Odate wood carvings Odate mage wappa
A harmony of lightness and beauty crafted from cedars
Magemono, a living fusion of the warmth of wood and skilled hands
Odate Mage-wappa are magemono (bentwood work) produced all over Odate City, Akita Prefecture. They are traditional crafts very representative of Japan, and well-known both at home and abroad for their beautiful curved shapes and their light weight; the distinctive tight grain of Akita cedars gives even the simplest shape an elegant finish. The key features of Odate Mage-wappa are the beautiful grain of natural Akita cedars, and if cooked rice is kept in a Mage-wappa lunch box or rice tub, the cedar wood gently absorbs moisture, making for great textured and delicious tasting rice.
Since Mage-wappa is made of natural wood, careful handling is required in daily use, but with proper maintenance, each item will last for many years. To avoid scratching, Mage-wappa must only be gently washed with lukewarm water; very hot water, cleansers, or scouring brushes will all damage the surface. After washing, wipe with a soft and dry cloth straightaway; it is recommended to store in a well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight. In addition to lunch boxes, a versatile range of products has been developed including trays and coffee cups. Nowadays Mage-wappa are popular across the generations, especially by those people appreciating handmade articles of the highest quality.
The origin of Mage-wappa dates back to the Nara period (710 - 794), when it is thought woodsmen made magemono containers from cedar wood. Excavations into Heian period sites have revealed containers likely to be Mage-wappa.
In 1600, after their defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara, the family of Satake Yoshinobu, supporters of the Toyotomi clan, were relocated to Akita from Mito by the Tokugawa Shogunate. In those days, in the Odate Castle area, the people were extremely poor and barely able to feed themselves, and to help end such poverty, Satake Nishiie, the lord of Odate Castle, thought to make good use of the abundant Akita cedars growing in his domain by encouraging the production of Mage-wappa. He ordered the farmers to deliver timber from the mountains to the castle town as an alternative to the usual rice paid as a land tax, and lower-ranking samurai were ordered to produce Mage-wappa as a sideline. Finished products were sold and distributed throughout the Kanto, Sakata, and Niigata regions.
Akita cedar is peeled into thin strips and softened by steeping in hot water, before bending to shape and stitching with wild cherry bark; the same techniques as first used in the original Mage-wappa production have been passed down through generations of craftsmen. In modern times, lunch boxes made of heat-resistant aluminum or steel, or low-priced plastic have appeared on the market, bringing about a reduction of Mage-wappa production. However, the anti-bacterial properties of natural Akita cedar have been drawing attention again and because of the present-day awareness of food hygiene and safety, Odate Mage-wappa are increasingly appreciated and loved by people who want authentic traditional articles or in those homes who prefer natural healthy articles for children to use.
General Production Process
- 1. Logging and Selection
Mage-wappa are made from very old Akita cedar trees specially selected for their quality, and after felling logs are well seasoned for several years. Being made of natural materials, every article is unique and the ability to read each log and planing to size are important skills of the Mage-wappa artisan. After a log is quartered, thin planks are cut along the straight grain, and then planed into thinner strips after determining the thickness and length suited for the item, and according to its diameter and the strip thickness, both ends, which will be joined after bending, are planed off obliquely.
- 2. Boiling
The wood is soaked in cold water overnight, followed by about 15 minutes of immersion in boiling water before shaping. To make it easier to bend the wood after its several years of drying, temperature control of the water is essential; after a thorough warming and softening the wood is ready for curving.
- 3. Bending
The distinctive curves of Mage-wappa are created by rolling the warmed and now-pliable wood around a round hard form. Or in another type of bending, the cedar material is placed into a goro form, and rolled to round off before wrapping around a product mold.
- 4. Drying, Gluing, Cherry Bark Stitching
Once the shape is formed, the strip is held with wooden clamps, and dried for about 2 days and nights before carving the joint ends to shape. Glue is applied to the joint ends, which are then clamped for a further 3 hours or so to complete the gluing. Using tanned wild cherry bark the joint ends are stitched and sanded to give a smooth surface finish. The process of stitching with the wild cherry bark is a key point and an opportunity for the maker to display their individuality.
- 5. Fitting the Base, Assembling, and Finishing Fitting the base section is the final stage of making Mage-wappa and requires much patience and skill. On the inside of the item a groove is cut with a knife and after a final checking and fine adjustments, a thin layer of glue is applied and the base is inserted. Excess glue is carefully wiped away and the finished piece set aside to dry. For plain Mage-wappa production is now complete. Some Mage-wappa receive a coating of persimmon tannin before the application of urushi to give a shibaki lacquered finish.
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