Explanation on “Kaba-zaiku” of Kakunodate

“Kaba-zaiku” of Kakunodate is written, in Japanese Kanji, 樺細工 or 桜皮細工.

In olden days, the bark of the Japanese cherry tree was called “KANIHA”. It was broadly used for making brushes, bows, and katana sheaths. Some records indicate that KANIHA artifacts were stored as offerings in the Shosoin (show-sew-yin), the treasury for the Emperor of the Japan. It is said that the art of cherry bark handicrafts was originally passed down from generation to generation in Ani district located in northern Akita. Fujimura Hikoroku who was a samurai serving the feudal Northern Lord Satake in Kakunodate developed the technique in the mid-Edo era.

Among the handicrafts in Edo era, there were tobacco containers, vasculum, and containers for eye-glasses. In early Meiji era, samurai lost their jobs because the Tokugawa regime collapsed. Though the samurai in Kakunodate made Kaba-zaiku primarily as supplemental income when they were prominent, after the collapse of the feudal system these minor landholders shifted to full-time professional craft makers. The craft makers gradually found their market through wholesalers, developing Kaba-zaiku products. In the Taisho era after the Meiji era, Kaba-zaiku was successfully presented in an exhibition in Tokyo, and became renowned as one of the best special products in Akita.

Kaba-zaiku products are mainly classified into four categories corresponding to the processes and the techniques of the art.

    • Katamono : A technique for making a shape using wooden molds; it is used for making tea caddies, inrou (tobacco grass container), doran (vasculum) and so on.
    • Kijimono : A technique for making box-type products such as letter boxes, tea-set boxes and so on.
    • Tatamimono : A technique of making a block consisting of many glued layers of cherry tree bark. The block is then sculpted into accessories such as broaches, cuff links, tie-pins, inrou, netsuke (hanging accessory) and so on.
    • Monyo-zuke: A decorative technique to add delicate designs on products such as tea caddies, tea-set boxes and hangers for decoratively framed Shikishi (Shikishi-gake).

In 1976, Japan designated Kaba-zaiku as traditional craftwork. This was the first time Akita Prefecture was recognized for its folk crafts. Kaba-zaiku is a special kind of artwork that portrays the beauty and warmth of nature uncommon in modern craftsmanship. Mr. Muneyoshi Yanagi who is a pioneer of the modern Mingei movement praised this art form with these words– “Kaba-zaiku is a truly Japanese form of art that is carved out of its national tree, the cherry blossom”.

The process of tea caddy

You can view the kabazaiku process. A technique known as “migaki-dashi” (polishing up) is being used.

The process of tea caddy

Tools

This craft requires skilled usage of quite a few tools, such as mullet, saw, plane, line drawer and trusquin.

1. Bark scraping

There are different names for cherry barks depending on its age and condition. “Hibi-kawa” is regarded to be the best, “Ame-kawa” has a smooth surface and “Chirimen-kawa” has a unique pattern on it. After a piece of bark is cut to the preferred size, it is steamed with a heated trowsel to make it soft and flat. Then the surface is scraped with a wide knife for a glossy look and even color.

2. Gluing

Nikawa (glue) is applied to the surface of the bark and then dried.

3. Preparation

Three layers of thin wood sheets are rolled up on a mould using a heated trowsel to make a cylindrical base.

4. Inner bark

Nikawa (glue) is applied on the inside of the base and a piece of bark is placed.

5. Kuchikaba

This bark is used for the part where the lid would come on. The bark is cut, glued and placed around a slightly smaller base.

6. Placing the kuchikaba

The kuchikaba is glued on the inside of the inner bark.

7. Separation

The lid and the body are separated using a small knife.

8. Body

Nikawa (glue) is applied to the body and a piece of bark is placed using the iron. A highly skilled crafting technique is required to determine the right temperature of iron and apply the bark smoothly on the surface of the base without leaving any wrinkles.

9. Covering the knots

Small pieces of bark are placed over knots using a trowel.

10. Smoothing the top & bottom

Edges of the body and the lid are smoothed using a small knife and a plane.

11. Polishing

The surface is sanded six times using #180 to 800 sand paper in order. For extra smooth finish, it is then polished with whetstone powder and rapeseed oil.