The Samurai and the Tale of Two Cities
To tell the best story of copperware craftArt in Japan, we have to go back in time a bit …. oh, about 400 years! But we won’t linger there too long.
It's a story that starts in Tsubame and Sanjo, twin cities quietly nestled in the rice-producing prefecture of Niigata, in western Japan. And it’s here where hundreds of years ago, due to a few unusual historical and environmental challenges, hand-hammered (tsuiki-douki) copperware craftArt got its big boost.
Many might claim that the story of copperware craftArt’s success starts with the Tokugawa Shogunate whose family ruled Japan from 1603-1867. During this period, it was a bit of the “best of times”…and a little bit of the “worst of times” depending on your life's circumstances.
However, during this dynasty, relative peace ensued, the mighty samurai laid down their swords to farm, and most folks got on with the task of daily care and survival.Part of the survival skills, it might be noted, would grow to include a variety of handicrafts such as Urushi lacquer, bamboo basketry, and many others. With all this craftArt activity, this period is sometimes called the age of the craftsman.
Yet, for the twin cities the story is a bit more complicated ...
In Japan, the longest, and maybe one of the grandest rivers is the Shinano River. Yet because of this grand river, 400 years ago, Tsubame-Sanjo was deeply divided….literally!
For here the river splits, twists and turns placing the two cities on opposite sides of its lovely shores. But though thus divided, these two cities shared a similar and unfortunate fate as the river would often provide an “overabundance”. This led to flooded rice fields, failure of life-sustaining crops, and dwindling personal incomes with everyone left with little to fall back on.
Enter the iron nail, the hero of this story!
Our Hero – the Simple Iron Nail
And the plot thickens: So now, as fortune (misfortune) would have it, Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was in
dire straits having been devastated by great fires and earthquakes and in need of substantial repair. The Tokugawa Shogunate, intent on rebuilding the great city, needed some supplies for that effort and … he needed nails … and lots of them! Seeing a good match, the Shogunate strongly encouraged and supported farmers in the area to supplement their incomes by mass producing much-needed Japanese-style nails. Nails, it can be noted, that were at the time forged all by hand … one … by … one thus setting the stage for more metalwork to come.
This nail industry flourished, thus creating a stronghold for metalwork in the area. The twin cities were off and running!
Later on visiting hand-hammer copper artisans from other parts of Japan, coupled with the opening of a nearby copper mine, would help to further develop the copperware industry and along with it many other metalware industries would soon take off as well.
In time, thanks to this unique set of circumstances, and the humble nail, generations of metal craftsmen in these twin cities would develop the skills, refine the techniques, and even innovate specialized tools and coloring techniques needed for copperware work to blossom into the elegant, unique-to-Japan, craftArt it is today.
Tsuiki-douki - the craftArt of hand-hammering - like this vase here - is formally designated as a Traditional Craft by the Japan Minister of International Trade and Industry.
And that’s how the iron nail industry turned into the copper industry … and much more!
And now for the sequel ; )
Metal CraftArt: Hot and Noisy Here
So how is hand-hammered copper craftArt made? Well, it’s unlike any other!
When we imagine a craftArt studio in Japan, we could close our eyes and picture a dreamy sunlit room with a craftArtist sitting quietly at a textile loom sliding a shuttle right to left weaving a tapestry of silken colors; or perhaps we see might see a potter’s wheel with expert hands wrapped around a lump of clay gently guiding it up and into shape.
Yet, the sights and sounds of craftArt can sometimes be quite jarring - a lively scandal loudly broadcasting, “something hot going on here”!
So now, picture a studio flushed with flurry, filled with a cacophony of sounds and a rhythmic tapping and rapping and rat-a-tats tatting and even bangs and clangs all coming from tools and hammers as craftsmen strike, shape and sculpt ore from the earth into form.
Perhaps we also picture an open furnace in a far-off corner - the bright red, blue and orange blaze reaching up, a craftsman rotating an object deep into the flames, softening its cold harshness, firing its edges in the tremendous heat. And nearby we might notice a large basin of water and watch as a metalworker immerses a glowing form into its cool depths sending a misty sheet of steam curling up into the air…
This is the studio of the metalworker! And this is the studio of Japan’s Copperware CraftArtist!
How Japanese Hand-Hammered Copperware is Made
Creating copperware from a single sheet of copper takes both time and a set of hard-earned skills. The process primarily follows this sequence:
- A flat copper sheet is cut to size
- The sheet is hammered multiple times to start shaping it into an object
- This copper object is annealed multiple times (heated and softened to aid in further hammering)
- The object is continuously annealed and hammered (over, tens of hundreds and thousand of strikes) and sculpted into shape
- The object is finished by dipping it into a solution to color and then a sealant is applied
But for a more fun and descriptive explanation, stay tuned....!
The Music of a Hammer -– Gyokusendo Tour
If you step into a busy copperware hand-hammering studio, whether filled with many craftArtists, or just one, the constant tapping, rapping, and rat-a-tat tatting might be a bit, well, grating.
This constant sound might feel harsh to an unfamiliar ear. Yet, for the Japanese copperware hand-hammer craftArtist, it’s the hearty music it makes, and takes, to coax a flat, single plate of copper into an amazing three-dimensional form -- such as a copper kettle, a pot, a decorative vase, a copperware tin-lined coffee or tea caddy and more!
Called tsuiki-douki in Japanese, this complex hand-hammering technique is still practiced in twin cities Tsubame-Sanjo, though now by only a very few. One is Gyokusendo, a family-run business since 1816 with an employee roster that includes many skilled artisans and several hired apprentices.
