Cherry Bark craft work is a unique and delicate Japanese art that originated in the Akita prefecture during the Edo period (1603 – 1868).
Whereas the literal translation is 'birch craftsmanship', birch is never actually used in this art, and it remains a mystery as to how the name got to include it. Instead, the art focuses on the beautiful, durable and versatile Cherry (Sakura) bark, utilizing Japan's unique natural resources.
“Kaba-zaiku is a truly Japanese form of art,
carved out of its national tree, the cherry blossom”.
Kakunodate, sometimes called 'little Kyoto' due to its extensive Samurai history and Sakura, is the only place in the world where these beautiful crafts are made.
There are only five companies left who master the skills that have been transferred from generation to generation.
The art is said to have been created by Fujimura Hikoroku, a retainer of the Satake Samurai family who ruled the city during the 1780's. When the family faced financial difficulties, the Satake Lord decided to stimulate Kabazaiku to generate extra income. And so, low class samurai were trained in order to take it up as a side job.
At first, the items crafted were mostly practical, such as small containers to carry medicine and tobacco. When the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) centralized the power in Japan and forced the end of the Samurai and their way of life, they had no choice but to adjust to the new society. As a result, some took the craftsmanship more serious and decided to make an occupation out of it. With this, the crafts became more complex and expanded to more widely-used objects and decorations. They used the modernized distribution systems to spread the crafts and their fame as a unique product of the Kakunodate area, which is still famous for it today.
There is a lot of work and knowledge involved with the production of Kabazaiku. The bark has to be harvested from 70-80 year old wild trees as the bark from younger and cultivated trees is not tough enough. During spring, scouts go on hiking into the mountains of Northern Japan to locate the wild trees, as during this time they are easier to locate due to the blooming Sakura flowers. The bark is then harvested during the late summer/early autumn after Japan's rainy season, so that the bark is softer and easier to remove.
Kabazaiku products are ecological and do not harm the trees in the long run as only one-third of the bark is cut and the trees have regenerative powers, growing back enough bark for the next harvest. The bark from the Ooyama trees is most commonly used for its superior quality, whereas Kasumi bark has beautiful pattern with parallel running horizontal grains. Procuring enough bark every year is one of the big challenges of the Kabazaiku art.
Due to its airtight and antibacterial nature, kabazaiku crafts in the form of (household) containers have always been popular. Especially tea containers, for which is does not only have the perfect characteristics, but also due to Japan's tea culture.
The production is very labor intensive and requires a lot of experience and artistic insight. There are approximately 10 stages depending on the type of craft, the type of bark and the design.
For an average container the first step is to scrape the bark to create a softer surface and intenser colors. Then, gelatin is used to coat the surface to strengthen it and allow it to maintain its pattern and color. Once it has dried up, Then the cylindrical base is made and bark is glued on the inside.
The 'mouth bark' - part that is visible when the lid is removed from the container - is created. Once this is attached, the lid and body are defined and separated from each other. This has to be done carefully, with a small knife in order not to damage the entire product.
Then, the most tricky part; applying the large piece of bark to the body of the container. This is done with gelatin and some kind of iron, which needs to be exactly the right temperature in order not to leave wrinkles or damage the craft. Highly skilled craftsmen learn to recognize the right temperate by simply dipping the iron in a bucket of water.
Small knots on the design that would otherwise be imperfections, can be turned into the eye catcher of the design when adjusted by a skilled maker.
Finally, it is polished with sandpaper and oil depending on how smooth it needs to become.
This method is especially for cylinder type container, such as tea containers, and is called Katamono. For rectangular items it is called Kijimono, and the technique used to create several layers of high quality polished bark is Tatamimono.