KYOTO, Japan — Yoshinaga Nakamura’s family has specialized in kazari-sho, or metal art, for seven generations. But the items have changed over the past 200 years and as Japan looks forward to welcoming tourists again, it is preparing for the future.
“We used to make decorative parts – metal carvings of various designs and patterns, such as floral and geometric – on the hilt and sword case for katana,” said Mr. Nakamura, 64, referring to the long, single-edged swords that samurai carry on their hips. “The embellishments were a way to express yourself, just like fashion.”
But when katana was banned in the 1870s as part of the government’s crackdown on the samurai class, “we shifted the direction of the business,” he said. “We continued to make the same decorative ornaments, but for different purposes,” adding them to items such as vases, kiseru tobacco pipes, utensils for tea and incense ceremonies, and obi-dome, the decorative jewelry worn on kimono sashes.
Today, Mr. Nakamura works of art such as teapots, such as a silver one that gives a panoramic view of the snow-capped Mount Fuji. It took about two months to complete them, and they presented them in solo shows under his stage name, Eishin Chikueido IV. And with the help of a handful of craftsmen, he also makes small silver jewelry — including traditional Japanese hair ornaments called kanzashi, and animal-shaped charms like bunnies and mice, similar to the miniature sculptures called netsuke — which are sold online and in his boutique.
Kanzashi, sold for 20,900 yen to 33,000 yen (about $160 to $255), is a type of retail specialty made in butterfly or flower patterns cut from silver sheets with a wire saw.
But Mr. Nakamura noted that his father, Eishin Chikueido III (who died in 2007 at the age of 84), was the first member of the family to make the decorative hairpins. “The generations before us didn’t make hair jewelry,” said Mr. Nakamura. “At the time, craftsmen were very proud and didn’t want to make anything for women. But my father and I were not like that.”
This type of long hairpin was traditionally worn with a kimono, while modern versions, such as those sold in stores, can be used as an accessory for a bun. The kanzashi, along with the delicate silver earrings, brooches and rings sold in the shop, were especially popular with the millions of tourists who came to Kyoto from all over the world to see attractions such as Kinkakuji, a Zen temple covered in gold leaf. .
Tourism in the country plummeted during the pandemic. According to Yoshihisa Inada, research director at the Asia Pacific Institute of Research in Osaka, only 245,862 visitors entered the country in 2021, a drop of more than 99 percent since 2019, when it welcomed nearly 32 million visitors.
“Kyoto has been hit hard and the biggest impact is on tourism,” said Shoei Murayama, a former Kyoto city councilor and visiting professor at Taisho University in Tokyo. “This includes hotels, inns and other accommodation facilities, as well as souvenir shops. Before the inbound tourism boom, they functioned in an environment that did not depend on foreign tourists, but with the increase in foreign tourists, they couldn’t live without it.”
In Kyoto alone, Mr Inada said, foreign visitors spent 279.4 billion yen in 2019. And the traditional artisans, such as Mr. Nakamura, have struggled without that income.
“It has a huge impact,” said Mr. Nakamura. “We used to have many foreign customers, especially from China,” a country he loves and visits regularly. Although he received custom orders online during the pandemic, he said the shipping issues and expensive customs and duties sometimes made it impossible to fulfill the orders.
Kyoto’s city government does not directly support its artisans, but since the start of the pandemic, it has encouraged local businesses to buy local crafts by covering 90 percent of the cost, Mr Inada said.
“Some restaurants bought our products,” said Mr. Nakamura, “and used them so that customers can see and touch the crafts of Kyoto.”
He added: “Fortunately, we have many customers in Kyoto and high-quality crafts are in demand. And thanks to them, we can survive. We can eat and earn a living.” But this doesn’t make up for the lack of international visitors, and he is impatient to see them return – “from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
In addition to his work, Mr. Nakamura taught at the Traditional Arts Super College of Kyoto; repairing museum artifacts, shrines and temples, including a recent project to make the ornamental nail caps used in one of the smaller temples of Daitokuji Temple; and has launched a YouTube channel, where he demonstrates his silverware techniques. (Mr. Nakamura has a flair for imparting his knowledge – he quizzed me about the weight of various metals and fruit shapes hidden in one of his teapots, making metal art sound fun and accessible.)
At home and at work
We met in a 133-year-old machiya, a traditional wooden mansion, in the central Nakagyo district of Kyoto. It is Mr. Nakamura’s shop and metalworking workshop, as well as his home, where he was born and raised.
“Until 2004, we only had commissioned work, so we had a workshop where customers came to place orders,” he said. But Mr. Nakamura and his father wanted students to have the opportunity to learn handicrafts. “My father also taught,” he explained, “and the students often said that once they got a job, they were sent to places where machines were mainly used to make things. We were concerned about that. So that’s how the store started.”
The boutique is located at the front of the building, with a navy noren, a short curtain bearing the name of the store, Kazariya Ryo, hanging over the entrance. Once inside, visitors are expected to take off their shoes before entering a tatami-mat area where the jewelry is sold. Through another doorway, also with a noren, is a long, dark hallway leading to the back of the house and two spacious metal workshops for Mr. Nakamura and his staff. A total of 10 people work at the company, which is called Chikueido, after the family’s stage name.
The Japanese royalty bestowed the name on Mr. Nakamura, Eishin Chikueido I, in the 1800s in recognition of his artistic achievements, and it was passed down when each Nakamura completed training in metalworking. mr. Nakamura started using it in 2009.
The house, built in 1889, has kept the charms – and some inconveniences – of the past. The kitchen, in the long hall, is equipped with a pump to get water from the house well; a kamado, a traditional Japanese cooking stove; and a mushikamado to steam rice. (“I don’t use it, I always eat out,” Mr. Nakamura said.)
Learning the skills
Recently he invited me and some other guests to gather at a low table in an adjacent small tatami room, filled with paintings and photographs of his ancestors. It opened onto a leafy garden with a stone path, moss-covered ground, and a fountain that survived Kyoto’s destruction by fire during an 1864 uprising.
Mr Nakamura described how he started studying with his father at the age of 15. “I learned techniques from my father, but I also trained myself,” he said. They founded the company Chikueido in 1990.
Naoko Yokota studied metalworking with Mr. Nakamura’s father and now works at Chikueido, helping to make jewelry. (“I’ve been working with metals for 23 years,” she said.) During our visit, Ms. Yokota demonstrated how she used wire saws of various sizes to cut silver into shapes such as lotus roots, round and studded with holes, for earrings.
Making things by hand is top priority for Mr. Nakamura. “It’s much easier to make machines or man-made instruments to make things faster and in greater quantities,” he said. “But I want to focus on the use of hands and create the need to use hands to make crafts. I’m not interested in making new machines.”
He never uses castings for his own works of art, but does so for some jewelry to keep prices accessible.
Silver is his favorite metal, although he also works with others, such as gold and copper. “Silver is the most suitable metal for handmade crafts,” he said, noting that silver plates are malleable, but when hammered, they harden — “just like sand does when packed together,” he said.
Mr Nakamura said that in addition to technology, it is important for artisans to learn history and think about why people need items, rather than why they want them.
“I may overwhelm customers as they walk through the store,” he said with a smile. But I keep doing this because it makes sense.”