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Enchanting Edo: 'Artisan-merchant' in Tokyo has the edge with over 300 cutting tools

An artisan is seen sharpening a knife against a whetstone while splashing water on it at the edged tools shop Ubukeya, in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

TOKYO -- In the heart of Tokyo, in a corner of the Nihombashi district lies an area called Ningyocho. Although the area is now home to a motley collection of office buildings, Ningyocho was once occupied by theaters for kabuki and "ningyo joruri" classical Japanese puppetry plays during the Edo period (1603-1868). As the name "Ningyo" ("doll" or "puppet") suggests, many puppeteers and craftsmen also lived here. One shop that can be found in this area is Ubukeya, which contains the remnants of old Tokyo.

    The traditional store was founded in Osaka, western Japan, in 1783 (the third year of the Tenmei era), during the latter half of the Edo period. The founder, Kinosuke, who is said to have had nimble fingers, opened a shop that handled a rich collection of edged tools, including knives, tweezers and scissors. The store got its name from its reputation that its products can shave, cut and pull out even fine baby hair, or "ubuge" in Japanese.

    Yutaka Yazaki, right, the eighth-generation head of Ubukeya, and his son Taiki, the ninth-generation head, are seen in the edged tools shop in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    The store moved to Edo, a large consumption hub later renamed Tokyo, during the third-generation master's time. Fast forward to the present, the traditional family business is still run by the family, mainly by eighth-generation head Yutaka Yazaki, 68, and his 32-year-old son Taiki.

    "Not only do we sell items, but we also offer maintenance services (such as sharpening knives). We call ourselves an 'artisan-merchant,' as our work requires expertise on both sides," said Yutaka.

    Yutaka Yazaki is seen examining a knife sharpened on a rotating whetstone at the edged tools shop Ubukeya in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    The knives' blades are forged in factories across the country, including Gifu in central Japan, Hyogo in western Japan, and Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast. The Yazakis then whet the blades thoroughly and attach handles to the knives before they are displayed at the store as finished products. At the far end of the shop is a workspace with a large grinding machine for sharpening knives and a special stone used in the final polishes. This shop is indeed that of an artisan-merchant.

    Items handled at Ubukeya can be largely divided into scissors, knives, tweezers and other utensils. The category of scissors alone comprises a wide variety, including ones for shearing cloth, those designed for cutting paper, kitchen scissors and floral clippers. There are also traditional Japanese U-shaped scissors for snipping thread. Other edged tools sold at Ubukeya include "kiridashi" wood-carving knives, pocket knives and nail clippers. Ubukeya's collection contains over 300 types of edged tools.

    "Nigiri-basami" U-shaped scissors for snipping thread, right, and Western-style scissors, left, are seen at Ubukeya, an edged tools shop located in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, as seen in this photo taken on March 31, 2021. In traditional Japanese dressmaking, scissors are said to have been used for cutting threads, while knives were used to shear cloth. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Why did a culture of various edged tools flourish during the Edo period? The Sengoku (warring states) period in Japan had just ended, leading to a peaceful era. As the production of traditional swords fell, food and clothing culture spread throughout the country, spurring a rise in demand for utensils to be used in cooking, sewing, growing plants and the like, for both practical and artistic purposes. Many weaponsmiths shifted to creating tools for everyday use. A change of the times seems to be behind the development of Japan's rich culture of edged tools, seen nowhere else in the world.

    During our interview, a customer stepped inside the store asking to have a knife grinded. This suggests a lifestyle of using everyday tools with care, while keeping them in good condition. Restoring the tools' sharpness and adjusting their thickness after they get worn through daily use helps turn these simple items into beloved tools.

    In recent years, as families have grown smaller, and lifestyles have changed, people have not been cooking so much, and have grown less accustomed to sewing or home gardening. Amid such changes in trends, knives, scissors and other edged tools have been circulating as cheap products which can be bought, disposed of and replaced easily.

    "In the end, they are tools, so it's ideal if customers keep on using them. Our job is to deliver products which will be used by our customers as prized possessions," said Yutaka. In this way, Ubukeya's high-quality tools, which have a life span of about 15 to 20 years, are passed on from the store's artisan-merchants to the individuals that use them.

    Since last year, the coronavirus appears to have sparked an unexpected change in the shop's business as people have been spending more time at home.

    Yutaka said, "Perhaps because parents and their children are spending more time together at home, there have been opportunities for families to interact with one another through activities using edged tools; for example, cooking together or parents teaching their children how to use knives. There have been more people coming in to buy our products. This is also a sign of how the times have changed."

