Mornings start early at the Morimoto Decorative Metal Workshop, located on a narrow, unassuming side street in central Kyoto. The sounds of striking, scraping, and scrubbing blend together to create a symphony unique to those trades that still rely on the skills of craftsmen who use time-honored traditions and the strength of their hands to bring art into the world. Though their metalwork can include things as fundamental as nails or utilitarian as door handles, the work turned out by the nine craftsmen who work here also makes up some of the most famous decorative metalwork in Japan, adorning historical castles, dedicated to the gods of shrines with over a thousand years of history, and shining on temple buildings that have stood the test of time.
Founded in 1877 (Meiji 10) by Morimoto Yasunosuke I, the company has seen four generations of Morimoto Yasunosukes heading the workshop, undertaking work not only for private clients but for the illustrious Imperial Household Agency, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and shrines and temples around the country. Not only repairing and preserving existing metalwork, the workshop also creates new designs and pieces, each one painstakingly assembled by hand. Each craftsman brings his expertise to the work in tandem with other artisans brought in to handle specialized tasks, such as coating the pieces in gold. The end product is never simply one man's work, but the cooperative efforts of many.
The golden phoenixes atop Byōdō-in temple in Uji, the engraved gold plating on Nijō Castle’s Karamon Gate, the decorative gable rafters of the Gion Matsuri festival floats… these are just a few of the precious items that have come through the Morimoto Decorative Metal Workshop. Trusted even with Important Cultural Properties and items from World Heritage Sites, the art these craftsmen practice is itself classified as an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan, a rare skill carefully preserved by a few dedicated practitioners in a rapidly modernizing world. The men themselves come from all sorts of different backgrounds and range in age from 26 to 74, all under the auspices of director Morimoto Yasunosuke IV, who has been involved in his family’s company since he was in the womb. Formally entering as an employee at 28 years old, taking over as head in 2003, in 2010 he changed his name to become the fourth Morimoto Yasunosuke. Like many traditional arts that use the apprenticeship system, the men of this workshop aren’t simply coworkers- they’re family.
In late April, 2016, two projects occupy the craftsmen. Kuga Shrine, an auxiliary shrine of the World Heritage Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto, has requested that Morimoto and his men repair the gold decorations on display at the shrine, from the tiny chrysanthemum drawing pins to the large hanging lanterns. They have been exposed to the elements for about four decades, and the aoi leaf pattern has begun to fade, a blue-green discoloring creeping over the once burnished gold. At the same time Iwashimizu Hachimangū, an important shrine on Mt. Otokoyama founded to protect the ancient capital, has commissioned shiny new gold lanterns for dedication at the main sanctuary, the names of generous patrons carved in openwork on the lantern’s side.
Kuga Shrine’s existing metalwork is carefully removed and each piece catalogued, brought back to the workshop to be rejuvenated. The tarnished gold is carefully scrubbed away with a mix of diluted sulfuric acid, revealing the original copper beneath before it is dried and then taken upstairs to the work room, a tatami mat room where the men work seated on the floor next to low tables, their tools kept close at hand in ate, preserved tree trunks fitted with holes to hold hammers and small anvils.
There, accompanied almost exclusively by the sounds of tools at work, any bends in the metal are straightened out with wooden hammers. Dents that can’t be simply beaten out are smoothed over with a putty to even out the silhouette before the pieces are polished and sent just a few minutes down the street to one Mr. Hiiragi, a kinpakuoshi craftsman who specializes in laying near impossibly thin sheets of gold on metalwork and lacquering them on. Mr. Morimoto relates that he has known Mr. Hiiragi his entire life- his grandfather began work with the other man’s grandfather decades ago, and the business loyalty has continued ever since.
Iwashimizu Hachimangū’s request takes a different approach, for the craftsmen have to make everything from scratch. This time, working with a classic style of hanging lantern, they don’t need to draw up designs and plans. This is something they’ve done numerous times. Paper patterns are taken out, laid against copper and the outline traced with ink so that the sheet metal can be cut, one of the few steps that makes use of machinery. From then it’s back to handiwork contributed by almost all of the nine craftsmen on duty, each working on different steps before passing their work to the next man with the skills to do it best. Using files to shave a more pointed edge to the temporarily flat piece, hammering in curves to the lantern’s crown, assembling small hinges to attach the sides… perhaps the most impressive work can be found in the openwork carving (sukeshibori), line engraving (senbori), and kick engraving (keribori).
There are numerous styles of metalwork, and each has its place depending on the piece. Sukeshibori is done by placing a paper pattern over a piece and using a sharp, saw-like wire to carefully cut out a design, useful for things such as writing “Dedicated on April 22nd, 2016” in delicate kanji characters on the side of a lantern or carving away at the background to leave behind the shape of curling arabesque leaves and vines that will glow all the brighter once a light has been placed inside. Senbori and keribori make use of specially designed chisels to press an outline or pattern into the metal before using sukibori techniques to strategically shave away areas to leave a raised design behind, the flat space often covered in a difficult fish roe pattern called nanako-maki, hammered in a single tiny circle at a time.
Though learning the physical skills required to create and repair metalwork is a must for these craftsmen, they also need to possess a willingness to devote themselves not just to their craft, but to the sense of the sacred. Their work is offered up to Shinto and Buddhist deities both, and can decorate the inner sanctuaries of shrines and the main altars of temples. It isn’t just for mortals to enjoy, but to delight the kami and hotoke divinities. The work done on each piece, according to Mr. Morimoto, should be done from beginning to end with focus and dedication, pouring all of one’s self into a completed work that will be offered up to the divine. No matter where you go in the workshop, there is always a reminder of this, whether it is the small shrine to Inari, god of agriculture and business, hanging above the workroom, the shimenawa rope delineating sacred space hung just inside the door, or the small Buddhist altar outside the building, a stone statue of Ksitigarbha (Jizō) held within.
In the end, what is done at this workshop isn’t just a job, nor is it just devotion, just tradition, or just anything. Inherently traditional but given modern purpose, rejuvenating the classic work of artists long passed as well as adding their own work to the cycle of art gracing not just the city of Kyoto but the entire nation… the art of kazari kanagu is given life each new day at the Morimoto Decorative Metal Workshop.
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