Akita is a prefecture in Northern Japan and the birthplace of various national crafts. Its abundance in beautiful nature has been utilized by various art industries, amongst which Odate bentwood.
Natural Akita cedar is first peeled – either by hand or with a saw mill. The peeled wood is then placed in hot water until it has softened. It is then taken out of the water and wrapped around a special roller, in order to curve. The overlapping part of wood is fastened in order to keep it all together, and the constriction is then left to air dry naturally. Once it has dried up, the overlapping flaps are glued together. The overlapping parts are tied together with beautifully contrasting pieces of Sakura cherry bark. Finally, the lid and bottom are inserted and glued on to finish the product.
This craft is called Mage-wappa, meaning ‘bent wooden product’, and sounding rather funny in Japanese. Wappa, wooden craft made from thin boards of cedar and cypress wood, is popular all over Japan, but the Odate wood specifically is popular for its unique, beautiful grain and great aroma. Also, its flexibility and pattern of tree rings are one of a kind and well-recognized all over the country. In 1980 Mage-wappa got certified as ‘a Traditional Craftwork of Japan’.
Especially the bento lunchboxes are well-known and ever so popular due to their great quality and longevity. The nature of the cedar wood helps to keep stored food fresh, and as most products are not lacquered, the intense aroma is said to enhance the flavor of your food. They furthermore keep bacteria out, and keep your food cool in summer and hot in winter.
1600 marks the start of an important period in Japanese history. The decisive ‘Battle of Sekigahara’ is regarded as the unofficial start of the Tokugawa Shogunate; the last feudal military government in Japan. On the losing side was military commander Satake Yoshinobu, who was forced to move to the most extreme part of the Japanese main island Honshu. There, he was met with poverty and a small society that was hanging on by a thread. The Satake family, living in the Odate castle, tried to find a way to improve the living situation for the people in Odate city and eventually found a solution in the rich supplies of timber in the area. At first, low ranked warriors were ordered to use the cedar tree wood to make simple crafts. As their production increased, instead of paying their annual tribute in rice, the locals were asked to collect more wood from nearby mountain areas. Gradually, the artworks became more complex and the workload increased as they were now selling their produce in cities reaching all the way to Edo (modern day Tokyo).
The cedar timber proofed to be ideal food containers due to their flexibility, heat- and moisture retaining features and antiseptic qualities. The wood is also beautifully colored, lightweight and has a great aroma that enhances any type of food stored in it. Located in cooler areas, the trees grow relatively slowly, creating a wonderful pattern of annual tree rings. The finished products are timeless, simple and undeniably beautiful.
The logging of naturally grown Akita cedar has recently been prohibited for forest preservation.
Therefore, current production of Odate mage-wappa is done with 200-year-old cedar that was stocked before the banning, and 100-year-old cedar that was planted specifically for this craft.
Both produce slightly different crafts, but the quality remains undisputable.
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