for hundreds of years. As her father was the 14th-generation master of Koishiwara ware, Madoka was naturally fond of pottery, and she had no doubt she would also become a potter, destined to remain in Koishiwara forever. One day, she thought that it would be a good idea to leave Koishiwara for a few years to see another world. So she chose a pottery college in Kyoto and thought she would return to Fukuoka after graduation -but her life took a different turn when she met Soryu.
Shortly after they graduated from the college, the aspiring potters married, and Madoka moved to Kyoto. Two children soon followed. ''If I hadn't met Madoka at college, I wouldn't have been able to continue my way as the 4th Soryu Wakunami. She encouraged me all the time, and we have always worked together,'' Soryu said, smiling at Madoka.
On the surface of a bowl, Madoka adds the tobi-kanna pattern using a special tool while turning the wheel. A high level of concentration and sensitivity is required, as she relies solely on her experience and expert touch.
Madoka was busy as a mother of two children, supporting her husband. But last few years, her potter's heart grew stronger, and she longed to do more for the future. After a discussion that lasted many hours, Soryu and Madoka concluded that they would both be involved in the production process. ''Soryu Wakunami is my name. However, I feel that the 4th Soryu is me and Madoka together,'' he admits.
Soryu's style comes from Kyoto-style ware, which embodies elegance and sophistication; recognized more as an art form. On the other hand, Koishiwara ware, Madoka's birthright, has a more casual form and is used for daily life. In short, the styles of Soryu and Madoka are polar opposites.
Here, Kyoto-style porcelain is decorated with techniques from Koishiwara, such as hakeme (brushed slip design) and tobi-kanna (a rhythmic, chatter-like design produced by a metal tool springing against a leather-hard, slip-covered vessel). As a result, this new style melds the best characteristics of each style of Soryu's and Madoka's.
Soryu-gama's simple, yet, sophosticated plates and bowls fascinated top chefs in Italy; At CULINARIA 2016 in Rome.
''I understand that some people may not like how we combine Kyoto and Koishiwara styles because both Kyoto-style porcelain and Koisikawa pottery have longestablished traditions and were never meant to be combined with other styles. However, we are still young and wish to challenge this old mindset. My wish is to tell more people about the beautiful blue of Soryu-gama, not just as an art object that sits in a glass case, but as everyday ware, and the casual decorations of Madoka's Koishiwara ware are a perfect match.''
As the 4th generation, Soryu and Madoka foresee future development in the international market. Although there are always barriers to get over, such as language, differences in culture and business structures, all they wish for is to show the beautiful Soryugama items to the world. They have joined exhibitions in Taiwan and France, as well as a large food event in Italy. In Rome, their large plates and bowls drew attention from top chefs, who loved to present their dishes on the Soryu-gama wares. In November 2016, they traveled to Amsterdam to present their pottery wheel technique in a workshop.
''Uka Seiten'' -this is an image Soryu and Madoka always keep in their mind. It means the ''Clear blue sky after rain.'' They work together in their cozy studio every day, striving for that beautiful blue on their wares, mirroring a pure blue sky.
Soryugama: Tel: 075-561-8004; soryu-gama.com