Niigata prefecture is one of Japan’s hidden gems. Many foreign tourists have yet to discover the area’s stunning natural beauty or that it’s a foodie’s paradise. On the international level, those who do know the area likely found it through tsuiki copperware.
The most famous copperware in Niigata is known as tsuiki copperware, and comes from the town of Tsubame. Here, skilled metalworking artisans have a long history in the craft, which dates back to the Edo period. A traveling artisan from Sendai settled in Tsubame in 1751 and taught people in the area the tsuiki technique.
Recently, Word Connection had the pleasure to work with the Tsubame Industrial Museum in Niigata prefecture to share their unique and beautiful copperware with English-language audiences.
What is Tsuiki Copperware?
The museum recognizes and preserves the city’s knowledge and expertise in artisan metalworks. For this reason, exhibits feature different types of metalwork from the region like electro-plating, forged steel and copperware. One of the museums most well-known exhibits houses priceless pieces of tsuiki copperware. In Japanese, “tsuiki,” is the art of using a metal hammer (tsui) to raise (ki) a sheet of copper metal.
Each piece of tsuiki copperware is hammered by hand out of a single sheet of copper. In fact, a skilled artisan can make an entire kettle from a single sheet of copper using traditional tsuiki techniques. The process is so complex that mastery of all the techniques can take from 20 to 30 years. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the end results are just as much works of art as everyday items.
Artisans can choose from numerous kinds of hammers and toriguchi. Each one serves a different technical or decorative use. Artisans use a wooden mallet at the beginning, and sometimes at the end, of the shaping process. To refine the shape, they use hammers to shape the copper over a tool called a “toriguchi,” or anvil stake. By slowly hammering the copper sheet on the toriguchi bit by bit, artisans form the copper into the desired shape. At a large company like Gyokusendo (see below), artisans have access to as many as two hundred hammers and over three hundred different kinds of toriguchi, depending on what they are trying to make.
Later, the artisan heats the copper in a furnace until it softens in the annealing process. Slowly, the shape starts to take form as artisans strike the softened copper, heat, and repeat. The technique requires striking the copper such that the strikes do not overlap. The artisan will repeat the annealing process many times to form a single piece. How many times is a question that depends on the piece and the skill of the artisan.
Further along in the process, artisans may do an engraving or complete a final step to give the metal a polished look. Altogether, the entire process can take one week from start to finish for a single piece.
Niigata prefecture is naturally replete with copper resources. Without a doubt, such resources are a significant reason why the craft originally cropped up in the area. Copper’s malleability meant that it was very easy to shape and work with to make everyday household items.
Where to find tsuiki copperware
Presently, The “tsuiki” technique is the specialty of Gyokusendo, which specializes in tsuiki copperware. Over its two hundred year history, Gyokusendo, now in its seventh generation, has elevated the technique to a fine art.
Localization gets personal
When the Tsubame Industrial Museum approached Word Connection and wanted to share their proud history in English as well as Japanese, we were delighted to partner with them. Now, they reach a wider audience with the ancient Japanese art of tsuiki. Our work includes a book-length project that details tsuiki copperware history and techniques. We especially enjoyed promoting this time-honored craft because our co-founder, Kaori Myatt, is herself from Niigata!