Some things you just don’t associate with Japan. To think, for example, of exquisite Venetian glassware is naturally to think, well, of exquisite Venice. Yet the Japanese port of Otaru on the northern island of Hokkaido has been assiduously creating Venetian-style glass art since the 1950s, and one of its museums even sports a full-size gondola to underline the north Italian parallel. Wine is something that tends to be associated more with consumption than production in Japan, but native viticulturists battle with an extremely unhelpful nature to craft vintages of astounding quality. And so it is that though marquetry brings to mind the work of such artisans as Antwerp and Florentine cabinetmakers, Japanese craftsmen have been working this wooden art since ancient times.
Marquetry is the craft whereby pieces of veneer, predominantly in wood, are glued to a surface or structure so as to create decorative patterns or images. As such, marquetry differs from inlay, with which it is sometimes confused, in that with inlay pieces of shell, metal, stone or wood are glued into a cavity that has been hollowed out of a surface before being sanded flush. Marquetry has been practiced in Japan since the Nara period (710–794), which was the era when woodcraft techniques reached something of an apogee. The development of such techniques had received a considerable boost with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century through the demand for new buildings and statuary and the arrival of woodworkers from continental Asia. Such was the increasing demand for woodwork in the Nara period that a woodworkers’ bureau had to be set up by the government.
Marquetry in Japan is most closely associated with the area of Yumoto in the foothills of Hakone, which is a popular hot-spring resort area and with its spectacular views of nearby Mount Fuji is arguably the best tourist excursion from Tokyo. Wood craftsmen living in Yumoto, located in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, have been carrying out the art of marquetry for centuries. They are greatly aided in their efforts by the fact that the mountains of Hakone offer an abundance and variety of trees that have few rivals in the country.
Hakone marquetry is based on geometric designs that can combine upwards of fifty patterns of different-colored woods. After selection, the woods are sawn or split into sheets, which are thoroughly dried and seasoned over a period of months. The sheets are then bonded together with synthetic or animal glue to make unit patterns, which are cut and reassembled in a block to form mosaic patterns. The craftsman then planes extremely fine cross sections from the block—a task that is highly delicate and demanding. In this way, the craftsman obtains the end-grain veneers to be used in the marquetry. Once these veneers have been backed with paper, they are ready to be applied to the base wood of the object to be decorated.
The resulting geometric line patterns are either bilaterally symmetrical or spread out in a patchwork of totally symmetrical forms. The typical patterns used are a check, a twill-like weave, boxes, scales and hemp-leaf patterns. These are, though, only a few of the many hundreds of variegated patterns that can be fashioned in this intricate craft.
One of the most popular ways in which Hakone marquetry is employed is in making puzzle boxes (himitsu-bako), which date back to that latter part of the nineteenth century. These are enclosed boxes that seemingly have no opening, and it is impossible to tell which side is the top or bottom. The only way to get into the box is by exactly following in step-by-step fashion the pushing or pulling of particular sections or panels in the requisite order. The more deviously constructed of such boxes can take up to sixty movements before the inner chamber is revealed. As might be supposed, the puzzle boxes are popular gifts bought by tourists for the folks back home: those with an eye for aesthetics will certainly appreciate the harmonious balance of the naturally colored woods, and those children will undoubtedly savor the peace and quiet as young minds bend to the vexing business of trying to get into the things.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.