Monday, February 3, 2014

Dedicated craftsmanship - Magewappa, the Japanese traditional craft

  My first time ever to visit Akita prefecture was to visit Shibata Yoshinobu Shouten, one of the best Magewappa making company.  They had recently moved to a new building, yet they were still less than 10 people; the family plus several craftspeople. 

In street of Akita; Magewappa is a speciality of Akita.

  Yoshimasa, the son of the founder and current CEO, showed me their studio.  All of their Magewappa is made from natural Akita cedar that is around 200 years-old. Its tree ring is narrow, showing that unlike inferior wood, it is grown naturally, taking far more time, and thus the wood is strong.  Shibata Yoshinobu Shouten treats this quality material as a precious resource, turning it into beautiful boxes to enrich people's lives.  However, it is no longer possible to harvest natural Akita cedar, due to a decision of the government since last year, in order to protect this national treasure.  This will be a challenge for the company and they will be making Magewappa items using their existing stock of cedar for a while.
  After being cut from the forest, the cedar is preserved for about 3 years to dry.  After that, the wood is put in a special room to completely dry out.  It may have joints or warp, but for Magewappa only parts without these are selected and used.

Cedars cut and dried for 3 years
  After drying, the cedar is cut, planed, and soaked in hot water to be bent, using simple equipment by one craftsman.  To form and fix the shape, the bent wood is left hanging in the studio for a few weeks.  Boxes like Nagate require more time and proficiency for bending and drying, as they have a deeper curve.  After its shape is formed, a different craftsman takes care of each of the parts: the bottom, the lid, and all the details such as scraping, curving the edge, scraping the cherry bark and lacing it etc.  The machine to smooth the cherry bark was invented by Yoshinobu; prior to his invention, this was done manually.

Cut cedar is soaked in a hot water in the back.
Cedar is formed in a shape.

The ceiling is filled with hanging Magewappa.
Nagate box (center)

Making a support frame for the back of the box.

Curving the edge
Before (front) and after (back)
Cherry bark (before)
Cherry bark (after smoothing); it is sliced and used for the decorative attachment.
  Each of these stages is carefully done by a craftsman and all of them wear masks to protect them from dust.  When I visited, I could see how absorbed they were in their work; the studio was quiet except for the occasional sound of a machine.  Each item is made with unstinting dedication. Creating one object of Magewappa requires time; time for the wood to be ready and for many processes afterwards.

  In the back of the studio, other parts of cedar that could not be used for Magewappa were preserved. Yoshimasa was working on the project to make new products from these parts to avoid wasting the material.  It was still in secret so I should ask about this next time I will see him!

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