At Gyokusendo, which offers tours to any visitor, the difficult work of tsuiki-douki becomes readily apparent. To make a single product, a craftArtist will first size and cut a round disc from a flat sheet of copper. And then the work begins in earnest: strike after strike, tap after tap, like an insistent salesman knocking at the door, the artist will hit the copper tens of hundreds of thousands of times with specialized hammering techniques to “shrink” and mold the copperware into its desired form.
The resulting dimpled surface, like this vase here, displays the amazing signature marks of tsuiki-douki copperware, and gives a unique textured look -- though the final surface will be completely smooth. Though these dimples may appear random, to produce them the craftArtist must hit each spot with calculated precision and skillful consistency. Hit too hard, or too soft, the copperware loses it focus -- the surface looks haphazard and even dull.
During the long hammering process, the craftArtist will also heat the copper to make it more malleable, and then hammer and heat it again through many rounds. Once formed, the copperware product will be dipped into a specialized coloring solution and polished to a fine sheen. Sometimes the surface may be sealed with a protective coating of lacquer.
Needless to say, it takes a great many years, and many rounds of practice and failure to perfect the technique and master the entire process. To even attempt one like the pot above, a CraftArtist must have logged at least a good 10 years of experience! But what is a copperware object – one made with such time, dedication, and care? These are more than useful products for everyday life. These hand-hammered copper craft objects, with their fine dimpled surfaces, show the traces of time well invested, create connection of maker to user, and bring enjoyment to everyday life. A craftArt to be respected, indeed.
So, who are these craftArtists?
How a Copperware CraftArtist Makes His Mark
In Japan, Gyokusendo is practically synonymous with the copperware hand-hammering craftArt. Yet, there are several smaller studios still “quietly” carrying on the tradition in the Tsubame-Sanjo area.
One such studio is Shimakurado.
Nestled quietly among the rice fields of Tsubame, Niigata, a barn studio stands alone where the constant taps and raps of hand-hammering can be heard through open windows. This is the studio started by Itami Shimakura and now run by his son, Masayuki.
Itami Shimakura, a Japan designated Master Craftsman, spent the first 15 years of his craftArt experience in intensive apprenticeship training from the Masters at Gyokusendo. Training completed, he set off on his own opening Shimkurado in 1952.
Soon son, Masayuki, and current owner of the studio, was training by his side, perfecting the skills that would also earn him the distinction and government awarded title of Traditional Craftsman (Master) in 2002. Masayuki has now been producing fine copperware for over 40 years.
Copperware for Contemporary Lifestyles
Though a son may follow in a father’s footsteps, Master Shimakura also wanted to stretch beyond traditional boundaries and express his own individual, creative style, noting, “I still wanted to make the very best use of the traditional techniques and training, but do so by also producing copperware and decorative objects that are in line with contemporary lifestyles.”
Some of the more noteworthy contemporary copperwares Master Shimakura produces are the modern, two-cup, pour-over coffee pot and matching coffee bean canister. Says Master Shimakura, “I think one of the reasons I got this idea, one of my motivations, is that I really like to drink coffee myself!”
As with all hand-hammered wares, Master Shimakura produces the objects by striking, hitting, and taping the surface tens of hundreds even thousands of times to create the signature dimpled surface. The Master uses a variety of tools that in addition to the many hammers, are completely unique to tsuiki-douki and thus also handmade. To create a single product, he may use 15 different types/sizes of hammers and mallets or more.
He also uses a variety of handmade iron holding bars secured on a raised wooden platform where he sits to work.
But for this contemporary pot, before any copper cut, tools brought out, the design needed to come first. Traditional hand-hammered tea/coffee pots have a rather large pouring spout. But, for the coffee-loving Master, this would not do.
Coffee IS CraftArt
The perfect pour-over experience, he reasoned, would require a different type of design for the pour-over coffee pot – a design with a much, slimmer spout – an ultra-slim gooseneck spout – one that would deliver a slow and steady stream of water over the patiently waiting coffee grounds. Hand-hammering the base was a familiar task, but the ultra-slim, gooseneck spout would take additional care, and time. In the end, the extra work paid off, and the finished coffee pot produced the desired results: a slow steady stream of water and a good cup of fresh coffee!
To finish the two-cup coffee kettle and bean canister, Master Shimakura employes a special coloring process – dipping the objects in a boiling coloring concoction which produces the modern, purplish-blue patina. To preserve this color, he then finishes the product with a lacquer sealant.
Today, Master Shimakura still continues to produce other modern objects such as decorative vases, as well as many traditional copperware pieces as well and is often invited to give demonstrations at high-end department stores in Tokyo and elsewhere.
Where to Buy Japanese Hand-Hammered Copperware CraftArt
Message from Alfan Select:
Hi! Well, hand-hammered copperware of this type is extremely difficult to track down. Very few studios are still making it. At Alfan Select, we traveled to Tsubame, Niigata to meet with Master Shimakura. After spending an afternoon there with a lovely workshop tour, some coffee and several conversations, the Master decided to allow us to introduce his fine work to the outside world! ; )
If interested, here are 3 Hand-Hammer Ateliers and one antique shop that carries some. But to purchase Shimakurdo online click here: Alfan Select.
- Shimakurado: Available Online at Alfan Select -- or with a visit to the studio in Niigata ; ). Select "PreOrder" on the page to inquire on timing.
- Gyokusendo: Gyokusendo fine copperware products available either on location at the Gyokusendo Workshop, or at high-end department stores and Tokyo's Ginza 6.
- Fuukido: Available to travelers: Tsubame, Niigata location. Available at selected high-end department stores, Tokyo, Osaka, Niigata and more.