Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Crafts that connect food and the table: Glassware glinting with light

“I enjoy glassmaking the most,” says Kiyoharu Matsuda, the master behind the Seiten studio. He started his apprenticeship in glassmaking at age 15, the day after graduating from junior high school. He says “the most” for a reason: During the nine years between ages 15 and 23, he experimented with some 26 different jobs.

“I tried my hand at pottery and carpentry, among other things. Having had a go at everything that looked like fun, I came back to glassmaking in the end, the craft I had started with. I built my studio with my own hands, so my carpentry training came in handy then,” he says, smiling good-naturedly. For the 27 years since, he has never looked back from his decision to concentrate on glass.

Glass with class: Tabletop rhapsody in blues. Matsuda's wife, Misao, arranged these Okinawan dishes — fu-chanpurū (wheat gluten stir-fried with tofu) in front and ninjin shirishiri (sliced carrots with egg and tuna) in back. | KENGO TARUMI
Glass with class: Tabletop rhapsody in blues. Matsuda’s wife, Misao, arranged these Okinawan dishes — fu-chanpurū (wheat gluten stir-fried with tofu) in front and ninjin shirishiri (sliced carrots with egg and tuna) in back. | KENGO TARUMI

“When I first opened my studio, I was bent on making pieces that were as precise as those produced by machine, like thin glasses perfectly uniform in thickness, shape, and size. As it turned out, that’s not what people wanted. What people sought in Okinawan glassware was the warmth of thick and sturdy handmade glass. Now I make what they ask for, but I do maintain the high quality expected of machine-made pieces,” he says with confidence.

Hold one of his glasses and you will see he is right. The bottom is devoid of the rough imperfections associated with a handmade glass. He adds, “I take extra steps to standardize my products. When crafting a number of glasses of the same design, I always make the height, circumference, and silhouette uniform.”

Extreme heat: Glass is heated at very high temperatures in a gas-fired furnace. | KENGO TARUMI
Extreme heat: Glass is heated at very high temperatures in a gas-fired furnace. | KENGO TARUMI

Renowned for such high technical standards, Seiten’s products also stand out for its designs. Ryukyu glassware, as Okinawan glass is called, is generally known for being bubbled. In this respect, Matsuda’s works are a bit unusual because their air-bubble content varies. Some pieces are studded with bubbles of many different sizes, some have no bubbles at all, and some have just a smattering so discreet they don’t disturb the transparency of the glass. In fact, clear glass pieces seem to be in the majority.

Seiten’s works have a top reputation among buyers for prestige retailers, who praise how well-designed they are for modern lifestyles. Matsuda enjoys a wide range of loyal fans including Okinawan cuisine specialist Kazumi Kayo. In short, his pieces have staying power.

Form and function: 'Mold' series glasses have Seiten's characteristic twist design. | KENGO TARUMI
Form and function: ‘Mold’ series glasses have Seiten’s characteristic twist design. | KENGO TARUMI

Sometimes Matsuda’s wife, Misao, joins him in creating designs for his glasswork. “Our standard Mold series, with a twist design, developed from an idea that I hatched. I have other ideas, but they haven’t been taken up for technical reasons,” she says with a lively smile.

Following the postwar Ryukyu glass tradition, Seiten uses recycled glass bottles, such as those made to hold the Okinawan rice liquor awamori. These bottles give unique textures but limit the number of colors that can be used. Matsuda points out, “I can only play with the original colors of the bottles — clear, blue, brown, green, six colors at most — and additional ones I can get by blending. Still, I keep using recycled bottles because I like their fine textures.” He loves trying new things, and at the moment he is experimenting with recycled window panes to see if they will yield results he likes. Despite certain restrictions, he keeps pressing forward with new challenges.

Ocean vibes: Stunningly bubbled glass from Seiten Kobo has subtle gradations of watery hues. If you hold it up to the light, it glitters as if you were looking toward the surface from deep in the sea. | KENGO TARUMI
Ocean vibes: Stunningly bubbled glass from Seiten Kobo has subtle gradations of watery hues. If you hold it up to the light, it glitters as if you were looking toward the surface from deep in the sea. | KENGO TARUMI

Among the Okinawan traditional crafts, Ryukyu glassware is relatively new. Production started on a small scale before World War II, and the postwar shortage of materials led craftsmen to turn to recycled bottles. Gradually, they expanded their range of products to meet requests from U.S. military personnel stationed nearby. In doing so, they improved their skills and consequently received greater recognition. In that sense, Matsuda’s dedication to developing himself as an artist in response to customer needs meshes with the history of Ryukyu glassware.

“I am not into promoting myself,” Matsuda says. “I don’t hold exhibitions. I simply take the greatest delight in producing pieces people will use in their daily lives. I ask nothing more than to hear them say that Seiten glassware is so nice and easy to use.”With selections from Seiten now available throughout Japan, Ryukyu glassware seems to have crossed a new boundary, transforming itself from souvenirs to purchase on an Okinawa visit into tabletop items widely recognized for their intrinsic value and functional beauty.

Seiten Kobo: 1352-1 Zakimi, Yomitan-son, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 904-0301;
098-958-1346. This is the second in a three-part series about contemporary craftspeople in Okinawa.