    A change in the times brings about a change in business, but this "iron law" seems the same for any era.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    A word of wisdom: Utensils come to life as true 'tools' only when used

    "You can't forget that they're utensils. You don't need to handle them with enormous care, just use them normally." So said Yutaka Yazaki, 68, the eighth-generation head of Ubukeya, before presenting several types of knives and blades inside the shop's tiny workspace hidden behind a sliding door.

    A knife blade which has not yet been grinded is seen in this photo taken at Ubukeya, an edged tools shop in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on March 31, 2021. The blade undergoes grinding and burnishing processes, and its handle is attached before it is displayed for sale as a finished product. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Yazaki brought out a rectangular steel material in a dull black color, which did not yet have a handle attached nor had undergone the processes of grinding and burnishing. Yazaki said the shop still has customers seeking "kurouchi" ("black-forged") knives which have not been made stainless and thereby retain the coarseness of the material.

    A European customer was apparently keen to get her hands on non-stainless "nakiri" knives for chopping vegetables. Recounting with amusement that the woman called the raw material "pretty," Yazaki conjectured that such customers are after the rustic aesthetic of these knives, which may be vaguely reminiscent of samurai warriors' katana swords.

    While non-stainless knives are much more durable and also cheaper than stainless ones, they require extra maintenance and care, leading many people, including professionals, to opt for the latter. The tendency to choose utensils which are easy to maintain brings us back to the earlier quote on using them as normal everyday items -- what one might call Ubukeya's philosophy surrounding its products.

    Though knives lose their sharpness over time, they can be brought in to artisans for grinding and maintenance, and can continue to be used. Following such a cycle, knives eventually wear down and need to be replaced, and this is the natural course that these tools are to take. Yazaki said that he wants customers to use his shop's utensils "normally," rather than treating them with care as if they are delicate items. After all, the products are everyday tools. "Knives are with us for a lifetime, right? I mean, who doesn't cook?" the artisan said jokingly.

    He expanded on his philosophy, saying that "it's not like they're artworks."

    "They're tools, so there's no point if you don't use them."

    Floral scissors, gardening scissors and other items are aligned in a cabinet at the edged tools shop Ubukeya in the capital's Chuo Ward, as seen in this photo taken on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Yazaki asked us whether we were in possession of flower scissors or U-shaped "nigiribasami" scissors for snipping thread. Only one out of us three answered "yes" for floral clippers, while we said that thread scissors were "probably" buried in some drawer of the house.

    I later found that though I claimed to not own traditional floral clippers, I actually had a pair kept in a storage cabinet outside, which were used by my grandmother to trim plants in the garden. This was the first time I saw these scissors -- with large loops for the handle, attached to short blades -- at home. Not only did this open my eyes to a generational gap, but it also made me realize that because I don't engage in home gardening, I wasn't even aware of the tool's existence at home. If I had taken up gardening as a new hobby, I may have bought modern scissors at the 100-yen shop, as I wouldn't have known of an alternative option had it not been for my visit to Ubukeya.

    Some of the traditional cutting tools at Ubukeya have apparently been gradually going out of use. No amount of government subsidies or training opportunities to foster successors will prove worthwhile unless the tools are used in society, Yazaki said.

    Ubukeya's rich collection comprises all sorts of utensils which can be used around the house -- in the kitchen, dining room, bathroom, and indoor spaces for sewing and decorating plants. Having people use these tools, and keep on using them seems to be both the lifeline and earnest wish of the masters at Ubukeya.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    The edged tools shop Ubukeya is seen in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Ubukeya is located at 3-9-2 Ningyocho, Nihombashi in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.

    While the current establishment was renovated in 1975, its outer appearance resembles that of the store during the early Showa period, and the shop has been using the same ceiling and cabinets inside the shop since its relocation. Four pupils of the legendary calligraphy artist Meikaku Kusakabe wrote one character each for the shop's sign hanging at the storefront. Once inside, visitors will feel as if they have traveled back in time to the Edo period. Old edged tools are on display in wall frames and glass cabinets, as if the store were a small museum.

    The English page of the store's official website can be accessed at https://www.ubukeya.com/?lang=en

    * * *

    An artwork using Ubukeya's floral scissors as a motif was also featured in the online museum exhibition "Edo Tokyo Rethink," a project directed by a contemporary artist in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, that provides a unique perspective on Japanese traditional art and culture. The online exhibition, as well as Ubukeya's feature page, can be accessed via the following links.

    https://edotokyorethink.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/collaborator_3.html

    https://edotokyorethink.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/about.html

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The 'Enchanting Edo' series puts a spotlight on traditions, crafts, artisan's techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The family-friendly text primarily targets grade school kids in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    'Enchanting Edo' will be published every other Tuesday.

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