Kanazawa gold leaves Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

Kanazawa gold leaves Kanazawa haku

Devoted to transmuting traditional materials
into dazzling beauty


What is Kanazawa gold leaves ?

The word haku means "metal leaf" and Kanazawa haku is the gold leaf produced in the city of Kanazawa and its environs in the Ishikawa prefecture. The attractive feature of Kanazawa gold leaves is the dazzling and elegant radiance of gold produced by master craftsmen. It is hard to believe that a small piece of gold alloy, no bigger than a Japanese 10 yen coin (23 mm diameter), will be repeatedly hammered and evenly thinned to cover one traditional tatami mat (about 1.6 ㎡) without losing its brilliance. Producing such high quality and lustrous gold leaves takes many years of devoted practice to learn the art.
Kanazawa gold leaves are used in large quantities on the historic buildings of Japan such as the Nikko Toshogu (a shrine registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site), and are also often applied to the traditional craftwork of Kanazawa, such as Japanese lacquer (urushi) utensils, family Buddhist altars and fittings, and textiles and Kutani ware. Today Kanazawa gold leaves burnishes many modern crafts and is widely used for interior goods, fashion items, and other miscellaneous goods to bring a touch of golden brightness to our daily life.
From the historical perspective, it was difficult to engage in leaf manufacturing as an occupation because of restrictions imposed by the shogunate (Japanese military government) in some periods. Even so, it is said to be the climate of Kanazawa with much rain and snow, and fine quality water are the ideal for working on the gold leaf. Those climate factors in Kanazawa possibly stretch the gold leaf well and deliver a lustrous finish to the gold leaf.


Kanazawa gold leaves - History Photo: Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

The origin of the metal leaf production industry is believed to have been established in the early Heian period (794-1185) when the Ninomaru palace of Kanazawa castle was burnt down in 1808. It required a large amount of gold leaves to reconstruct the palace, however the shogunate at this time treated only the Edo gold leaves and other metal leaf production was prohibited. Therefore it is said that other than the Edo metal leaves production, other domains such as Kaga domain processed their production behind in secret. Because of the strict prohibition, the metal leaf production was secretly carried by saying that it is to repair the gold or silver goods bought in Edo (ancient name of Tokyo) or Kyoto or it is to produce the copper foil or brass foil. The gold leaf business was finally and officially permitted in 1845 which is over 30 years after the Takezawa palace was built in Kenrokuen garden (a famous Japanese traditional garden located in Kanazawa) by gold leaf craftsmen from Kanazawa in 1819.
Then Kanazawa gold leaves had massive progress within the repeal of prohibition but there was a limited production only for the domain's personal use in 1864.
Finally it became possible to send the Kanazawa gold leaves to markets all over Japan in the Meiji period (1868-1912) as the Edo gold leaves had closed were no longer actively producing.
During World War I, Kanazawa gold leaves started to adopt the machinery production in order to meet the demands of the gold leaves from all over the world. It had a devastating effect on the metal leaf industry during World War II by limited metal usage. However, the production was restored and expanded its product purpose range postwar.

General Production Process

Kanazawa gold leaves - General Production Process Photo:Kanazawa city

  1. 1. Gold alloy Gold leaf is not simply made by directly beating and extending the pure gold metal.
    First of all, a mixture of pure gold with a minute quantity of silver and copper is made. The gold and/or silver are placed in a hearth bowl and heated to about 1,300ºC and stirred with a carbon rod. Then, the resulting alloy is poured into a metal crucible to cool.
  2. 2. Expanding the gold alloy The gold alloy is expanded to a beltlike form known as nobe, which is cut with a cutting tool called daikiri into small square pieces with sides of about 6cm.
    This gold alloy is called nobe kin.
  3. 3. Preparation with paper There are five steps to take a nobe kin through the final intermediate gold sheet.
    First, thenobe kin is placed on a special 12.6 ㎠ big paper called zumi uchi which is made from Japanese traditional paper (washi). There will be about 200 papers to be stacked up.
    Then about 30 papers called furuya paper are placed above and covered by a leather bag and tightly fastened with breast leather.
  4. 4. Beating the nobe kin The basic principle is to beat a thin nobe kin until it becomes the size of a zumi uchi paper. At each beating the size of the paper gets bigger, starting from 12.6㎠ to 16.8㎠. A stack of about 200 aragane papers are inserted between furuya paper as in the previous step.
    Then, the nobe kin is beaten and extended to the full size of the paper, and cut into quarters, which are about 6cm on all sides. The 6cm on all sides nobe kin is transferred and beaten on the paper with 18.3cm on all sides.
    The nobe kin is then further transferred onto the paper with 21.6cm on all sides paper called oju and beaten into size before trimming with scissors.
    After all, the nobe kin is transferred onto another kind of zumi uchi paper called agari, and further beaten to process the nobe kin to uchi agari zumi sheets.
  5. 5. Cutting to size About 30 sheets of uchi agari zumi are piled up and folded using a 20.1㎠ pattern, and cut along the folds with a tailor's knife. The cut sheet is the final intermediate gold metal named shiagari uwa zumi, which is also sometimes called uwa zumi or zumi. They are folded into three, packed in a zumi box and delivered to the leaf makers.
    All of the processes reviewed until now are made by the artisans and then the leaf makers take over.
    The final intermediate gold metal is folded in three and packed in a zumi box to send to the leaf makers.
  6. 6. Inspecting the paper True gold leaf is made by further beating work on the shiagari uwa zumi sheets.
    The quality of the specially processed leaf beating paper is important as it affects the spread of the gold and the luster on the final product.
  7. 7. Insertion into the beating paper In this process, the shiagari uwa zumi measuring about 3/1,000 mm is finished to a leaf as thin as about 1/10,000 or 2/10,000 mm. A 21㎠ shiagari uwa zumi is cut into 11 or 12 small pieces called koma by cut chopsticks. The piecse are inserted between stacked paper sheets and left temporarily before being transferred to beating paper.

  8. 8. Beating Koma sheets are piled up and megami paper (literally meaning "female paper") are added to the top and bottom of the stack.
    The white covers called shiro buta are added to the top and bottom, and supporting leather is applied and tightened by winding followed by pasting.
    Then the whole top and bottom of the stack are covered by bag leather and held firmly by pasted breast leather.
    The whole stack is then mechanically beaten at a constant 700 strokes per minute ensuring rapid finishing and uniform product quality.
  9. 9. Transferring and grading The leaf extended by machine is transferred and beaten to the size of the main paper. The finished leaf is then transferred to a stack of 100 beaten papers called hiromono book for the final assessment. Its quality is graded and it is temporarily stored in the hiromono box until the gold leaf is cut to size during the grading the quality of gold leafs.
  10. 10. Transfer of leaves The leaves kept in the hiromono book are cut to one of four prescribed sizes, namely 10.9 ㎠, 12.7 ㎠, 15.8 ㎠, and 21.2 ㎠. A cutting frame is used to cut a gold leaf sat on leather board while shifting up and down. The trimmed gold leaves are placed onto the special Japanese paper (washi) called kiri gami, which literally means "cut paper".

Where to Buy & More Information

Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum

Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

See more Industrial art materials and tools

See items made in Ishikawa