Akita prefecture may be famous for its rice fields, sake breweries, ski slopes and beautiful women (Akita bijin), but some say the real allure of this area lies in the intricate beauty of its art and the craftsmanship of its people.
Magewappa is a traditional craft technique that locals have practiced for about four hundred years in Odate city, which is located at the east end of Shirakami Mountains, a World Heritage site that is also known as one of the most famous cedar growing districts in Japan.
The natural, straight cedar trees of Akita prefecture give high-quality bark which craftspeople found was perfect to create some beautiful pieces such as trays, lunch boxes, sushi dishes, steamers, salad bowls and many more.
Those items are fabricated using thinly shaved Japanese cedars, the wood from which has perfectly a straight grain running through.
The shavings are placed into boiling water, carefully bent when wet and tied up with bark from cherry blossoms.
Then, the bottom is added, as well as a wood finish and a polish, in a truly complex procedure that has not changed for generations. But it is through this complicated and stringent process that artisans can then create the adaptability, smoothness and beauty of magewappa items.
Recently, ice pails and Japanese sake bottles are being produced from these cedars. The curves of the products, which make the wood grain more noticeable, truly make them art pieces as well as everyday items.
Only Akita cedars over hundred years old – which have survived the very severe weather conditions of northern Japan – can be bent in the manufacturing process of megewappa.
Wood with a knot or even slight discoloration cannot be used; such is the pride of the crafts workers who demand the highest standards.
The heat- and moisture-preserving properties of magewappa items are said to help keep food fresh while giving it a subtle, fragrant hint of cedar, which perfectly compliments many traditional dishes.
It especially brings great character when used to present sushi or other dishes local to Akita, such as delicate sweets, which look especially gorgeous when placed on the circular dish made especially for them.
Magewappa items make for some great gift ideas or house items. A pot and o-choko (small sake cup) set would make a great gift, and goes hand-in-hand with the prefecture’s famous sake.
The aromatic cedar lends something extra to the drink, while keeping the liquid chilled but also, some sake connoisseurs will tell you, does not allow the bottom lip to feel the temperature of the drink, adding allure to the experience.
And while on the subject of keeping things cool, the Good Design Award winning ice pail makes dinner party companion and, not only does it look sleek and organic, but it also insulates the ice and stops condensation.
Text by Vivian Morelli
For more information on the craftspeople of Japan and to buy some of the products talked about here, visit JCRAFTS.com, an online shop that sells items with engrained Japanese spirit to 120 countries worldwide while aiming to also teach you all about where they come from.
We will be featuring some products from different regions of Japan over the next few weeks so let us know what you think!