Tendo Japanese chess pieces Tendo shogi koma
Beautiful wood grain and glossy black lacquer
The expression of the Japanese sense of beauty
What is Tendo Japanese chess pieces ?
Tendo Shogi Koma are Japanese chess pieces made in the cities of Tendo, Yamagata and Murayama in Yamagata Prefecture. In Tendo, production is thought to have begun in the Edo period, and today makes up almost all of the national output.
It features a glossy black color and lively kanji characters with urushi lacquer. The traditional form of Tendo Shogi Koma is kakigoma, with cursive style kanji characters written directly on a wood surface with urushi. Writing kanji in the square style began after World War II and approximately 150 or so calligraphic styles are in use today. Besides the traditional kakigoma which now have quite limited production today, engraved styles have become increasingly popular; two worth mentioning are horigoma representing kanji characters by engraving and lacquering, and moriagegoma representing kanji with additional urushi to slightly raise the character above the surface.
The wide variety of natural wood types and their beautiful grains contribute greatly to the fascination of Tendo Shogi Koma. Magnolia, hakusanbou, boxtree, and painted maple are all important raw materials; the finest being boxtree from Mikurajima Island of Izu Seven Islands. The beauty of the grain is reflected in the product price with full sets of 40 shogi pieces with matching grain and colors fetching especially high figures.
Shogi is a Japanese board game resembling chess thought to have originated in India, and imported to Japan in the Nara period. Scholars believe that shogi piece production came to the fore at the end of Azuchi Momoyama period with the establishment of the kakigoma style using black lacquer.
Shogi pieces began to be made in Tendo in the late Edo period, when shogi was already popular among the general populace. At the time the Tendo Oda domain suffered from financial difficulties and to restore the economy, local people learned shogi piece making from the Yonezawa domain, and established the current Tendo tradition of kakigoma with the cursive style kanji. When shogi piece making in Tendo became a full-fledged industry, former samurai became woodworkers or kanji character artisans and cooperated to build up Tendo Shogi Koma production. In a short space of time, Tendo became famous nationwide as a mass production area of shogi pieces. The Taisho era saw the introduction of mechanization and shogi piece production grew so much that even children helped in writing characters on pieces. Oshigoma (shogi pieces with stamped kanji characters) were introduced in the early Showa era, and accordingly Tendo overtook Osaka to gain the lion’s share of the market. However, the production of oshigoma and kakigoma peaked in 1955 and then declined as horigoma became the more popular style. From around 1965, research and development of exclusive products such as horiumegoma and moriagegoma began. The following four variations of Tendo Shogi Koma were designated as National Traditional Crafts in 1996: kakigoma, horigoma, horiumegoma, and moriagegoma.
General Production Process
- 1. Woodworking (from drying to Oowari, or rough cutting)
Specially selected logs are thoroughly dried for some years to prevent any later cracking or distortion. The log is sliced into rounds at about the thickness of a shogi piece. This process is known as tamakiri, followed by oowari, roughly cutting the wood slices with the grain. Among such woods as boxtree and maple, it is boxwood that is considered to be the best, as it has a beautiful grain, and moderate hardness, as well as strength to take years of use. Especially revered and used for top quality pieces are Japanese boxtree from Mikurajima Island near Tokyo and Satsuma in Kagoshima Prefecture.
- 2. Woodworking (from aragiri, or rough cutting, to kowari, or cutting into small pieces)
A small hatchet or komagirinata is used to shave the wood and cut it into small pieces, before whittling both sides down to the width of shogi pieces. The underside is flattened, and then the top shaved to make the mountain shape unique to shogi pieces. The next process, kowari, is to cut wood to make several shogi pieces of the right width; at this point the 40 shogi pieces with a similar grain are picked out and cut into a pentagonal shape. Since the beauty of the grain is fairly important, the pieces must be selected and matched by eye.
- 3. Jiboshihari (pasting original calligraphy), Carving, Medome (groundwork for lacquering)
Jiboshihari is a process to paste paper with a written kanji character onto each shogi piece. After pasting, the shogi piece is fixed onto a komaboridai table ready to engrave the characters with a knife. Highly-skilled engravers use another technique called sukashibori, which is to directly carve wood without pasting any paper. In the medome process, a coat of natural glue called nikawa or persimmon tannin is applied to the engraved characters; in recent years this is substituted with a form of glue.
- 4. Lacquering, Horning, Setobiki (polishing with porcelain)
Shogi pieces with their engraved characters coated with urushi are known as horigoma. There are both hand-carved and machine-carved products. Horiumegoma is made by repeatedly painting the engraved characters with rust lacquer and allowing each layer to dry; this can take almost a month until the lacquer reaches the level of the wood. In the next process, the surface of a shogi piece is intensively polished; the last process of horiumegoma is setobiki, polishing the surface with a piece of porcelain.
- 5. Moriagegoma (piece with raised urushi characters)
Moriagegoma is a piece with raised characters. After horiumegoma is completed, each kanji character’s surface is raised by adding several layers of urushi with a brush. Since it is impossible to apply a thick coat of urushi at one time, repeated lacquering and drying are required. Moriagegoma is a highly exclusive product and even used in professional shogi games. Only the very best artisans can apply urushi evenly and three-dimensionally.
- 6. Kakigoma Kakigoma is a shogi piece with kanji characters directly written in black lacquer on a wood surface. It sounds easy, but writing with sticky lacquer on such a tiny piece requires a very high degree of skill. Master artisans with decades of experience make it look deceptively simple, taking only a few flicks of the brush to produce beautiful and much admired calligraphy in a matter of moments. There are two kinds of calligraphy; the square style, and the cursive style which is the most traditional design in Tendo.
Where to Buy & More Information
Tendo Shogi Shiryokan
ClosedWednesdays (open if it is a holiday and closed the next day), around the New Year
Business Hours9am to 6pm
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