Visit any Buddhist temple in Japan and you will undoubtedly come across copper bells, statues, or ceremonial tools. While the sight of such objects could be considered commonplace, it may come as a surprise to learn that the majority of these items originate from one city in western Japan. Though often overshadowed by its gold-working neighbor, Kanazawa, Takaoka city in Toyama prefecture is the undisputed copper capital of Japan. From temple relics to modern kitchenware, let’s take a closer look at the history and artistry of Takaoka’s copper craftsmanship.
Takaoka’s Historical Beginnings
Takaoka’s metalworking history dates back over 400 years to Japan’s Edo Period. Looking to bolster this fledgling castle town’s economy, Lord Maeda Toshinaga invited seven master metal casters from around Japan to relocate their business to Takaoka in exchange for tax exemptions. Maeda’s invitation was successful, and Takaoka had the start of their soon to be famous metalworking industry.
In addition to pure copper, Takaoka craftsmen worked with copper alloys as well; namely brass and bronze, to produce a wide range of goods. To create everything from Buddhist statues to decorative wind chimes, Takaoka casters employed a method known as “sand casting”, in which dense sand from nearby riverbanks was used to create precise, easily-shapeable molds. Thanks to Maeda’s foresight, Takaoka quickly built a reputation throughout the country for their high-quality metalwork. Their products became so popular in fact, that even during times of war when access to metal was restricted, Takaoka was granted protected status by the government to continue production.
The Takaoka of Today
From its ambitious beginnings over 400 years ago, Takaoka has grown to become the powerhouse of Japan’s metalworking industry. Today, this small city accounts for roughly 90% of the total copperware and 85% of all exterior metal products produced in Japan. Despite the ubiquity of metal goods, most people are still unfamiliar with the work that goes into creating them. For those interested in learning more, a visit to NOUSAKU; a fifth generation family-owned foundry in Takaoka, is a must.
Like many other foundries in Takaoka, this 100 year old factory got its start producing copper alloy goods for Buddhist temples. In time, they expanded their product offering to include other goods such as flatware, wind chimes, and even medical equipment. From the moment you enter the foundry, you will find yourself in a room lined with metal vases. Each of these was created in collaboration with a different Japanese artist. Their differences are a testament to the craftsmanship involved in their creation, and serves to highlight the skill and imagination that goes into each and every piece they produce.
As you round the corner, you’ll find yourself in front of a towering wall of colorful shapes. While at first glance it may look like a rock climbing wall, these are in fact the over 4,000 molds that NOUSAKU uses to produce their many different products. Throughout the day, you may even see an employee remove several of these molds to be used in the factory.
Perhaps most amazing are the small “defects” found in every cup, plate, and bowl. Each slight indentation or bend along an edge is a reminder that the item you’re holding in your hands wasn’t one of thousands of identical pieces rolled off of a conveyor belt. Rather, what you see before you has been skillfully handmade by a local craftsman less than 100 meters from where you’re standing, and is unlike any other.
As you browse the shelves, you’ll find that tin products take center stage at NOUSAKU. While it is often found mixed with other metals to increase its strength, purely tin products can be hard to come by. On its own, tin is incredibly malleable; able to be reshaped by hand even after cooling. This is not only eye-catching, but useful as well. Any single item can be transformed to serve a variety of purposes, such as their most famous product, “KAGO”.
This metallic web is as versatile as your imagination. Laid flat, it can serve as a coaster. Raise the edges and you now have a fruit basket. Fold the front up into a lip and it becomes a decorative cellphone holder. Coming up with new uses for it is as fun as it is practical.
All of NOUSAKU’s products are still made using the traditional sand casting method to this day. What better way to experience this time-honored practice than by actually taking part in it? Visitors to NOUSAKU can try their hand at making their very own tin items, including paper weights, small dishes, and sake cups.
Once you’ve chosen an item, one of their talented instructors will guide you through the process. You’ll start with a wooden frame placed on the table before you and a pre-made mold of your item.
Using a special, copper colored casting sand you will fill the space around the mold in the frame. You’ll find this sand feels unlike any other you’re likely to have ever handled. While technically dry, due to its composition, it feels damp to the touch, like sand scooped up from the shore of a beach. It’s this special texture that allows it to hold its shape as a mold and prevents the molten tin from binding with it.
With the frame packed tightly, you’ll find you now have a perfect indentation of your item.
Repeat the process again with another frame on top and your newly created 3D sand mold will be ready for casting.
After the tin is poured into your sand mold, it will need time to cool. While the metal hardens almost immediately, it takes some time to reach a temperature where it’s safe to handle.
Once it has cooled, remove the top frame to unveil your newly created tin souvenir. Dusting away any remaining sand, it’s hard not to feel like an archaeologist unearthing an ancient artifact.
Your instructor will cut away any extra metal bits, then it is up to you to add the final touches, using sandpaper and polishing cloth to smooth it to your desired finish. If you’d like, you can even stamp your initials onto the bottom to personalize your custom artwork!
Tour the Factory
After experiencing first-hand the work that goes into metal casting, it’s time to see how the experts at NOUSAKU create the beautiful crafts that have earned them their global reputation. During your guided tour of NOUSAKU’s foundry, you can watch workers operate the large industrial furnaces used to melt massive amounts of copper and tin. With steam rising out of the orangey glow from inside, they resemble miniature man-made volcanoes.
The skill of these workers is evident as they pour the molten metal into molds, handling the dangerous contents with the same ease as someone pouring a cup of coffee.
Across the hall, craftsmen are hard at work adding the finishing touches to these pieces through sanding and polishing.
It can be difficult to picture just how much work goes into this final stage of preparation until you hold both a newly casted and finished vase together. From a rough, abrasive exterior to the silky smooth finished result, you can even feel a noticeable difference in weight once the excess material has been sanded away.
As you watch the process unfold, it feels a bit like watching an artist chip away at a block of marble and seeing the finished statue take shape.
Learn More About Takaoka Experiences
Before leaving for the day, be sure to stop by NOUSAKU’s wall of local attractions, titled, Toyama Doors. These carefully prepared pamphlets features local shops, restaurants, sightseeing locations, and more as recommended by the NOUSAKU staff. Those looking to add a few more stops to their Toyama itinerary couldn’t possibly ask for a better source of information.
Experience This Tangible Piece of History
For a city founded on the craftsmanship of metal casters, there is no better way to connect with its history than by experiencing the practice for yourself. Thankfully, NOUSAKU has found a way to do so that is both educational and fun for all visitors. Whether you want to create your own customized tin souvenir or to shop their handcrafted goods, be sure to include a visit to NOUSAKU on your next trip to Toyama.
Address: 8-1 Office park, Takaoka City, Toyama 939-1119
Hours: The workshop experience is offered daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. The factory tour is not available on Sundays.
Admission: The factory tour is offered free of charge. The tin making experience costs between 1,000 and 4,000 yen depending on which item you choose to make. Both experiences are offered in English but require a reservation at least one week in advance.