Wakasa agate craft Wakasa meno zaiku
One of the roots of Japanese craftsmanship
As vivid and red as a blazing fire
What is Wakasa agate craft ?
Wakasa agate craft (Wakasa meno zaiku in Japanese) is the agate craftwork produced around the city of Obama, 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 Longer Sukhavativyuha sutra (one of the two Indian Mahayana sutras). Wakasa agate craft has not only a religious and historical significance, but it is also known as the origin of gemstone crafts in Japan.
Wakasa agate craft is distinguished by its translucent flame-bright red color. The secret of the hue comes from a distinctive heating process using iron. The distinctive heating brings out an attractive deep brownish red color to the work pieces that refines the feature of Wakasa agate craft. Therefore, the product range is not limited only to daily utensils but has a wide range of product and ornaments, which are often given as gifts, such as roosters and carp.
The origin of Wakasa agate craft dateｓ back more than 280 years ago. Sometime between 1716 and 1735, Kichibei TAKAYAMA returned to his hometown in Wakasa after completing his apprenticeship in an optician's store in Naniwa (ancient name of Osaka). Based on the skills he had gained, he started making agate beads, which is considered to be the beginning of the craft. However the simple beads making was not as evolved as the current form of intricate work pieces we know today until the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Heisuke NAKAGAWA, a Wakasa agate craft artisan had ambitions to innovate the simple beads craft into an enriched craft. His effort to enhance the craft made the current form of engraved craft such as the carps and roosters. Then the artisan skills developed to the point where their works were viewed as works of aesthetic value and were exhibited across Japan as well as overseas. In 1976, Wakasa agate craft was registered as a Japanese Traditional Craft.
General Production Process
- 1. Rough quarts
Wakasa agate craft is made of agate rocks. Around the Meiji period (1868-1912), agates from Hokkaido were used as raw material when the agate craft was starting to develop.
However, agate from Brazil is often used nowadays due to the exhaustion of natural resources.
- 2. Inspection
Only the suitable quality agates are used for agate craft, which requires careful sorting and inspection.
The form of the craft will be decided depending on the patterns and colors of the rough agate rocks. Basically, solid agate rocks will be carved, and hollow agates cut and turned into ornaments.
- 3. Rough cutting According to the design of a piece, the rock is roughly cut down to size with a special bow type cutting machine. As the machine plate does not have a blade, the artisan has to ensure a constant supply of slurry made of ground sand and water during the cutting.
- 4. Oxidizing The rough piece is left outside until it has naturally oxidized, which helps to bring out the vivid red color when heated.
- 5. Heating
Heating is a distinctive process of Wakasa agate craft.
The piece is placed in ashes and heated with charcoal, which is repeatedly processed to bring out the natural reddish color. Heating is a highly-skilled task, as overheating may shatter the stone, or an insufficient temperature heating will cause low or no degree of translucence to the piece.
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 is cut to shape in preparation for carving.
- 7. Chipping
A nail like tool called tetsuya is tapped by a small mallet to shape the piece.
The piece is often supported on the artisan's knee during this shaping process.
- 8. Shaping
After the chipping, any detailed parts are to be 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
For the final process, mud-polishing with fine ground sand, followed by applying polishing powder are carried out to give a very smooth shiny surface, which enhances the beauty of the agate.
Polishing may sound simple, but it may take one month or more for intricate agate pieces such as ornaments. It requires the artisan's full attention and such careful polishing is indispensable to give the great depth and translucent hue distinctive to Wakasa agate craft.
Where to Buy & More Information
Fukui Ceramics Center
ClosedAround the New Year
Business Hours9am to 5pm