Craft, Art, Design

Takanori Waso
Artist Farmer
Some of the traditional crafts in Japan became established when farmers sought to supplement their income during slack periods of the farming calendar.

Historically a craft kept farmers busy when work outside was difficult.  Nowadays things are not that much different.  Some farmers find it necessary to leave their family and move to Tokyo or one of the other big urban conurbations for a period of time to earn some much needed cash, mainly from building work.

It was, however, not only the farming community which contributed so much to the establishment and continuance of Japan’s traditional crafts.  Social conditions, too, helped to foster crafts.  Essentially speaking peace reigned throughout the feudal period, which was strictly administered by the Tokugawa Shogunate for a little over 250 years up until 1869.  It was during these times that local clan lords put their bands of more or less redundant samurai to work, in some cases by creating a “closed shop”, under which to make items for daily use.  Samurai became “craftsmen” who closely guarded skills and technical secrets and thus protected their own livelihood as well as fostered the well-being of the clan.

Some of the time honoured crafts, however, become so specialised that a strict division of labour took over.  The production of Wajima true lacquerware is a prime example.  The greater proportion of items made under the Wajima banner are produced by perhaps as many as five or six dedicated individuals.  And they only have the one job.  There is no moonlighting or part-time employment.  They are out and out professionals all contributing to the completion of a piece of true lacquerware.  It might be a piece of studio craft or a repeated item of household goods.  In whichever case, each specialist depends on the quality of work of the others involved.  There is mutual admiration amongst them all and individual skills are highly respected.  The aim is to ensure the completion of a perfect piece of work in what is a truly Japanese manner.

Takanori Waso is, however, something of an exception.  Make no mistake—he is a highly skilled makie craftsman/artist but a shiitake mushroom farmer, too.

Makie is one of several decorative techniques employed to embellish true lacquerware.  Designs are rendered in gold and silver powders, gold leaf, chips of precious metals and even in shallow relief.  It is time consuming and painstaking work.  In some ways it is not unlike the work of a miniaturist, who paints a loved-one’s portrait in minute detail for a locket.

Takanori makes one-off items to order or pieces of speculatively work for sale at exhibition.  He needs to be a craftsman and an artist.  Some small commemorative dishes he produced recently bear this out.  They show floats at the Okunchi Festival in Nagasaki, and convincingly demonstrate his painterly touch.  His tea caddies for the powdered tea used at Tea Ceremony, on the other hand, display his ability as a designer and express an intriguing side to his character—one in particular is unusual, ingenious, beautiful and highly individual.

But then, his life style is somewhat out of the ordinary—he is, after all, a farmer too.  Family owned land in the densely forested mountains backing on to his workshop is an ideal location for the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms.  Nowadays they are available in many supermarkets in the UK, although not produced in Japan.

Balancing the needs of the mushrooms with his true lacquer work, makes his life very structured and disciplined—never a bad thing for an artist/designer.

Takanori mostly uses billets of konara—a member of the beech family, Quercus serrata—as well as some chestnut and wild cherry.  The seasoned wood is inoculated with spawn and the bacteria literally feeds off the wood.  Preparation of the billets begins in November.  He usually inoculates 800 billets but next year hopes to have 1,500 ready for treatment in March.  Harvesting begins in December and peeks between January and March.  Drying can take two to three weeks.  Cut shiitake are sun-dried for about three hours and then artificially dried for 24 hours.  The drying is critical as it will determine both the flavour and colour of the finished product.

To produce a good piece of makie work requires patience and dedication.  Growing shiitake is just as demanding.  So, neither can be hurried.  But Takanori is fortunate.  His lacquer work is just as “delicious” as his shiitake mushrooms.

If you would like to know more about the growing of shiitake mushrooms go to http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/growing-shiitake-mushrooms-zmaz86jfzglo.aspx

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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