Tsuiki copperware – an ancient Japanese art
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Located on the west coast of Japan’s Honshu Island, Niigata prefecture is primarily known for its ski resorts, onsen (hot springs) and stunning national parks. Indeed, some 25% of the region’s land is national park. The prefecture is also notable for its delicious food and the enormous Marinepia Nihonkai aquarium that is located in the capital. There are many reasons to visit Niigata, and these include the area’s rich cultural and industrial history. The town of Tsubame is home to the Tsubame Industrial Museum which celebrates the expertise of the area’s artisan metalworkers.
Many visitors to Niigata prefecture have been attracted to the region after discovering beautiful tsuiki copperware. Functional everyday items and yet works of art, tsuiki copperware pieces are much sought after. The skilled artisans that craft them today have preserved a traditional process that dates back to the Edo period in Japan (1603 and 1867).
What is Tsuiki Copperware?
When a travelling artisan from Sendai settled in Tsubame in 1751, he taught the local people the tsuiki technique. Tsuiki is the art of using hammers (tsui) to raise (ki) a sheet of copper. So complex is the process that it can take decades to master the various techniques involved.
Each piece of tsuiki copperware is hammered by hand and is fashioned from a single sheet of copper. The skilled artisans can even make a kettle, including the spout, from a single copper sheet.
Artisans utilise a variety of wooden and metal hammers in their work. Each implement serves a different technical or decorative purpose. The copper sheet is placed over a tool called a toriguchi. This is an anvil stake that enables the artisans to shape the copperware and lend texture to it. The term toriguchi is derived from the Japanese tori meaning bird, and kuchi meaning mouth.
By progressively hammering the copper sheet on the toriguchi, artisans form the copper sheet into the desired shape. They may use as many as two hundred different hammers and three hundred kinds of toriguchi, depending on the nature of the piece they are working on. The copper must be struck without the strikes overlapping.
The process of hammering copper causes it to become brittle and so the metal must be annealed to remove internal stresses and to toughen it. Annealing is the process of heating the metal and allowing it to cool. Each piece is annealed many times during its creation. When heated, the metal is softened and easier to shape.
Once tsuiki copperware has been crafted, artisans apply the finishing touches that imbue the pieces with texture, colour and decorative detail. Tin is melted and spread thinly over the surface of the copper and this enables the artisans to create a variety of colours during firing from orangery-reds to iridescent blues.
Tsuiki copperware may also be engraved with decorative motifs. These are chiselled onto the surface of the metal using numerous different tools. Engravers specialise in chasing and repoussé. This is the art of sinking or pushing up the surface of the copper to form imagery in relief. In addition, the copper can be inlaid with different metals to produce a variety of aesthetically pleasing looks.
The creations are completed with ibota wax. Also used to polish seashells, this natural wax taken from the ibota tree is melted and applied to the pieces to form a thin layer. This imbues the surface with deeper colour and a wonderfully shiny lustre. The effects fade over time as the pieces are used.
Where can you view and purchase tsuiki copperware?
Tsuiki copperware is the speciality of Gyokusendo, a company based in Tsubame that was founded in 1816 by Kakubei Tamagawa. You could say that the town of Tsubame was built by the hammer, such was the success of the metalworking industries. The copper deposits found on neighbouring Mount Yahiko was exploited for the production of nails and also fixings for shrines. When an artisan called Toshichi from Sendai settled in the town, he passed on the art of tsuiki to Tamagawa.
Together with his apprentices, Tamagawa became renowned as a maker of kettles, pots and other household items. Seven generations later, Gyokusendo continues to produce the finest tsuiki copperware using the traditional techniques. Artisans are considered masters when they are able to craft a kettle unaided. It can take up to five years to reach this level of accomplishment and many more years to master the most complex work. While some Gyokusendo apprentices move on the establish their own workshops, many remain with the organisation for their entire working lives.
A very personal approach
Just as every tsuiki copperware piece is unique, so are the aspirations of the people who purchase them. Gyokusendo adopt a very personal approach to showing their handmade work. The specialist colouring techniques applied to the copperware create deep, expressive shades that are transformed by different lighting conditions. These are almost impossible to appreciate without viewing them in person.
It is through meeting clients that the team at Gyokusendo has built relationships spanning many generations. Those who invest in the copperware are able to fully understand its finer points and to better care for it when they have been guided by the experts at Gyokusendo. However, while Gyokusendo produces its stunning pieces using techniques dating back centuries, in marketing them, the organisation has entered the digital age. Certain pieces are displayed on the company’s website and it is possible to show and discuss pieces with clients via one-to-one video calls. The business will continue to evolve its digital offering to better connect with its global audience.
Gyokusendo’s copperware is truly timeless and will last several lifetimes although pieces can be damaged over time as they are made to be used. To preserve damaged pieces for future generations to enjoy, the company offers a repair service. The artisans greatly enjoy restoring damaged pieces as it is like revisiting old friends.
The Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum
The Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum showcases and preserves the artisan metalwork of the region, together with the expertise and techniques used to fashion it. Exhibits include a variety of metalwork including forged steel and copperware. In the Activity and Workshop Hall visitors can try their hand at the traditional metalworking techniques.
Recently, Word Connection had the pleasure to work with the Tsubame Industrial Museum in Niigata prefecture to help the institution share its unique and beautiful copperware with English-language audiences.
When Localization gets personal
When the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum approached Word Connection, we were delighted to partner with them. The staff and management take enormous pride in the industrial history of their region and wish to share this with a global audience by advertising and publishing in the English language, as well as in Japanese. Our work has included a book-length project that detailed the history of tsuiki copperware, and the techniques used to make it. We especially enjoyed promoting this traditional craft as our co-founder, Kaori Myatt, is herself from Niigata!