Kaba cherrybark wood crafts Kaba zaiku
Traditional crafts from the Edo Period, developed by samurai
The beauty of cherry tree bark
Kaba Zaiku are wood bark items produced in Kakunodate Town, Semboku City, Akita Prefecture; kaba refers to the bark of wild cherry trees. In Japan, the skills to make articles from wild cherry bark have been handed down only in Kakunodate, and the crafts are highly valued as one of the representative craftworks of Japan.
The characteristic features of Kaba Zaiku are their durability, and excellent ability to both retain and repel moisture. The sheen and subdued colors and the rustic beauty of the cherry bark patterns lend themselves to the production of an extensive range of very attractive items. Being small and light they make ideal souvenirs and gifts and include tea utensils such as caddies, scoops and saucers, tidy boxes, flower vases, and even such accessories as barettes, brooches and pendants or modern mobile phone straps.
They are made by applying one of the following three techniques: katamono, kijimono, and tatamimono. Katamono is typically used for tea caddies; a paper-thin wood sheet and bark are wound around a turned-wooden block and glued together by pressing with a heated iron. Kijimono is used for box-shaped items such as letter boxes or trays; bark is glued onto a wood base. In tatamimono, a more recent innovation, layers of polished bark are glued to create thickness and then carved.
The beginning of Kaba Zaiku are traced back to the period from 1781 to 1788, when a samurai Fujimura Hikoroku introduced the techniques to Kakunodate from the Ani area in the north of Akita Prefecture. At first, the crafts provided a supplementary income for lower ranking samurai; however, the Satakekita family, governors of Kakunodate, encouraged production and developed the local industry. The main products of those days were small articles to wear including netsuke (miniature carvings attached to the end of a cord hanging from a pouch), pill cases, and doran pouches to carry name seals, medicines, etc. Some historians say that these items were popular as gifts when daimyos took up their alternate-year of residence in Edo.
With the Meiji period (1868-1912), many samurai were out of a job and needing a means of making a living took up producing Kaba Zaiku; later, with this influx of artisans, an improvement of tools, and the emergence of powerful wholesalers, the craftwork developed into a stable industry. Afterward, led by folk-arts movement leader Yanagi Muneyoshi and master artisans of the era, the techniques were further improved giving an increase in product value. Around 1965, the tatamimono technique was developed. In 1976, Kaba Zaiku were designated as the first traditional craft in Akita Prefecture; since then, the outstanding skills of their predecessors have been passed down with great care, and nowadays products in harmony with modern lifestyles have been continuously added to the repertoire.
General Production Process
- 1. Barking
In August and September, wild cherry trees judged to contain plenty of water and showing vigorous health are selected for barking by specialist craftsmen. The bark of older trees, survivors of harsh winter winds and snow are particularly prized for their beauty and character. A special blade is used to cut a line measuring some 30 cm into the bark; the bark is peeled in such a way as to allow the tree to continue growing. Trees are marked to allow alternate sections of regrowth known as second-time bark which is much valued. The stripped bark is often stored in the rafters of the workshop and left to dry for two years or so before being worked.
- 2. Shaving Bark
Bark is classified into 12 types according to condition and color, for example, bark of the highest grade will have a good sheen with vertical cracks; resemble crepe; or have a good amber color.
To make a tea caddy, first a length of attractive bark is selected and cut to size, dampened with water and a heated iron is used to create steam to straighten out the curl. The bark surface is then shaved with the edge of a broad blade knife; this process not only thins the bark but brings out its luster.
- 3. Applying Glue
Glue is applied to the thinly shaved bark and left to dry.
- 4. Curling
The bark is wound around a wooden model and a heated iron is pressed against it to give a tube-like curl. Once curled, the bark is removed from the wooden model and polished.
- 5. Gluing
Glue is applied to the base wood material and the bark attached. Man-made glues often cause creases, so an animal glue is applied with a heated iron. This is a very difficult and highly skilled process, requiring much care and attention to ensure the right temperature to prevent burning and also creasing. In Kaba Zaiku workshops there is always a fire to warm the animal glue and heat the iron.
- 6. Fitting the Top and Bottom
The top and bottom parts of the tea caddy are made. A small knife is used to shave and a plane used to smooth the edge section. In the same way as for the body section, animal glue is applied and the iron used to glue the bark. When the top part is finished, the bottom part is processed in the same way.
- 7. Finishing (Polishing)
To give more sheen to the bark surface, a polishing tool made of such natural materials as scouring rushes or muku tree leaves is used to polish in several stages. After shining with polishing powder, a small quantity of oil is applied and polished with a cloth to finish. In this stage, the natural subdued deep color and sheen of cherry tree bark is brought out; no additional coatings are applied. And so the natural beauty of cherry tree bark lives on in a practical Kaba Zaiku tea caddy.
Where to Buy & More Information
Kakunodate Kaba Craft Densho-kan
ClosedYear end and new year holidays
Business Hours[April to November] 9:00a.m.-5:00p.m., [December to March] 9:00a.m.-4:30p.m.