Japanese Crafts: Hakone Wood Mosaics

Hakone wood mosaic or Hakone parquetry (“Hakone yosegi zaiku” in Japanese) is a wood craft tradition that originates in Hakone Town and Odawara City in western Kanagawa Prefecture, to the southwest of the national capital Tokyo. These items retain the natural color of wood, and they are distinguished by their geometric patterns, made with extreme precision by artisans. Many might recognize the craft in the form of a puzzle box, and its worldwide recognition and history has led it to being designated as an official traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. So, let’s dive into the wonders of this amazing tradition.

The History of Hakone Wood Mosaics

Hakone wood mosaic is a wood craft tradition from Hakone Town and Odawara City in western Kanagawa Prefecture, to the southwest of the national capital Tokyo.

The tradition began in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the latter half of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Ishikawa Nihei, a resident of Hatajuku in Hakone, began making wooden crafts. At the time, Hakone was well known for its onsen (hot springs) and saw travelers from all over Japan. Hatajuku was a rest stop for these travelers, who began to take home these wood mosaic items as souvenirs.

The mountains of Hakone are home to a large variety of trees, and combining them together is what yields the complex designs seen in this craft; these designs would become more intricate as the craft became more established. After the Port of Yokohama opened to international trade in 1859, these wooden items gained attention overseas as well and began to be exported.

Up to that point, the “hikimono” crafting method was most common, which meant using a spinning lathe as with pottery. However, around this time (late Edo Period), “sashimono” gained in popularity, made by joining different pieces of wood together to form a box.

Entering into the Meiji Period (1868-1912), toys began to be produced using Hakone wood mosaic methods as well, gaining widespread popularity among the masses. The Hakone Bussan (roughly “Hakone Products”) company was founded in the early 1900s to market these items internationally, and because of this, Hakone wood mosaics gained worldwide recognition.

In the 1970s, the artisan Katsuhiro Kanazashi devised the “muku” (roughly “spotless”) method of production, i.e. items carved from a single body. This innovation helped revive a craft that had been in decline. Hakone wood mosaics were officially recognized as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1984.

Characteristics of Hakone Wood Mosaics

These items are most distinctive in that they retain the natural color of wood and are decorated with geometric patterns, made with extreme precision by artisans. No dyeing or drawing is involved – all the colors in the complex patterns come from the natural wood. Mt. Hakone is home to a wide variety of trees with quality wood, allowing for these warm-colored crafts to come to life.

Some 50 designs can be featured on Hakone wood mosaics, including the classical Japanese designs of “asanoha” (“hemp leaves,” a design of overlapping hexagons and diamonds) and “kikko” (“tortoise shell,” a design of tessellated hexagons).

One particularly popular Hakone wood mosaic product is the Japanese puzzle box, which can only be opened by sliding around the sides. It has gained popularity both domestically and internationally.

Hakone wood mosaics are formed by piecing together wood pieces of different colors to form specific patterns: the wood pieces are first cut according to the pattern, then these pieces are overlapped to create a unit of the overall design. These small units are in turn combined to create larger blocks, called the “taneita” plate.

From here, the final wood mosaic can be made with either the “zukuhari” or “muku” techniques. In “zukuhari,” a layer the thickness of paper is scraped off of the “taneita” plate and then pasted onto the final product. In “muku,” the plate itself is shaved until it becomes the final product.

“Zukuhari” production allows you to create multiple products from a single plate, allowing for production in larger volumes. Meanwhile, with the “muku” method, one plate can only yield one final product. However, the benefit of “muku” is that interior surfaces bear the design as well.

Hakone Wood Mosaics Today

Today, the Hakone style is the only Japanese wood mosaic craft remaining today. The artisans of Hakone and Odawara, having passed down the skill through the generations since the Edo Period, are now the only such craftspeople in the country.

Hakone is best known in the country for hosting the Ekiden, a long-distance relay race featuring the best universities from the Kanto region. The Ekiden, which began in 1920 and is held every January, involves teams running from Lake Ashinoko in Hakone to Otemachi in Tokyo and back. This long path of this relay race is divided into 10 sections, with the teammates passing not a baton, but a sash. The champion’s trophy, sent to the victorious high school, employs the use of Hakone wood mosaic, an example of how it contributes to regional culture.

Today, you can not only find household items made with Hakone wood mosaic, such as puzzle boxes or coasters, but also accessories like keyholders and chopstick rests. This centuries-old Japanese craft has kept pace with the changing times and is now used with a variety of products in a variety of genres.

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▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts by Industry: Textiles, Ceramics, Dolls, Kokeshi, and More!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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