New traditions: Japan's 700-year-old 'oke' craft gets a modern makeover

Story highlights

  • Shuji Nakagawa is modernizing the centuries-old tradition of "oke" bucket-making
  • Nakagawa is a third-generation carpenter who still makes everything by hand
  • The Kyoto native is changing the face of his 90-year-old family business

(CNN)It's hard to imagine the humble bucket being a work of art, but those made by Shuji Nakagawa in his Kyoto studio go for thousands of dollars and have a loyal following.

Smooth, tactile and fragrant with the heady smell of hinoki -- the Japanese cypress they are constructed from -- "ki-oke" are used for a variety of purposes from storing rice and miso paste to holding water for bathing.
The level of craftsmanship, honed over a century of teaching and built on traditional methods that go back 700 years, creates a flawless finish and it is almost impossible to see the joints between the slats on the buckets.
"For me, there is such great skill, and history, and philosophy in one ki-oke," Nakagawa says.
Nakagawa employs 700-year-old carpentry techniques in the making of wooden buckets and other specialist items
His following continues to grow, as has the critical appreciation of his work -- he's just been chosen as a finalist in the prestigious Loewe Craft Prize 2017.

A 10-year-old's first job

The story begins with Nakagawa's paternal grandfather, Kameichi, who 90 years ago went to work at famed carpentry studio Tarugen -- when he was just 10 years old.
At 45, Kameichi left to pursue his own ki-oke firm, calling it Nakagawa Mokkougei.
Now run by Kiyotsugu -- Kameichi's son and Nakagawa's father -- the company still operates and is one of the most highly regarded traditional carpentry firms in Japan.

Punishing schedule

Nakagawa was initially resistant to follow his father, but he eventually joined the family business after graduating with a fine arts degree from Kyoto's Seika University.
He worked 10 to 12 hour days every weekday to learn the craft.
In 2003 he opened up his own studio -- still an offshoot of the family firm -- in rural Shiga province, a 90-minute drive from the downtown Kyoto workshop that he grew up in.
Shuji Nakagawa
He says an ordinary piece would normally take about a day to finish, but for standout pieces, like his entry for the Loewe prize, he can spend up to a month working on them.

Changing demands

However, times have changed and as cheap, plastic, or mass-produced utensils have become readily available, the demand that was a given for his father and grandfather is no longer there.
This third-generation carpenter has had to make some changes to the way his company designs, produces and -- ultimately -- markets its product.
"For my father and grandfathers' generations, there was always enough demand for their product so they didn't have to be innovative," he says.
"But since people's lifestyles have changed and they don't use ki-oke any longer, this has dropped off. But for me, there is such great skill, and history, and philosophy in one ki-oke.
"To lose that is 'mottainai' -- a great shame -- to me. So if I can carry on this skill, this history and philosophy, the form is not important. If I can pass this on to the next generation I'm willing to change the form, to modernize, as long as the essence is there."

Pushing boundaries

As a contemporary artist and master craftsman, Nakagawa mostly works alone, but he has recently collaborated with a diverse range of artists and designers to showcase his work and expand his impressive portfolio.
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They include Danish design firm OeO, Italian designer Denis Guidone, Japanese design powerhouse Nendo and famed contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.
One collaboration resulted in a new, contemporary use for the buckets -- for cooling champagne -- and for two years he was the official supplier of Dom Perignon champagne buckets in Japan.
He's a member of a project called GO ON, where he's worked on conceptual pieces based on the theme of "home electric appliances of the future" in collaboration with Panasonic. The works will be presented to the public in April.
He also worked with OeO on a "Ki-oke stool" based around the lines and construction methods of traditional buckets and an "Indigo Gradient Table," which follows the same design language.
"What is unique about it is that we're all the younger generation -- mostly in our 30s and 40s," he says.
"When we got together we realized we had our own unique issues selling products that we can work together to solve. This isn't like an old-style guild, we're all working in different media so it's truly a cross-genre group."

Looking overseas

He says that attitudes towards traditional crafts in Japan have changed since his father first worked with his grandfather at Nakagawa Mokkougei -- nowadays the keenest interest comes from distant shores.
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"If we go overseas people tend to look at what we do as a creative business and think of it as a very positive thing."
Despite the renewed appeal his beautiful pieces hold, Nakagawa says he doesn't want to force his own son -- who is seven years old -- into the family business.
"I don't want to force my children into the family business unless they want to. Traditional crafts in Japan had been customarily taken over by the oldest son of the family, but I don't think it is necessary.
"I'm willing to take on new apprentices and staff. Increasing the number of people who know how to make ki-oke is what we should be doing."