Higo inlays Photo:Kumamoto Prefecture

Higo inlays Higo zogan

Gold and silver designs floating on black ink metal
Depth reflecting the splendor of samurai culture


What is Higo inlays ?

Zogan means inlay and Higo Zogan is inlaid metal work produced in Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Prefecture. This craft was formerly used to adorn the gun barrels or sword guards of samurai; today, however, the skills of those more martial times are transformed into making quieter accessories or interior ornaments.
The characteristic features of Higo Zogan are its simple dignified beauty and refinement, the quintessence of samurai culture. The beauty of the gold and silver design inlay is in contrast to the somber deep black base; a perfect balance giving each piece a restrained elegance. Higo Zogan involves several techniques such as the more commonly used nunome (meaning like a woven mesh) inlay or the less used horikomi (engraving) inlay. In nunome inlay, many intersecting fine lines resembling a woven fabric are engraved into the iron base surface, onto which gold or silver metal shapes and designs are then beaten. Traditionally, Higo Zogan does not use any paint on the base metal, and relies on creating a deep black color by allowing the natural process of rusting to bring out the beauty of the iron base metal. Other traditional techniques developed over the centuries make use of different thickness gold and silver sheets, and nunome made by chisel cuts from four directions (vertical, horizontal, and diagonals) along with design motifs handed down in the Higo region to ensure the characteristic dignity and refined beauty of this craft.


Higo inlays - History

Hayashi Matashichi, a gunsmith at the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868) is considered to be the founder of Higo Zogan. At first, he served Lord Kato Kiyomasa, but after the Kato family fell from grace in 1632, he worked for Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi, the new lord of the Higo domain. After mastering the nunome inlay techniques in Kyoto, he began applying inlay patterns such as nine-planet crest motifs or cherry blossoms. Afterward, Hayashi’s outstanding inlay techniques were used to make numerous fine articles, and became the roots of traditional Higo Zogan. Although Hosokawa Tadatoshi was the lord of the domain, his father Tadaoki had an enormous influence on the development of Higo Zogan. Tadaoki had a taste for elegance and refinement, in the pursuit of which he employed master artisans, such as Hirata Hikozo, a blacksmith, and encouraged professional rivalry in the production of sword and metal fittings and the development of metalwork skills. In this way, under the patronage of the Hosokawa family, Higo Zogan was developing its increasingly refined techniques along with the rise and prosperity of the samurai in society. In the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the advent of a master, Kamiyoshi Rakuju, who was considered a second Hayashi Matashichi, enabled Higo Zogan to establish an unassailable position in the world of metalwork.
Unfortunately, with the Meiji Restoration and the law banning the wearing of swords, the demand for sword metal fittings disappeared overnight and Higo Zogan suffered a crippling blow. Even so, by diverting the techniques to the making of accessories and tea utensils, the industry found a way out of its difficulty, and these traditional techniques have been handed down to the present time.

General Production Process

Higo inlays - General Production Process Photo:Kumamoto Prefecture

  1. 1. Making the Iron Base An iron plate is cut and filed to the shape of the workpiece.
  2. 2. Polishing the Iron Base The iron surface is polished by filing to remove surface rust, dirt, and stains.
  3. 3. Fixing the Iron Base The iron base is fixed into a work stand made of pine resin and stone powder. The iron base surface is filed or polished with sandpaper to smooth.
  4. 4. Drawing the Design After deciding the inlay patterns and layout, a design is either directly drawn on the base with a brush, or onto a sheet of thin paper, which is transferred to the base by using a graver. The artisans are free to display their creativity in this important process.
  5. 5. Nunome Engraving Using a hammer and graver, the base is engraved with fine lines in four directions: vertical, horizontal, and diagonals. The lines are so fine, about 16 fit into a 1 millimeter square; in addition vertical lines are cut deep, and horizontal ones are shallower.
  6. 6. Cutting out Motifs A typical inlay flower design will be made up of leaves, petals, etc., and these individual shapes are cut from gold, silver, or electrum (gold and silver alloy) sheets. A roller is used to ensure a uniform sheet thickness, which is about four times that of Kyo Zogan (Kyoto-style inlay). This extra thickness gives a deeper impression characteristic of Higo Zogan. Motifs are cut out from the metal sheet, placed on a dish, and heated to soften and increase the degree of adhesion with the iron base; this process is known as namashi.
  7. 7. Hammering For example, several heated gold metal petals are placed on a nunome section of the iron base; each one in turn is gently pressed down with a rod made from deer horn, and lightly tapped with a hammer until the distinctive crisscross nunome pattern is seen through the gold of the petal.
  8. 8. Hammering to Tighten Any excess gold metal of the petals is trimmed according to the design, and the metal surfaces are beaten by using a special hammer until they are smooth. In this process the nunome patterns on the petals disappear, and the iron base and the gold of the petals will be closely bonded.
  9. 9. Polishing The surface is rubbed to polish, and further beaten with the deer horn rod and a hammer to tighten.
  10. 10. Erasing the Nunome A pencil-shaped iron rod is used to scrape away all traces of the nunome from the iron base, after which the surface is made smoother with a kisaki tool.
  11. 11. Polishing Several types of polishing rods are used to return the iron base surface to its original smooth condition.
  12. 12. Hairline Engraving The detailed parts of the inlay design are completed using a hairline engraver, after which the surface is polished with an abrasive to finish the inlay work.
  13. 13. Rust Preparation The polished iron base is removed from the work stand and any attached resin and dirt removed. It is then placed in a nitric acid solution diluted with water until the surface tarnishes slightly; then ammonia is added to neutralize the solution. The iron base is removed and held under running water. This process creates a rough base surface, allowing rust to evenly develop.
  14. 14. Rusting Liquid to encourage rust is applied all over the iron base surface, which is then heated over a flame to develop rust. After heating, the base is cooled and dried. The rust liquid is again applied and the same process is repeated. Depending on the temperature and humidity, rust development varies; it is important to evenly rust the whole surface.
  15. 15. Preventing Rust The base is left one night, and then boiled in tea for 30 minutes. The tannin in tea leaves neutralizes iron oxidation, stops rust, and also changes the rust color to the deep black of Higo Zogan. The base is then removed and cooled with water, and after draining, is held over a flame until white smoke is produced, and the base is removed.
  16. 16. Heating Camellia oil mixed with lamp soot is painted on the base, which is again heated. By repeatedly painting and heating, a coat is formed on the surface and further rusting prevented. Finally, the surface is polished with camellia oil to beautifully bring out the gold and silver patterns. This is followed by shading or engraving to finish.
  17. 17. Assembly and Completion Any metal fittings or accessories are attached and the Higo Zogan item is now completed.

Where to Buy & More Information

Kumamoto Perfectural Traditional Craft Center

Kumamoto Perfectural Traditional Craft Center Photo:Kumamoto Prefecture

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