Miyajima wood crafts Miyajima zaiku
Elegant woodwork souvenirs for pilgrims to the Itsukushima shrine
Warm, homely, natural wood with beautiful grain and carvings
What is Miyajima wood crafts ?
Miyajima Zaiku are wooden articles made in Miyajima Town, Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture.
Miyajima Island, one of the Three Great Sights of Japan, has long been regarded as an Island of Gods. More prosaically, Hatsukaichi City is also a collection and distribution center of timber, making it easy to procure quality materials and a good location for a local woodworking industry.
Miyajima Zaiku is distinguished by its careful finishing process in which workpieces are dampened with water to purposely make the wood grain stand out and then polished. The wooden items such as bowls and rice paddles are renowned for their practicality, as any wood fragrance will not transfer to cooked rice, and very few rice grains stick to the wood. The area is proud to be Japan’s largest producer of such wood items.
There three types of Miyajima Zaiku: hikimono (lathe turned items) such as round trays or teacup holders; kurimono (hand-carved from a block) such as square trays; and Miyajima-bori, hand-carving of ornamental designs found on trays, single-leaf screens or pillars, and often including landscapes, flowers and the like. Lacquering is kept to a minimum to bring out the warmth and feel of wood and emphasize the natural beauty of the wood grain.
The first Miyajima Zaiku were made by Seishin, a priest in the late years of the Edo Period (1603-1868). Around 1800, on Miyajima Island, he was inspired to design a rice paddle from the shape of a Japanese lute held by Benzaiten, the Goddess of Eloquence, Music, and Art, much beloved in Miyajima. He then taught the islanders how to make the new rice paddle and they were sold as souvenirs to pilgrims visiting the Itsukushima Shrine. Thanks to their high quality they sold well and soon became very popular; these humble rice paddles revived the local economy and gradually improved the impoverished life of the islanders.
Around 1850, lathe technology came to Miyajima and the woodworking industry further developed with the production of lathe-turned items such as round trays and teacup holders. Moreover, Shosai Hakii, a wood carver from the Koshu region (Yamanashi Prefecture), introduced carving techniques; this led to a great increase in ornamentation and the graphic quality of the work attracted considerable attention and it came to be known as Miyajima-bori.
By 1910, the woodwork techniques developed in Miyajima were so well respected that nearly 300 lathe turners, some drawn from all over the country, had gathered in Miyajima to refine their skills and to learn the advanced lathing techniques.
General Production Process
- Carving (Rice Paddles)
- 1. Preparing the Timber
Timber is sawn to size; a popular local saying is often heard at this stage: “Make sure you’ve got enough.” Encouraging the craftsman to carefully check the type and quality of timber and not to waste any.
Usually mulberry, cypress, Japanese maple, or Japanese cherry birch is used to make rice paddles.
The timber is carefully marked out with a hand saw to ensure the best use of the wood taking into account knots and flaws, and then sawn before rough shaping with an adze.
- 2. Drying The rough paddle is left to dry for one to two years before the start of the final shaping; thorough drying prevents deformation and shrinkage.
- 3. Planing the Face
Firstly, using a convex palm-sized plane, the concave curved face of the paddle is shaved out across the wood grain. Then, the paddle face is scooped out using a spoon bottom plane.
With a purposely blunted knife edge, the entire face is shaved and then smoothed with sandpaper.
・ Planing the Back
The opposite side of the face is first shaved vertically using the convex palm-sized plane to thin the tip of the paddle. This work to shave the back and determine the paddle thickness is the hardest part that really tests the craftsman’s skill. Next, a small plane is used to shave any roughness before carefully smoothing and polishing with sandpaper.
- 4. Shaping the Handle The reverse side of the handle is shaved using a curved bottom plane to give an easy-to-hold shape. The surface of the handle end is shaved with an adze, and chamfered with a small plane to give curved lines and adjust the shape.
- 5. Polishing The entire paddle is polished with sandpaper, and unplaned parts are shaved ready for smoothing. Polishing is meticulously carried out many times.
- 6. Rubbing The rice paddle is finished by applying vegetable oil, which is left for one day before rubbing with a dry cloth.
- Lathe Turning (Hikimono)
- 1. Preparing the Timber
Timber is carefully inspected to select the most appropriate piece for the items to be made. Usually, zelkova, mulberry, wild cherry trees, or koematsu (heavily resined thick trunk pine) is used.
The timber is sawn to size and then naturally dried for two to three months.
- 2. Shaping The shape of the product is drawn on the timber to make the most of any attractive features in the grain and then sawn. Since Miyajima Zaiku is characterized by the effective use of natural wood grain and the minimal application of lacquering, the positioning and shaping of an item is an important task to draw out the wood grain to the best effect.
- 3. Rough Turning
The sawn wood is attached to a lathe for turning.
Using ten different types of circular plane, the work is roughly shaped, and with a single-edged blade, surplus wood is cut away. Then, a flat blade plane is used to adjust, followed by sandpaper to give a good polish.
Fine adjustments such as the lathe rotation speed are the result of years of experience and the craftsman’s feel for the wood.
- 4. Preventing Cracks After rough shaving, if the wood is allowed to dry straightaway, cracks will occur; therefore, an agent to prevent cracks or melted wax is applied on the surface before drying.
- 5. Drying The work is dried naturally for one to three years.
- 6. Semi-Finish Turning
The dried work is attached to a lathe and roughly worked.
Once again an anti-cracking agent is applied and the work is dried naturally. A characteristic of Miyajima Zaiku is the number of years left between each stage as little by little the work slowly comes to completion.
- 7. Final Turning More than ten types of plane are used to shave the work to its final shape.
- 8. Final Polishing The work is carefully filed many times to give a good shape and finish, and sandpaper is used for the final polishing.
Where to Buy & More Information
Miyajima Dento Sangyo Kaikan
ClosedMondays (open if Monday is holiday and closed the next day), December 29 to January 3
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