Japan’s iron age continues in style

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Nowadays we seldom think about how the weather impacts on our working patterns, but in the past it was obviously a much more important factor. This was especially true in those areas that experienced bitterly cold winters with heavy snow, like the northern Tohoku region, where people spent long hours indoors and developed habits of slow, steady work to keep themselves occupied (and warm).

In 2012, the “Tema Hima” (Effort/Time) exhibition at Tokyo’s 21_21 Design Sight focused on the unique working culture of the region, drawing attention to a wide range of handicrafts, from basket weaving and lacquerware to the preservation of various foodstuffs. These were all activities that, besides producing items of value, also helped to stave off the “cabin fever” that can descend when people are cooped up for too long in the winter months.

These handicrafts even included the casting and finishing of ironware, with one of the region’s most famous products being Nambu Tekki, iron goods from the area around Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), this was known as Nambu. The “Tema Hima” exhibition included a few examples, but now “Made in Japan: 400 Years of Nambu Tekki Ironware” at the Shiodome Museum presents a more in-depth look at the ironware, which is famous throughout Japan for its quality and handcrafted excellence.

The industry started up in the early 17th century when the Nambu feudal clan invited Kyoto kettle craftsmen to Morioka. But “industry” — with its connotations of large smelting works and great factories — is perhaps the wrong word. The video that accompanies the exhibition shows that Nambu Tekki is very much part of the Tema Hima culture, with production being a small-scale, craft-sized endeavor, with a multitude of processes that take time and attention, long before the actual casting is done; after which there are a large number of finishing processes.

The show is dominated by tetsubin, kettles that are often used in the tea ceremony. One of the most characteristic designs has a dimpled surface. Of these there are several examples. As the video shows, this design is created by coating the molds with a smooth surface of soft clay, and then adding the dimples manually by gently tapping them in. This is then baked hard, after which an inner mold is inserted and the intervening space filled with molten iron and left to set. The slightest mistake will, of course, ruin the entire time-consuming process, so great diligence is exhibited throughout.

Because of its connection with the tea ceremony, Nambu Tekki has developed a great many other aesthetically pleasing designs. Some kettles are shaped like bells; others have patterns from nature — running horses, a fish leaping through the waves, a squirrel nibbling grapes or various flowers. You can imagine the craftsmen working through the long winter months thinking about these summery motifs with the snow heaped up around their doors.

One of the advantages that small craft-based industries have over mass-production industries is flexibility. They can easily respond to changes in taste without the need for massive retooling and reorganization, and they can also easily experiment in new product lines. Despite their comparative isolation from the metropolitan centers of fashion, the makers of Nambu Tekki have not been slow in this regard. The exhibition also includes some very minimalist designs, as well as a variety of other utensils, such as grills and cooking ware. The natural iron released during the cooking of meat is supposed to enhance nutrition.

The exhibition also features a teahouse by the designer Shigeru Uchida and a table setting using items designed by Sori Yanagi, showing off some of the more contemporary pieces. But, perhaps the most interesting variation on the traditional tea kettles are the teapots produced for the French market.

Unlike the products for the Japanese market, which often have an element of wabi-sabi about them, these are brightly colored in shocking pinks or bright white with gold detailing.

The fact that these items have also found a market overseas also gives them a kudos and an appeal to Japanese audiences, creating the interesting spectacle of a provincial craft industry re-importing the aesthetic it used to export to the sophisticated French market.

“Made in Japan : 400 Years of Nambu Tekki Ironware” at Shiodome Museum runs till March 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥700. Closed Wed. panasonic.co.jp/es/museum