Wakasa agate craft Wakasa meno zaiku
Appreciated from ancient times as one of the seven treasures
As vivid and red as a blazing fire
Wakasa Meno Zaiku are agate craftwork produced in the Obama City area, Fukui Prefecture. The Japanese word meno has two meanings; one refers to the sublime Buddhist paradise, and the other is the stone agate, which has been appreciated from olden times as one of the seven treasures mentioned in the Book of Constant Life, a Buddhist scripture. Wakasa Meno Zaiku not only have both religious and historical significance, but are also known as the roots of gemstone crafts in Japan.
They are distinguished by their translucent flame-bright red color. The secret of their hue is a heating process distinctive to Wakasa Meno Zaiku, which makes use of iron present in the agate. After heating, the agate turns to a deep and attractive brownish red unique to Wakasa Meno Zaiku. Today, the range of hand-crafted articles includes not only such everyday items as bowls or chopstick rests, but also carved ornaments often given as gifts, such as roosters and carp.
The origins of Wakasa Meno Zaiku date back more than 280 years or so. Sometime between 1716 and 1735, Takayama Kichibei returned to his hometown in Wakasa after completing his apprenticeship in an optician’s store in Naniwa (present-day Osaka). Based on the skills he learned, he started making agate beads, and this is considered to be the beginning of the craft, but it was not until the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912) that the craft evolved from making simple beads to the more intricate carved works of today.
Nakagawa Heisuke, a Wakasa Meno Zaiku artisan had ambitions to move the craft onto carving animals, such as the current style of carp or roosters. Artisan skills developed to the point where their work came to be viewed as works of art, and were exhibited across Japan and overseas. In 1976, Wakasa Meno Zaiku was designated as a Japanese traditional craft.
General Production Process
- 1. Rocks
Wakasa Meno Zaiku are made from agate rocks. Around the Meiji period, when the craft started developing, agate from Hokkaido was used, but due to the exhaustion of sources, agate from Brazil is often used nowadays.
- 2. Inspection
After careful sorting and inspection, according to the piece to be produced, good quality agate rocks with attractive colors, patterning and shading are selected; basically, solid agate rocks will be carved, and hollow agates cut and turned into ornaments.
- 3. Rough Cutting
According to the design of the piece to be made, the rock is roughly cut to size with a special bow-type cutting machine. As the machine plate does not have a blade, during cutting the artisan has to ensure a constant supply of slurry made of ground sand and water.
- 4. Leaving Outside
The rough piece is left outdoors until it has naturally oxidized, which helps bring out the vivid red color when heated.
- 5. Heating
Heating is a distinctive process of Wakasa Meno Zaiku. The piece is placed in ashes and heated with charcoal; this process is repeated to bring out the natural reddish color. Heating is a highly-skilled task, as overheating may shatter the stone, or if the temperature is too cool it will fail to become translucent. Today, it is also common to heat pieces at about 300ºC in an electric oven for several days.
- 6. Cutting
After heating, the design outline is drawn on the piece in graphite and the piece cut to shape in preparation for carving.
- 7. Chipping
The piece, often supported on the artisan’s knee, is fully shaped by chipping with a nail-shaped tool and a small mallet.
- 8. Shaping
After chipping, any detailed parts are shaped. In this stage, progressively finer grades of sand are used to give a rough, semi-finish, and finally smooth-finish to the piece.
- 9. Polishing
In the final stage, mud-polishing with fine ground sand, followed by applying polishing powder are carried out to give a very smooth shiny surface and enhance the beauty of the agate. Polishing may sound simple, but for intricate agate pieces such as ornaments, it may take one month or more, confirming it is an essential part of the production process. It requires the artisan’s full attention, but such careful polishing is indispensable to giving the great depth and translucent hue distinctive to Wakasa Meno Zaiku.
Where to Buy & More Information
Fukui Ceramics Center
ClosedYear end and new year holidays