Hakone is an area in Japan famous for daytrips to watch Mount Fuji. The Hakone mountain chain has a huge variety of wood and is the only place in Japan producing the famous Japanese wooden mosaic art work, which were officially designated as a traditional craft in 1984 by the Japanese Minister of International Trade and Industry.
‘Yosegi-zaiku’, literally ‘wooden mosaic craft, dates back all the way to the Edo period (1603–1868) and is made with different types, textures and colors of wood to create unique, outstanding patterns.
The Hakone-Odawara area has always had a rich nature with abundant wooden materials. The mountains here are one of the very few places in Japan with such a wide variety of different sorts all together. Most works today are crafted with materials specially selected from “The Hakone Sanctuary”, which holds a high number of perfectly colored trees.
About 200 years ago, craftsman Jinbei Ishikawa developed the present wood mosaic skill, which combined with the prosperity of the Hakone-Odawara area and the residence of several craftsman in the area resulted in a boom of the craft’s industry, especially as local souvenirs. Throughout the Meiji era, wood mosaic craft developed through advanced techniques, a wider variety of patterns and new applied products, especially when in the 1870’s, craftsman from nearby province Shizuoka introduced their local marquetry skills and together combined even more sophisticated designs.
Yosegi mosaic patterns are often applied on wooden boxes, which makes the finalized craft not only beautiful, but also convenient. Furthermore, the beauty not only lies in the different colors and type of wood, but even more so in recognizing the huge amount of dedication it requires for a craftsman to design and craft the highly complex mosaic patterns. A pattern must be well-balanced, firmly put together, not have any scarp or malformed edges, and a beautiful color combination.
Whereas mosaic works are a challenging art by themselves, a selected number of craftsman are able to create ‘Himitsu bako’, secret boxes.
These boxes look like regular wooden boxes without any openings and you cannot even distinguish between top and bottom. However, they actually have a secret compartment which you can only open if you know the right way to swipe different wooden locks. Some boxes can be opened with 4 swipes, but others go up to a masterwork of 75 required moves before the box opens.
There are even variations that include piano strings that create noise when the box is opened, or cigarette holders which make the cigarettes pop out after the right steps are followed.
Traditionally, they were used to keep valuables. Nowadays they make a popular Hakone souvenir, combining beauty, tradition, usefulness and high craftmanship that anyone can appreciate.
A traditional technique called “zuku-tsukuri” is applied to shave ultra-thin sheets of wood to attach to existing wooden boxes. A more modern technique that was developed about 40 years ago, is called “muku-tsukuri” and uses a spinning lathe to grind down the wood.
First, multiple blocks of wood are cut into the same geometric shape. Each block is then sliced to produce individual mosaic pieces. These are assembled into the full mosaic pattern, creating a ‘Tanegi board’. This board requires the most expertise and craftmanship as each individual block must have exactly the same shape and angles, and must be glued perfectly to produce a seamless mosaic pattern. A specialized plane is then used to scrape paper thin slices called ‘Taneita’ from the Tanegi board, each containing the same geometric pattern. Those paper-thin sheets are then decoratively glued to wooden boxes and other products. Newer techniques allow or the Taneita boards to be turned into boxes, or other crafts, directly.
It takes approximately ten years for a craftsman to become proficient in Yosegi. A lot of training, attention to detail, creativity and knowledge is required in order to make beautifully fitted patterns and smooth products without sharp edges.
Once split into sections, the different colors will be glued together to form a geometrical design. The surface is then sliced with a special tool to create thin slices, which are then applied to boxes and other handicraft works. Finally, lacquer coat is applied to add a glaze and sturdiness so it will last for many years.
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