Yamagata cast iron Yamagata imono
An ideal location from the Heian period
Fine metal castings and time-honored techniques
Yamagata Imono metal castings are produced in Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture. In days gone by, metal fittings, Buddhist statues, and everyday articles were made, and as skills and techniques were developed, iron kettles and chagama (iron pots used in the tea ceremony) were added to the region’s repertoire.
Currently, there are two distinct branches: machinery castings such as agricultural equipment, and machine or auto parts; and craftwork castings including everyday goods, art objects, and craft products. The region has the largest market share of tea ceremony chagama in Japan, and they are highly acclaimed for both their design and production technology. Overall the industry is expanding its market overseas, and in 1974, Yamagata Imono were designated as a Japanese traditional craft.
The key feature of Yamagata Imono is found in the use of centuries old traditional techniques to create items with a thin and fine texture while still maintaining the solid impression of ironware.
A range of techniques contribute to producing such attractive and popular metal ware including unique sand mold making, pattern pressing on a sand mold using a spatula, and surface beating to create fine textures. Tea ceremony chagama and iron pots are made of pure iron, whereas bronze (tin and copper alloy) are also used for other products; along with the ever-evolving technology, the use of other raw materials has also increased, and in recent years, aluminum castings have been added to the range of items produced.
The origins of Yamagata Imono are thought to date back to the late Heian period, about 900 years ago, when the warlord Minamoto no Yoriyoshi was engaged in a military campaign to suppress uprisings in the Yamagata region. In his army retinue were metal casters who found that the sand in the Mamigasaki River flowing through today’s Yamagata city and the soil quality of the surrounding area were ideal for making casting molds. It is known some of these men stayed in the area, and some 180 years or so later historical records state that in the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1336-1392), imono artisans made metal fittings.
It was after entering the Edo period that the industry developed on a full scale. Mogami Yoshiaki, the lord of Yamagata Castle, reorganized the castle town, and to develop commerce and industry, established two manufacturing towns, Kaji (forging) machi and Do (copper) machi on the north of the Mamigasaki River, thus laying the foundations for generations of metal casters. Everyday articles and Buddhist statues were produced to meet the demand for souvenirs from pilgrims visiting Dewa Sanzan (Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa); they became popular nationwide and helped drive the area’s full scale expansion as a production center of castings. In the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), techniques to make large items such as temple bells or garden lanterns were developed. After the Meiji restoration of 1868, casting grew into a modern craft industry producing a variety of products including tea ceremony chagama.
Moreover, from the Taisho period (1912-1926) onward, machine component production was developed and took its place alongside traditional craft casting. In 1973, an industrial complex Imono Town was established in the west of the city, where at present machine casting is mainly conducted.
General Production Process
- 1. Making the Mold
Firstly, an image of the finished item such as an iron kettle is drawn on a sheet of paper, and a full-scale model is then made from wood, resin, or plaster; the accuracy of the model is essential to ensure the quality of the finished piece. Using the wooden model, upper and lower molds are made in a round outer frame. The wooden model is rotated to compress the sand and complete the molds. Sand and clay from Yamagata allow distinctive and delicate texturing on the surface.
- 2. Inscribing Patterns and Making Handle Fittings
A part to put through the kan of the handle is made and embedded in the mold. Next, a spatula-like tool called ezue is used to draw patterns. A design appearing on the surface such as a cube pattern is inscribed on the mold.
- 3. Making Nakago
When an iron kettle is made, to create the hollow inside, a nakago model is formed from sand, left to naturally dry, and fired to harden. Then, the nakago is combined with the outer mold. The kettle sides will be as thick as the space between the two molds.
- 4. Pouring Molten Metal
Red-hot molten metal at about 1,300 to 1,500°C is transferred to a small crucible, from which the metal is poured straightaway into the mold. It is important to ensure no lowering of the metal temperature as this will affect the quality of the finished product; even highly-skilled artisans with years of experience tense up at this point.
- 5. Removing the Mold and Sand
About 10 minutes after the pouring of the metal, the mold is broken with a hammer to take out the kettle. If the kettle temperature is too low, it is difficult to smoothly remove it from the mold; artisans must work quickly before it cools too much. After the kettle has cooled down, it is tapped with a hammer to remove any remaining sand inside or on the surface. The artisan now uses a range of files to smooth and make good any detailed parts.
- 6. Coloring
This is the finishing stage to protect the surface. A special brush is used to evenly apply repeated coats of lacquer while baking over a fire. For colored products, black powder once used to stain teeth black or tea juice is carefully applied to color and complete a piece.
In this way, the techniques and skills handed down through the generations by artisans create distinctive, beautiful, and delicate textures that can only be found in Yamagata Imono.
Where to Buy & More Information
ClosedMonday in April-October(If Monday is holiday, next day, Tuesday is closed.),Sunday in November-March, Public holiday, December.29-January.3