An Inside Look at the Making of Traditional Japanese Tea Kettles
Each of Kisendo’s tea kettles and incense burners is handmade over the course of months by at least five master artisans in Takaoka, Japan. The house uses techniques that are thousands of years old. Its designs of Japanese tea kettles are rooted in an ancient Japanese principle that cherishes the “aesthetic imperfection” of nature, known as wabi-sabi.
These masters spend decades perfecting their skills, to ensure that their parts in creating the final product is flawless.
“When you hand your work to the next artisan, if your work is not complete or is not perfect, then it will affect the person who will work on the product after you,” says Susumu Yotsukawa, a third-generation owner of Kisendo. “So the artisans will make sure that their work is absolutely perfect.”
“By machine, you can’t really express the fine artistic lines and details. [Our craftsmanship] just needs to be done by hand,” he says.
A traditional metalworking town
The town of Takaoka was founded in 1609 by the ruler Maeda Toshinaga, who brought seven master metalworkers to the site with the intention of making it a place for this art to thrive. The city thus forged its ironclad legacy long before Yotsukawa’s grandfather founded Kisendo’s parent company (called Yotsukawa Seisakujo) in 1945.
Takaoka was a sparsely populated region called Sekino when Toshinaga built a castle there in the 17th century and gathered its artisan settlers. Four centuries later, it’s recognized as a Japan Heritage site, a symbol of national pride and artisanal excellence.
Today in Takaoka, the elite artisans work independently for different brands, including Kisendo. “[Kisendo is] like a conductor for the orchestra,” says Yotsukawa. “We know who to work with to bring about the best quality item.” Yotsukawa and his team specialize in design and product development, and the master artisans of Takaoka bring the vision to life.
To create its products, which can cost up to $50,000, Yotsukawa says Kisendo uses Takaoka’s most refined techniques for casting and polishing. It also puts in about five times more effort and work than most metalworkers in the beginning phases, in crafting the original design.
A royal gift
Kisendo’s craftsmanship has drawn to it some of Asia’s wealthiest and most discerning customers. Japan’s imperial family has commissioned Kisendo to create gifts to give its guests. One incense burner Kisendo designed for the imperial family is called Tamagatakujaku Koro.
“It is a sphere; there is no end to it,” Yotsukawa says of the design. Tamagatakujaku Koro is symbolic of the cosmos or the cycle of life, reincarnation. It is adorned with many significant Oriental flowers, including the orchid, a flower representing scholarly pursuit, nobility, integrity, and friendship. Confucius likened the orchid to a man of honour.
Holding the sphere are three Chinese lions, known in Asian culture as guardians. They’re the “guardians of a house with everything that you love,” Yotsukawa says. In this design, they act as guardians for the precious philosophies and virtues represented by the other motifs.
“We take the design motif from nature and also focus on the legendary design from ancient Chinese culture,” he says. “The traditional values of what we care about in Oriental culture are all in one piece.”
The Yotsukawa family ideals
The philosophies that form Kisendo’s aesthetic and heart are as important to the company as the fine physical details of its art.
“[My] grandfather founded the business to make a product to bring happiness or joy to people’s life,” Yotsukawa says. Five years ago, the family chose the name Kisendo for its high-end line. Ki means joy or happiness, sen means fountain, and do is house. The brand’s meaning — “The house of the fountain of joy” — fits perfectly with his grandfather’s wish.
Kisendo’s work is rooted in Buddhism. The concept of wabi-sabi was crystallized 250 years ago, in the Edo period, by a tea master named Sen no Rikyu. At the heart of wabi-sabi is the Buddhist idea that one strives continuously to perfect oneself, but true perfection is only possible in the heavens. Yet there is a great beauty in the striving and in the imperfection and impermanence of nature here on Earth.
The wabi-sabi aesthetic can be seen in a kettle’s unpolished surface, rough edges, or grainy surface created by sand used in casting. The master metalworkers can give the pieces an aged appearance, almost like an ancient artifact, or they can create a finish that looks like a rock.
“We do that intentionally,” he says. “We like to give the kettles the touch and appearance of something there in nature, from the earth or soil. Beauty really is found in nature. A piece of flower, a streamline of a river, the sound from the ocean or an insect is beautiful. Even from a single leaf, we take a line and that will influence the design.”
The pieces are not simply aged and earthy, they perfectly blend an ancient aesthetic with a touch of modernity.
“This is the fine balance [of two things] that actually stand far away from each other [but] coexist and make a harmony,” Yotsukawa says. “Something with a very ancient look and something rather new are present in one piece.”
The kettle’s handle or top may be shiny and polished, or it may have ornate gold leaves painted on its side. Yet the main body of the kettle may appear more rustic. There’s a play between the perfect and imperfect, finished and unfinished — or, returning to the Buddhist perspective that formed them, between heaven and Earth.
How It’s Made
Text by Kristen Meriwether
We peek inside the workshops that form Kisendo’s kettles and incense burners.
First, a kettle or incense burner is designed by sculpting or carving it out of clay or wood. Creating this master model is the most important step in determining the look of the finished product. The master craftsman painstakingly fine-tunes each flower petal, animal, or pattern to ensure they are clear in the final piece.Once the model is complete, it is covered in silicone, which creates the first of several different moulds needed throughout the creation process. Plaster is then spread over the silicone mould and left to dry, so the soft silicone mould is supported by the hard plaster. Both moulds are usually cut down the middle, dividing them into two halves. But in very complex designs, they are sometimes broken down further into several pieces.
Next, liquid wax is poured inside the moulds. After the wax hardens, it is removed, producing a copy of the original model.
An artisan uses a heated precision tool to make any needed refinements to the wax copy. Then he attaches long pieces of wax to it, shaped like drinking straws, called spruing.
The wax copy is dipped repeatedly into a fine sandy slurry (something like cement) that is heat-resistant.
This slurry hardens into a shell around the wax copy. The next step gives this ancient technique its name, “lost-wax casting.” The method dates from around 3,000 B.C. and has been used by cultures all over the world. It is used not only by artisans, but also in industry to create propellers and other mechanical parts that require great precision. The sandy shell is fired, which melts the wax (the wax is thus “lost”).
When melted away, the spruing sticking out of the sandy shell provides conduits for the wax to pour out and for molten metal to be poured in. A metalworker then pours in copper or iron that has been heated to 600°F. It hardens as it cools overnight into the shape of the wax model.
The artisans break away the sandy shell with a hammer and cut away the spruing. They then repair the places where the spruing was attached.
A master metal artisan refines the minute patterns with chisels and finishing tools. This requires immense patience, but allows the artisan to highlight his or her skill level. Some ornamental parts, such as tiny animals, people, or objects, are made separately and welded onto the piece. The work of art may then be painted and polished. The paints are created with natural minerals.