Friday, July 10, 2015

Mother-of-Pearl Accesories from WaRaku--and you can make one yourself, too!

Dr. Tagami said he spent
about two weeks on this
piece. Incredible!
The word Yakushima has been written with many different characters over the years; one of these "spellings" is 夜光島, with the characters for yakougai, the green turban shell known as a source of exquisite mother-of-pearl. I first ran across these characters shortly after arriving on the island, and I henceforth assumed that Yakushima had a long tradition of shell crafts. My assumption was further bolstered by an exhibit of finely carved mother-of-pearl figurines at last year's cultural festival. So the other day when I passed small flyer for carved mother-of-pearl accessories and a try-it-yourself workshop offered I decided to stop by and find out what this was all about. My assumptions, it turned out, were completely wrong. Mother-of-pearl crafting is just getting started in Yakushima!

Hard to forget seeing
something like this!
The address on the flyer was for Minshuku Waraku, (A minshuku is like a private inn, or a bed&breakfast, or a spare room that the owner rents out to guests.) which is just behind the new roast-beef lunch stand in Anbo. Waraku is a bit unusual because in addition to the owner's family and visiting guests, it also houses the owner's medical practice. Dr.  Tagami, it turns out, is a professional bone-setter.

Anyways, only when I pulled up to Waraku did I realize that the accommodation, the medical practice, and the mother-of-pearl accessories that I'd spotted in select  gift shops had anything to do with each other. After Dr. Tagami beckoned me out of the rain and into the foyer, I immediately spotted the figurines and carved shells from last year's cultural festival on the counter.

A hunting knife with a handle
fashioned from Yakusugi wood
and a Yakushika deer antler.
"Wait, are you the one who made these pieces?" I asked. I did a double-take when he said one of them would have taken about two weeks of spare time. I had assumed it would have taken years. He also explained that there really aren't many folks working with mother-of-pearl on the island. He was pretty much alone when he started dabbling in mother-of-pearl six or seven years ago. After his first piece, Dr. Tagami himself just kept receiving more large green turban shells and requests for various pieces, and so he just developed from there. What about the 夜光島 characters? It seems that there was a time when Yakushima was a major source of green turban shells for the Kinki region.

What about the tools? Do you need special tools for carving things like this?

He says the equipment is a lot like a dentist's drills, just less expensive. Would I like to see? He invites me to walk either through the doctor's office or around the veranda to his little workshop.

Clients often bring materials
available to them.
The workshop is chock-full of turban shells, abalone shells, coral, deer antlers and skulls, fragments of quartz and pieces of Yakusugi. There's an anvil and a DIY forge blocking the entrance, large fans, and sets of drills and bits and grinders and polishers, but indeed, nothing too high-tech. In fact, a pretty descent setup for mother-of-pearl work can be put together for under 50000 yen, he says. He explains that he's been experimenting with syntheses of different materials available in Yakushima and hopes to produce truly original goods.

His work is presently available in two shops: Honu (in Mugyo), and also in Hirauchi. (Oh dear, the name of the place has slipped my mind. I'll post it soon!) But he likes to take special requests, and he's excited when people come in to learn how to do it themselves.

I have to admit, I would never
have guessed he's a doctor,
until he started working!
Perfect. Because this is rainy season, and, believe it or not, I don't like hiking in the rain for days on end. Usually, he suggests that folks plan to spend several hours and go home with three pieces: First, he shows them how it's done from start-to-finish by creating a piece as they watch. (It's kind of hard to talk when you're working with the fan on.) Second, he cuts out a piece, and lets the client polish it. Third, the client creates a piece on their own.

He offers to show me and asks what shape I would like. Uh. . . how about a star? He searches around for an appropriate piece of shell and turns the fan on. Then the magic starts. He works quickly and methodically, exchanging drill bits and drills and polishers, and proving that the chaotic-looking workshop is in fact highly ordered. His hands do not shake or falter as his fingers work right next to the cutting edge. A few minutes later he has produced a highly polished star. 
Accessories made by Dr. Tagami. He made the star while I watched.

A simple piece like this, he explains, might sell for 500 yen in a shop, but he can't give a set price or time frame for clients without knowing what sort of pieces they hope to make. It's obvious he's not in this for the money, though. Anyways, the workshop is small, so only one person can work at a time, and he recommends that no more than two folks visit together.

Reservations are not necessary, but it's a good idea, because, of course, he has his other business, too. ^^

I was amazed by the precision and speed with which Dr. Tagami worked, and I'm excited to think up my own idea and try my own hand. Two words: DIY and creativity. Mother-of-pearl craft may not have a long history in Yakushima, but perhaps the tradition is just getting started.

Yakushima Minshuku WaRaku (屋久島民宿和楽)
Location: Anbo 739-146 (30.3262,130.6575)


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