In Japan heavily forested mountains cover over 70 percent of all the land, and the Japanese have taken advantage of wood since ancient times.
“Our culture is strongly related to wood, but nowadays things made of wood, including houses, are disappearing from our daily lives, and ‘glittery’ materials such as stainless steel and plastics are taking its place. I’m afraid many of us have forgotten how to create things based on our culture,” says Kazuhisa Adachi, a Niigata-based magemono craftsman.
Magemono, literally meaning “something bent,” is the technique for making round or oval containers from slats of cypress or Japanese cedar. The slats are softened in boiling water and bent into shape. Joints are bound with strips of cherry bark, because “cherry bark shrinks when it gets wet, and the joints get tighter as they use it,” Adachi explains. With this technique, such products as ladles, food steamers and containers for meals are made.
Adachi mainly creates sieves, strainers, steamers and some of the tea utensils with traditional magemono techniques. He was awarded the Oju Hosho (Medal with Yellow Ribbon) in 1997 by the government for his leadership in the field.
Today, stainless steel and aluminum are commonly used for those products, but Adachi says wood has a character other materials lack. He explains: “When you make rice with a wooden steamer, for instance, the wood absorbs steam and then releases it, which makes the rice taste good. If the material does not absorb moisture, there will be water pooled between the rice and the steamer, and the rice will get gluey.
“You can say the same thing about a sieve, too. The wooden hoop part extracts moisture from flour and prevents it from forming lumps.”
In the town of Teradomari, Niigata, many farmers and fishermen traditionally made sieves during their off seasons, and until the 1950s they were an important local product.
Adachi’s family has been engaged in the magemono business since the Edo Period, and he is the 10th generation artisan. He confesses he did not want to carry on the family business but wanted to go to college, instead. Since he was the eldest son, however, he was destined to succeed his father.
He started working at home after graduating from high school, but he always had deep concerns about the future of the magemono business. With the spread of various agricultural machines, farmers stopped sifting rice and other grains by hand, and more and more people started buying mochi (rice dumplings) instead of making them at home. Demand for sieves and steamers rapidly dropped, and villagers in his neighborhood gave up the business one after another.
Adachi visited many wholesalers in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi and Asakusa areas and asked them to sell his products, but they all turned him down. Finally, after many trips back and forth between Niigata and Tokyo, the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi agreed to sell his sieves, which gave his products a cachet that guaranteed continued demand.
Years later, Mitsukoshi stopped dealing in household commodities, including Adachi’s products. By then, though, his magemono had built a reputation that keeps many fans, especially among professional confectioners or chefs.
While producing traditional sieves and strainers, Adachi is always trying to create something ordinary people can use in their daily lives. One successful product is his wappa seiro (round steamer), which can warm up frozen rice and other food in a microwave oven without being damaged by the rapidly rising temperature.
They are sold through a mail-order magazine, and have repeatedly been voted the most popular item of the year by the magazine’s readers. Adachi received an award from the Science and Technology Agency in 1991 for the special steamer, but he looks more happy when he talks about the letters from customers telling how satisfied they are with his product.
“Some came from overseas,” he says. “They say their family and friends really admire my wappa seiro when they serve food with them.
“It’s not good enough for artisans today to just keep doing whatever they learned,” he says. “They have to have the ability to think why their predecessors did this and what they can do to make it better.”