Crafts in Japan, revered by these Japanese themselves as much as by the rest of us, have a long history. Only a few of the many photographs in Handmade in Japan, a new book about the people behind those crafts, feature more than one person. That’s because the precision and artistry we associate with Japanese anything, but especially traditional, handmade items, require focus, silence, and a combination of patience and tenacity. In other words: solitude.
Ninety year-old Ichibei Iwano didn’t learn to spot the 0.02 mm difference in the thickness of his washi paper by discussing it in a conference room. Fujiwara Kanefusa didn’t learn to use the color of a burning flame to determine the temperature of the ceremonial swords he smiths by Slacking about it in a group channel. Both gained their expertise by practicing, every day, in quiet rooms, their only conversations with the materials in front of them.
The same goes for Tango Tanimura, a twentieth-generation tea whisk maker in an unbroken line stretching back over 500 years. His ancestors also bore the name Tango; it was bestowed upon the family by the Tokugawa Shogunate to mark its status as its official supplier of chasen, or tea whisks, and it’s been handed down. “It’s important for me to maintain the quality of the craftsmanship that my ancestors achieved,” Tanimura says. He carves each from a single piece of bamboo, flaring it out into two layers of thin tines, before cutting, shaving, and delicately curving each and every one. “The joy of making them is when a customer tells me their whisk lasted a long time, or was easy to use.”
The book is out September 1, but Tokyo-based, Melbourne-born photographer Irwin Wong and his publisher gestalten shared an exclusive peek into Tanimura’s workshop below.
“The heritage of the Tanimura family becomes apparent on a visit to the workshop in Ikoma, Nara Prefecture. The workshop houses old scrolls depicting early designs of tea whisks and directions for carving them, as well as a fascinating collection of old whisks in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.”
He “curves each of the 70 to 120 tines individually, using a wooden blade akin to a letter opener. The process is intended to make it more difficult for matcha powder to stick to the whisk. The resulting tea whisk is beautifully symmetrical, more akin to a flower than the stick that it used to be.”
“Compared to other crafts, relatively few tools and materials are required for making a tea whisk. There are just a few different types of blades, and various types and lengths of bamboo are scattered around the studio. Each length of bamboo is cut down to the middle in eight perfectly even segments. Following this, a series of deft cuts renders those segments into even thinner subparts. This process continues until the tines are about one millimeter thick.”
Photographs by Irwin Wong from Handmade in Japan: The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts (gestalten 2020)
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