Sunday, July 12, 2015

Craft your own Yakusugi Chopsticks

These days, it's hard to find a restaurant that does not use disposable chopsticks, but how making a pair that could outlast you? It's the perfect Japanese gift with a personal touch, it doesn't require a lot of time and money, and there are several studios around the island set up for guests to make chopsticks. Crafting a set of chopsticks will also give you a bit of incite into the properties of the Yakusugi wood. Oh, and you can do it even in bad weather.

Of course, if you don't have time to make your own, you can always buy a set. either way, you'll probably want to keep in mind two things:

1. Practicality
Yakusugi wood (and Japanese cedar wood, in general) is not hard like ebony, but rather flexible, and the chopsticks should be quite strong and durable so long as the grain runs the length of the stick. In fact, Sugi no Ya displays unusual chopsticks that have been purposely crafted to match the curve of the wood, each chopstick fitting perfectly against its partner. Because a craftsman's hands will tend to naturally follow the grain of wood, hand-crafted chopsticksweather straight or curvedare more valuable than bulk-machined chopsticks. It probably goes without saying that, although burly wood with gnarled, twisted grain is highly prized in artistic pie

Chopsticks of varying prices.
The set on the left has the
most expensive price tag.
2. Aesthetics
Yakusugi is known for very fine grain, and basic chopsticks are priced according to how well they show off this grain. For chopsticks with a square cross-section, finely grained wood can be cut at an angle so that the grain is visible on all four sides of the stick. Some people also favor wood that is ripply or dark with oil, or otherwise unique.

This spring, I watched two chopstick-crafting sessions, one at Takeda Sangyou, and one conducted by Mr. Sennin of Sugi no Ya. The methodology and final products could not have been more different.

Takeda Sangyou
At Takeda Sangyou, participants start with two perfectly-cut blocks of wood with beautifully fine, straight grain. Three grades of sandpaper are used to shape and polish the blocks into chopsticks that look just like the ones sold in the gift shop. This is a task that doesn't require more physical prowess, and there's not a whole lot that can go wrong. The chopsticks are then dipped in fixative, blow dried, and packaged, just like the ones in the store. If you like neatness and precision and you want a gift that is easily appreciated, or you're afraid of a chisel, I recommend Takeda Sangyou.

**Update: Takeda Sangyou has replaced chopstick-making with hand-polishing of premium pieces of Yakusugi wood, so that you take something home that is more like a gemstone than a stick. You can still see the factory, but the polishing is done in the relaxed setting of an indoor annex.

**Update: I plan to upload information on the Higashigawa workshop near Anbo soon.

Participants in Mr. Sennin's workshop start with two blocks that have been hand-split. The grain may not be fine nor perfectly straight, but each set possesses a bit of individuality. Participants use a chisel--which takes a bit more finesse than sandpaper--to shape the chopsticks, and then buff the completed set with a brush-like tool made of reeds. If you're a fan of the "wabisabi" aesthetic or you want a bit more of a challenge, I recommend Mr. Sennin.

Caring for your chopsticks:
Care depends on how the chopsticks are finished. For example, because Yakusugi oil does not solidify, chopsticks that have not been fixed will need to be oiled every so often, so ask when you make or buy chopsticks.

There are several places around the island where you can make chopsticks. Most prefer that you call a day or more in advance and make a reservation.

Takeda Sangyou (武田産業)
Price: 2700+ yen depending on the wood
Time: Unlimited during business hours, reservation not required.
Location: Takeda Sangyou, Anbo 650-18 (30.3225,130.6569)

Sennin-san (仙人さん, workshops at two locations)
Price: 1100 yen
Time: 40~50min.
Location: Senin Mura, Mianoura 2567-2 (30.4109,130.56752)
Session Times: 9:00am or 2:30pm
Location: Sugi no Ya, next to the airport (30.3822,130.6594)
Session Times: 10:30am, 1:30pm, or 16:00pm

*Times and prices subject to change. Please inquire at each location to make a reservation.

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