The things that we treasure

Kintsugi: finding beauty in imperfection.

We have all encountered that sad yet seemingly inevitable situation at least once in our lives, when we broke a precious piece of tableware while washing the dishes. Although everyone has their own way of dealing with the situation, such as replacing the broken item with a new one or repairing it with glue, the more one is attached to the item, the more one cannot shake off that feeling of regret.

In Japan, there is a traditional technique for these sort of repairs called kintsugi, which adds artistic value to broken vessels. Kintsugi uses a natural glue made from the sap of the lacquer tree, to which gold powder is added to make the cracks stand out as a beautiful piece of art. Kintsugi reveals the Japanese love of imperfection and the virtue of cherishing broken items by breathing new life into them.

Yuki Matano, president of Tsugu-Tsugu, a kintsugi workshop and school in Hiroo, Tokyo, shared her own experience. "One day I broke a piece of tableware that I treasured very much, and while researching how to fix it, I came across kintsugi. At first, I thought that restori ng was just a matter of restoring it to its original state so that the damage would not be noticeable. However, when I learned about kintsugi culture and about 'turning what is broken into an expression of strength,' I was shocked at this concept, which was a seeming reversal of everything I had known to that point."

History of Kintsugi

The origin of kintsugi can be traced back to the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE). The restoration of earthenware using lacquer had been practiced since those ancient times, and there was also a decorative technique that used iron oxide to add a reddish hue.
Decorative techniques using gold were established in the Muromachi period (15th century), when the technique of making gold powder was developed and perfected in Japan. A decorative technique in which gold powder is sprinkled on lacquer called maki-e also developed at this time. With the growing popularity of the Way of Tea in the 16th century, kintsugi came to be used for restoring tea utensils. Since some items of pottery used in the tea ceremony were very valuable at that time, the purpose was to restore these precious items and keep them in use for a long time.

Later, as industrial technology developed, ceramics became available to the general public, and the culture of kintsugi was passed down through the generations. Kintsugi is valued not only for restoring treasured tableware, but also for its artistic value, and recently it has been attracting more and more interest as a private hobby.
Kintsugi refers specifically to lacquer being applied to cracks or chips in a vessel, with gold powder sprinkled over the lacquered area at the end of the process. Depending on the vessel, silver, black or red (iron oxide) powder may be added to the lacquer instead of gold powder.


Kintsugi Methods

The main material used in kintsugi is lacquer. To repair chipped surfaces or edges, lacquer is mixed with wood or whetstone powder (the residue from the whetstone when a steel Japanese kitchen knife is sharpened) to make a putty-like material. For decoration, the lacquer can be colored with a mixture of black and red (iron oxide) powder.

First, the broken parts of the vessel are cleaned and a glue is made from a mixture of raw lacquer, flour, and water. The cross sections of the vessel and shards are joined with the glue and left for a week until the lacquer hardens.


(caption) Using masking tape to secure the glued surfaces so that they do not shift as the lacquer hardens.

One of the properties of lacquer is that it does not harden in low humidity. On days when the humidity is low, a box called a "lacquer bath" is prepared with a wet towel, and the vessels that have been bonded together with lacquer are placed in it to harden.

After the surface lacquer has hardened, the uneven sections of the chipped area are smoothed over with putty made from raw lacquer, flour, water, sawdust, and polishing powder. The surface is then finished with sandpaper, followed by the application of another layer of lacquer. After all the cracks have been strengthened in this way, gold powder is sprinkled on top of the lacquer using a cotton ball, and the job is complete when the excess gold is wiped off.


(Caption) The kintsugi process takes about one to two months to complete.

(caption) The "tsugu kit” as used in the workshops of the Tokyo Kintsugi School Tsugu-Tsugu contains a set of all the materials and tools necessary for kintsugi.

Kintsugi is attracting renewed attention.

Many people who want to try kintsugi gather at the workshop classes led by Matano-san. People who have tried kintsugi say that the joy they feel when they finish a piece is greater far outweighs the time and effort that it took.
Although it is possible to ask a professional kintsugi craftsman to restore a broken or chipped vessel, many customers prefer to do it by themselves because they are attached to the item in question. Also, due the recent pandemic, people are spending more time at home, and those who have been interested in kintsugi for a long time and are taking this as an opportunity to start.
The sustainability of kintsugi, which breathes new life into broken vessels by restoring them, has recently been recognized from the perspective of the SDGs.

Matano-san explains, "These days, when things break, we replace them. In today's world where such a concept has become the mainstream, the choice of kintsugi, which requires time and effort, is in itself an expression of a desire to take good care of an item. It is precisely because we can find value in kintsugi vessels that we cannot find in new products that we will continue to use them for a long time to come.”
Kintsugi culture is steadily attracting attention. Matano-san continues, "Kintsugi is a process of repairing one's own prized possessions with one's own hands, and it gives a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work. Though we are restoring vessels that we hold dear, we are also repairing our spirit. I would like to continue to spread the culture of kintsugi and the appeal it holds today."


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