Master Metalworkers Guided by the Ancient Spirit of Japan

Kisendo tea kettles and incense burners embody the heritage and beauty of Japan.

An artisan works on a Kisendo tea kettle. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
An artisan works on a Kisendo tea kettle. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

A common theme in many facets of Japanese culture is the quest for perfection. Early 20th-century Okinawan author and karate master Shoshin Nagamine wrote, “Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a lifelong marathon, which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one’s own creative efforts.”

This path of self-improvement towards perfection flows through the heart and hands of the Japanese, from archers to artisans to tea-ceremony masters.

“By machine, you can’t really express the fine artistic lines and details — [our craftsmanship] just needs to be done by hand,” says Susumu Yotsukawa, co-owner and creative director of Kisendo. His teapots and incense burners are revered by Asia’s elite. He says if Kisendo were to rely on machines, the products would be only halfway satisfactory. “To make the piece into a fine work of art, [you need] the hands and eyes of artisans.”

Perfection is sought every step of the way, as each piece passes through the hands of five master artisans. The perfect product is a reflection of each artisan’s precise, careful creative journey.

“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,” Yotsukawa says. “So the artisans will make sure that their work is absolutely perfect.”

While the pursuit of perfection is quintessentially Japanese, so too is wabi-sabi, a seemingly paradoxical philosophy. Yotsukawa describes wabi-sabi as “aesthetic imperfection,” a concept crystallized 250 years ago, in the Edo era, by a tea master named Sen no Rikyu.

“This is something very specific to Japanese,” Yotsukawa says. “We feel something that is one step before it’s finished state is the most beautiful.”

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photos courtesy of Kisendo)

On the surface, it would seem an imperfect design aesthetic is antithetical to the aim for artisanal perfection. But this paradox is part of the profound beauty of Kisendo’s products.

At the heart of wabi-sabi is Buddhist belief. While you may strive for perfection, it is never attainable. The master artisan’s mind, heart, and skill continually improve, and consequently, the standard for perfection continually rises. Wabi sabi reminds us that while we can experience divinity in art — a glimpse of heaven — we are not quite there yet. We’re still on the path to paradise.

Living legacy

Long before Yotsukawa’s grandfather founded Kisendo’s parent company (called Yotsukawa Seisakujo) in 1945, the city of Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture had forged its own ironclad legacy.

In 1609, Maeda Toshinaga built a castle in a sparsely populated region called Sekino. He gathered settlers and named his new town Takaoka after a verse in the religious poem Shihen. Toshinaga then brought seven master casters to town, and the city’s long heritage of exemplary metalworking began. Four centuries later, it’s recognized as a Japan Heritage site, a symbol of national pride and artisanal excellence.

A portrait of Maeda Toshinaga (1562–1614). (Public domain)
A portrait of Maeda Toshinaga (1562–1614). (Public domain)

Today in Takaoka, the elite artisans work independently for different brands, including Yotsukawa’s company.

“[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, Kisendo blends casting techniques. It uses lost-wax casting, an ancient technique still used in the United States, for example, to create airplane propellers and precise machine parts. Kisendo also draws on the ancient ornate detailing techniques that have made Takaoka famous.

Yotsukawa explains that Kisendo’s tea kettles and incense burners are exceptional not simply because of expertise in the latter steps of casting and polishing. Kisendo spends five times more effort and work than most metalworkers in the beginning phases crafting the original design and mould.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
An artisan works on a wax mould, one of the steps in producing Kisendo’s kettles and incense burners. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photos courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photos courtesy of Kisendo)

“That final product has more detail, precise fine lines… very, very natural curves or precise patterns. That’s what our father did,” Yotsukawa says. “That’s why our products are very famous for their high quality.” With all of the work that goes into making each mould, it is only good for producing a single kettle or incense burner.

Kisendo products’ beauty, craftsmanship, and spirit have attracted many of Asia’s wealthiest people, including the Japanese imperial family. Five years ago, staying true to Yotsukawa’s grandfather’s original vision, the family chose the name Kisendo for its high-end line. Ki means joy or happiness, sen means fountain, and do is house.

“[My] grandfather founded the business to make a product to bring happiness or joy to people’s life,” Yotsukawa says. The brand’s meaning — “The house of the fountain of joy” — fits perfectly with his grandfather’s wish.

Realities of existence

Canadian author Richard R. Powell describes wabi-sabi as stemming from “three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Yotsukawa explains this first reality, the concept of impermanence, using the example of the gigantic tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

“It just wiped out everything that people were working on so hard,” he says. “That gave Japanese [the understanding] that nothing stays the same. Nothing is still; everything has to change.”

Although this is humbling, it also inspires growth and courage to change, as well as an appreciation for art that captures this transitory nature.

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 an aged appearance, almost like an ancient artifact, or they can make a kettle look like a rock.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

“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.”

Kisendo kettles transcend time, eras; they bridge the old and the new. They’re not simply aged and earthy, they perfectly blend this ancient aesthetic with a touch of modernity.

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 and earthy. 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.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

“This is the fine balance [of two things] that actually stand far away from each other [but] coexist and make a harmony… something with a very ancient look and something rather new to be present in one piece,” Yotsukawa says.

Maiden voyage

In Asian thought, the natural world is expansive and extends far beyond the boundaries of our small planet, our temporary home.

“Everything is interconnected. It goes as a loop; it never ends,” Yotsukawa says. “We would like to express that with our pieces.”

A Kisendo incense burner called Tamagatakujaku koro fits that mould with its rich symbolism. Yotsukawa’s father worked with another artist to design it, and Japan’s imperial family bought it.

Tamagatakujaku koro. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
Tamagatakujaku koro. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

One of its notable qualities is that it is round, a distinct shape for an incense burner. “A sphere, there is no end to it,” Yotsukawa says. It is symbolic of the cosmos or the cycle of life, reincarnation.

The orb is adorned by many significant oriental flowers, such as the orchid, a flower representing scholarly pursuit, nobility, integrity, and friendship. Confucius likened an orchid to a man of honour.

Tamagatakujaku koro is also covered with lilies, a flower often given to a woman on her wedding day to attract a long-lasting, fruitful marriage. Kisendo again emphasizes that dichotomous beauty of opposites, a harmony of masculine and feminine.

Holding the sphere are three Chinese lions, known as guardians in Asian culture. 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.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

Perched on the sides are two phoenixes, divine birds that represent “endless longevity or endless prosperity, because the phoenix is the bird that never dies,” says Yotsukawa.

On top, stands a regal peacock, symbolizing wealth and longevity.

“We take the design motif from nature and also focus on the legendary design from ancient Chinese culture,” he says. “That makes a universe of something natural and also very divine.”

The incense burner takes three months to craft and sells for $2,000–$15,000, depending on whether it’s made of bronze or sterling silver.

Along with other tea kettles and incense burners, Yotsukawa is excited to showcase the Tamagatakujaku koro for the first time in North America at the Luxury Home & Design Show, hosted by our sister media, Taste of Life, June 21–24 in Vancouver.

“It is like a cosmos that is held by lions and also supported by phoenixes and the peacock,” he says. “The traditional values of what we care about in Oriental culture are all in one piece.”

To take a closer look at the process of making Kisendo kettles and incense burners, read How It’s Made: Art Forged By Traditional Japanese Metalworkers