Kabazaiku: Wood Crafts from Cherry Bark

Wood Crafts and Cherry Bark

Japan's sakura cherry trees give us so much. In the spring, we enjoy beautiful blossoms during the hanami season. In summer, we eat buckets of light yellow and red sakuranbo, sweeter and less tart than dark cherries. And of course, we use sakura wood in everything from chopsticks to firewood. Even cherry bark is used in kabazaiku, traditional wood crafts from Akita Prefecture.

Stunning Kabazaiku (Cherry Bark) Wood Crafts from Akita Prefecture -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
The natural patterns of the bark produce gorgeous reddish brown and tan marbling that master craftsmen use to their advantage in creating visually arresting, one-of-a-kind pieces, often for functional use in the home.
We went to the Kakunodate Birch Crafts Folklore House to find out more about these fetching everyday artworks.

A Master Craftsman at Work -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
First, a note on the name kabazaiku: While zaiku is easily translated as "craftsmanship," kaba is trickier. The character actually means birch, even though no birch is used. Multiple theories exist about how kaba came to mean cherry bark in this context. One posits that it is a corruption of an Ainu word. Another theory is that the word comes from an old poem that refers to cherry trees as kaniwa. The short answer is that no one knows exactly why, only that kaba doesn't mean birch!

Lovely Kakunodate, Akita -- Photo from Flickr cc by Wei Hao Tsai
Origins of Kabazaiku (Cherry Bark Wood Crafts)
The origin of the wood craft itself is similarly fuzzy. However, it came to Kakunodate in the Temmei Era (1781-1789 AD), when a feudal retainer called Satake learned the woodworking elsewhere in Akita and began teaching low-level samurai how to do it. After the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912 AD), samurai families had to find new ways of making a living, and many of them went into kabazaiku production, leveraging modern distribution systems to spread its fame as a unique handcraft of Kakunodate.
Making kabazaiku is quite time and labor intensive. The bark has to be harvested from wild trees around 70-80 years old, as the bark produced by cultivated trees is not tough enough. First, scouts go hiking in the mountains to locate wild trees. Such missions usually take place in the spring when the blossoms make them easier to spot. Then, the bark is peeled off in strips with special tools. Not to worry, this doesn't harm the tree. In fact, the bark will grow back only to be ready for harvesting again.
Kabazaiku uses bark from the kasumi and ooyama cherry varieties. (For the record, the iconic hanami trees are fruit-less yoshino, while sakuranbo come from satonishiki trees.) Ooyama bark is the most commonly used because of its superior quality, while kasumi is characterized by long, horizontal grains running parallel to one another.
Once the bark as been harvested, the rough outer layer of the bark is scraped off, leaving an inner layer about the thickness and weight of heavy construction paper. This inner layer has a shiny natural luster.

The Underside of the Cherry Bark, Before Scraping -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
3 Cherry Bark Wood Crafts Techniques 
From this raw material, items are crafted using one of three techniques. The katamono approach uses a cylindrical wood cast to create rounded items like tea canisters and tobacco containers. Hot irons and glue are used to mold the bark around the cast. The similar kijimono approach is used to make sharp-edged items. A wooden shell is built and then cut-to-fit strips of bark are painstakingly attached to each surface. The last technique is called tatamimono and involves gluing many layers of bark together until you get a block a few centimeters thick. This block is carved and polished like regular wood to create brooches, tie pins and other small decorative items.

Examples of the Kijimono Technique, with Added Decoration and Carving -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Decoration can be added in the form of small bits of wood or paper glued to the surface and varnished or by carving designs in the bark. Sometimes sections of the outer bark are left intact to create texture. A true master can turn things like knots that would otherwise be imperfections into the centerpiece of the design.
Decor and Functional Housewares
Cherry bark is naturally airtight, has antibacterial properties and keeps out moisture, so kabazaiku wood craft containers for household items have always been popular. Even now, the classic tea canister is still the most sold item in Kakunodate's stores. But beyond this functional appeal, the beauty of the material and the uniqueness not only of the art form but of each piece are creating demand for all kinds of creations, from tiny souvenir magnets to large pieces of furniture costing tens of thousand of dollars.

Kabazaiku Tea Canisters on Sale in Kakunodate -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka 
If you go to Kakunodate, don't miss visiting the Birch Crafts Folklore House to see the master craftsmen in action. You can also visit Satoku Garden to get some kabazaiku for yourself, tax-free. Trust me, every time your eyes alight on that little piece of the wilds of Akita that has found its way into your home, you'll be glad you did.
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Jessica Kozuka