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A cast-iron teapot in Tokyo’s kitchenware district

by

Special To The Japan Times

About half way along Kappabashi-dori, in the heart of Tokyo’s kitchenware district, there’s a beautiful shop named Kama Asa that is devoted to the sale of cast ironware. It may come as a surprise to the Western kitchen-goods shopper because in many countries the production of cast iron is all but dead. Though you might find a few pieces in the odd shop, you certainly wouldn’t find a store devoted entirely to the craft. The use of cast-iron kitchen goods (despite its known qualities and health benefits) has almost evaporated in Europe, apart from the occasional casserole or frying pan.

You would also struggle to find a factory still producing anything in cast iron in Europe, while in Japan — especially Iwate Prefecture — there are several. One obvious reason for the survival of cast-ironware here is the tea tradition and the enduring popularity of cast-iron teapots. But even so, it’s a measure of the strength of Japanese craft that Kama Asa — now more than a century old — not only exists, but appears to be doing well in a world of Nespresso convenience.

Inside the elegantly designed store — which has something of a gallery-like atmosphere to it — there are many teapots and various other useful objects such as vessels for making nabe hot pots, small windproof barbecues and other wholesome articles connected to the preparation of food.

Across the small side street from Kama Asa there is a larger, sister store. Although it may have a looser remit on the articles it offers, it is also well designed and full of wonders for the Western visitor. The kettle pictured here caught my eye for its clean lines and unique form. The waistline about a quarter of the way up its body facilitates its casting but also pleasingly allows the swell of the upper section, which in turn provides a good angle for the spout to sit upon. The concave lid and contrasting bridge of the handle is pleasing to look at, while the handle itself appears to be made of wrought iron rather than cast, which is not unusual except that it’s a completely flat section and has not been tapered.

Altogether this particular kettle is a masterful combination of tradition and modernity, playing by the rules of efficient production, while abandoning the traditional decorative “pine cone” pattern of tiny points that often adorn these types of pots. The point pattern is rumored to help retain heat while boiling water and to also help cooling once removed, to aid the water in reaching the desired temperature for making tea — 95-90 degrees Celsius — slightly quicker. Though, I doubt it makes much difference in reality, and the roughness of the surface texture would probably more than make up for this anyway. It’s a kettle that would do favors to any home.

Jasper Morrison is one of world’s leading product and furniture designers. He is based between Tokyo and London. Object-oriented, his column about food-related objects in Japan, will appear on the first week of each month.

  • A.J. Sutter

    Better yet, visit Morioka, capital of Iwate Prefecture, the home of nambuteki (cast iron ware). There’s not only a large factory that exports globally — I’ve found a few shops in Paris that feature its wares — but several artisan shops, some of which have been in business for centuries. Iwate also features great locally-produced food in every category (seafood, beef, fowl, rice, fruits/vegetables and sake), skiing, striking scenery, jazz clubs. Also better coffee than Tokyo: Morioka has the country’s highest per capita consumption, and most roasting shops use South American beans — not the cheaper and more sour African beans so popular in Tokyo recently. It’s very easy to reach from Tokyo: less than 2-1/2 hours by the Hayabusa express on the Tohoku Shinkansen, direct without transfers from Tokyo Station. (Yes, I live there.)

  • Michael

    Starbucks has a chain of shops in the U.S. called Teavana that sell paraphernalia including cast iron teapots made in Iwate, though they are about twice the price of those sold in Japan, and the range of designs is limited. I found a much nicer one in a department store in Yokohama, which together with an attractive stand, also of cast iron, cost about 6,000 yen.