Copper cookware has several merits that other materials lack. Since copper conducts heat rapidly, it takes less time to cook. Professional chefs usually use a copper frying pan when making tempura because the oil heats evenly without hot spots. It is also believed that, due to the metal’s sterilizing properties, food cooked in copper containers lasts longer. Some even say hot water boiled in a copper kettle tastes better.
Despite all those merits, it’s perhaps difficult to understand why a certain copper kettle can go for 280,000 yen. This particular kettle is handmade, though, by a veteran artisan in Niigata Prefecture’s Tsubame City, and it takes a week to complete.
“Too expensive?” says coppersmith Yonesaku Sasage. “It is so strong you can use it over 100 years. If it is handled properly, the older it gets, the more it shines. Furthermore, it is made by a special technique that has been designated as a [prefectural] intangible cultural asset.”
Copperware can be manufactured by either molding or beating. Since copper is a very ductile metal, it can be shaped rather easily by banging with a hammer without heating. Such cold-hammered works are called tsuiki-doki (tsuiki literally means beating with hammer and raising, and doki is copperware), and they are now special products made only in Tsubame City.
Tsubame coppersmiths can turn a 1.5-mm-thick plate of copper into any of various utensils — a cup, a saucer, a pot, a pan, a kettle, an ash tray, a pen tray, a flower vase, an incense burner, a candy bowl, etc. — just by beating it with hammers of different sizes and shapes. The more they beat the metal, the harder it gets, says Sasage.
For a kettle, artisans usually make a round body and a spout separately and put them together later. An experienced smith, though, can make the whole shape, including the spout, from one oval-shaped sheet of copper.
“If you make the spout separately it takes only one day to complete, but it would take me a week by the latter method,” says Sasage. “The very beginning [of the process] is the most difficult. If you do something wrong at this stage, the product may develop cracks afterward.”
The copperware industry was developed in Tsubame City because there was a copper mine nearby and they could easily obtain the materials. The technique is believed to have been introduced sometime in Meiwa Era (1764-1771) by a traveling artisan from Sendai named Toshichi, and the creative process has changed little since then. Initially, they made mainly cookware such as pots and pans, and expanded to tea utensils later.
In 1981 Tsubame City’s copperware was formally designated by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry as a traditional craft. They say the copperware industry laid the foundation of the city’s internationally famed tableware and cutlery industry.
The noise of hammering the metal is often unbearably loud, and some artisans use earplugs, but Sasage does not. “My ears aren’t too good anyway,” he says. “During the war, I was forced to work at a munitions factory, and my hearing got severely damaged by the tremendous noise there.”
When World War II ended in 1945, job opportunities were very scarce, and it was a very natural decision for Sasage to follow his father’s occupation as a coppersmith. He learned all the copper-beating techniques from his father.
Today Sasage works for Gyokusendo, a copperware manufacturing company in Tsubame City. “Young artisans these days are better than we were at their age. They are fast learners,” Sasage says. It takes only three to five years for a young artisan to master the art of making a kettle, he says. “It took us more time to master the technique, because we used to have to run errands for our masters before working.”
Sasage says what distinguishes veteran artisans from younger, less experienced ones would be productivity.
“We always have to think how much we can shorten the time required to make one item,” he says.