After some 50 years of trial and error in Akita, a remote northern city, Biko Hayashi, 67, has succeeded in reviving a rare metal craft known as kin gin mokumegane (literally, “gold and silver wood grain metal”), a skill that was developed and then promptly lost almost 300 years ago during the Edo Period.
“I have turned a 300-year-long dream into a reality. I believe I have created artworks not found anywhere else and worthy of appreciation even overseas,” he says.
Kin gin mokumegane is an extraordinarily difficult technique which involves gold, silver, copper and shakudo (literally, “red copper,” an alloy of copper and gold) being fused into a thin plate, forming unpredictable, gleaming patterns that sometimes look like marbling, the grain in wood, ripples, flowing streams or clouds. The plate can then be hammered into three-dimensional shapes.
The art of kin gin mokumegane was created by Shoami Denbei (1651-1727), a gold art craftsman who served Satake Yoshizumi, the third lord of the Satake feudal domain, which is present-day Akita Prefecture.
Denbei’s work is mainly known through his decoration of sheaths for swords. The technique was lost when he died.
I interviewed the latter-day inheritor of the kin gin mokumegane tradition at his spacious studio gallery in Akita. Hayashi, who started his career as a metal craftsman when he was just 10 years old, said “My father and other craftsmen used to say that it was impossible to revive the craft of kin gin mokumegane.”
Hayashi saw Denbei’s works at a local collector’s home about the same time, and was struck by their sheer beauty. “Although I was a kid, I yearned to someday take up the challenge of reviving the lost craft if it was at all possible,” Hayashi says with quiet enthusiasm.
Nowadays, Denbei’s works are mostly in the hands of private collectors throughout the country and are not available to the general public. Around the age of 12, Hayashi saw similar work by a contemporary craftsman, but it was not real mokumegane as it was based only on copper and shakudo.
The mystery of kin gin mokumegane lies in the fact that Denbei succeeded in bringing different kinds of metals together, stopping short of turning them into an alloy. Gold doesn’t fuse together easily with silver, or copper and shakudo, because each metal has a different melting point. While the melting point of gold is about 1,060 degrees Celsius, the melting point of silver is about 960 — a difference of roughly 100 degrees; the melting point of copper is about 1,080, and that of shakudo, about 1,030.
“My father told me not to start working on the craft of kin gin mokumegane because he knew that it would require an extremely high degree of skill and that, if I did not succeed, it could ruin me financially,” Hayashi says.
While the number of kin gin mokumegane art objects he is known for may be 100 or less, unsuccessful attempts amount to about 1,000.
Hayashi spent the money he earned from his successful stainless-steel art to buy gold and silver for his mokumegane endeavor. He held a solo exhibition of his work in San Francisco in 1988 and in New York, Atlanta and Washington D.C. three years later.
His largest stainless-steel piece, at the Akita Municipal Cultural Hall, is a 20- × 10-meter drop curtain made of nearly 640 stainless-steel plates. “Sometimes, I spent 300,000 yen on gold, sometimes 1 million yen. In total, I may have spent several hundred million yen on my mokumegane endeavors,” Hayashi confesses. He even sacrificed his mother’s gold ring and father’s Walthum gold pocket watch.
“It was only 12 or 13 years ago that I experienced the sweetness of partial success,” he said. “I found that the different metals had beautifully cohered to one another at the end of a small block of layers taken out of an oven.”
The first step in making kin gin mokumegane is to put gold, silver, copper and shakudo into 35 to 40 layers. A typical block of layers is 7 cm long, 5 cm wide and 3 cm thick. This block is then put into an oven, and heating and beating are repeated so that the layers will cohere to one another.
“In most cases, the layers did not cohere and remained separate. Or they melted into something like an alloy,” Hayashi recalled.
The timing of taking the block out of the oven for beating is crucial. Hayashi relies on the intuition he has gained through years of experience. “Even if the condition of the oven is the same, the result varies from season to season,” he explained. “The daily weather also affects the result. So, even if I succeed today, it does not mean that I will succeed tomorrow.”
If the metal layers are successfully fused, they are beaten into a plate between two-thirds and one-millimeter thick. Hayashi then hammers the plate into such traditional objects as containers for the tea ceremony or calligraphy, incense burners and containers that hold strips of paper for the writing of short Japanese poems. Alternatively he could turn them into modern objects such as ornamental buttons, cuff links, necklaces, earrings and tie pins. In the final stage, he polishes the surface to a luster with charcoal of camellia.
But Hayashi fears that, when he dies, the kin gin mokumegane craft, which originated in and is peculiar to Akita Prefecture, may be lost again forever.
One way to avoid that would be the creation of an apprenticeship in which the prefectural government covers the cost of training young artists, which in turn would require designating the craft as an important cultural asset. People in the town of Iwaki in Akita Prefecture, which bought 16 Hayashi pieces for its museum, have expressed a hope that the municipal government will officially enshrine the craft as the town’s cultural asset.
“Kin gin mokumegane requires money, skill and physical strength,” Hayashi said. “I have lost all my teeth and my waist has been damaged. But I have reached the stage where I am today by overcoming numerous failures. If more people came to know about the mokumegane craft and some of them volunteered to help with efforts to save and hand down the craft to future generations, it would be most welcome.”
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