Kabazaiku (Cherrybark Craftwork)

Kabazaiku (Cherrybark Craftwork)

Traditional samurai residences and rows of beautiful cherry trees are a common sight in the city of Kakunodate, Akita prefecture, where one can experience the taste of traditional Japan. Here, Kabazaiku (cherry bark craftwork) has been passed on from generation to generation since the 18th century as a traditional craftwork.

While its name is kaba (or birch), birch is not used in the actual product – the bark of mountain cherry is used. In addition to its naturally beautiful patterns, deep colors, glazing and smoothness, a wide variety of everyday items are made in this style because it lends them durability, moisture prevention and cold protection.

One aspect of cherry bark is that it does not allow air to pass through it, making it suitable material for tea storing containers.

Kabazaiku in Kakunodate is said to have started when Fujimura Hikoroku, a retainer of the Satake (samurai) family which ruled the city during the 1780s, brought in the techniques from the Ani area (current Kita Akita city). Since then, it became a side job of low-class samurai who were taught by the Satake family.

There are two types of kabazaiku – “molded” and “wood-based” – both of which require extracting mountain cherry bark, drying, cleaning and making it uniform. When “molding,” the cherry bark gets glued to a mold with an adhesive called nikawa, and the mold is removed after is has dried out. In the “wood-base,” style, the already processed cherry bark (with nikawa) gets attached to the product itself, and is then “coated” with kabazaiku, so to speak, using a small metal trowel that has been heated over a fire. Each piece of cherry bark needs to fit the shape of the product, making it extremely time-consuming to complete the process.

In Kakunodate, this craftwork is said to have originated from the production of such items as Inro (small containers used to carry around medicine and other items), which became well known after they were shown on the popular TV series “Mito-Komon”. Later on, the Meiji restoration changed the lifestyle of samurai, who became required to find new ways to make a living. They thus started to get involved with kabazaiku more seriously, and with a more organized and established system of distribution including wholesale activities, the product’s value gradually increased, it came to be presented at expositions and eventually, it was adopted as a gift for the Imperial family.

By the way, you might think that using the bark of trees is harmful to nature, but the bark of mountain cherry trees has the ability to reproduce itself. The “reproduced” bark is called a “second bark”, and can be used for kabazaiku once again. This one art form is a microcosm of the traditional way of thinking of Japanese people, which in the past was focused on co-existing with nature.

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