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Traditional craftsmanship to adorn daily life

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The process of making a silver sake vessel is displayed, from the flat plate at far left to the finished product at far right.

By Akio Oikawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTokyo ginki silverware, one of the traditional crafts of the nation’s capital, is the art of forming silver into various items, from sake vessels to teapots to incense burners.

These high-end products are often put on shelves as ornaments. But Masaru Mori, the president of a Tokyo maker that is maintaining the tradition, hopes they will also be used for daily life.

“Silverware has a warm, soft look, something that iron doesn’t have,” said Mori, the fifth president of the 90-year-old company Mori Ginki Seisakusyo Co. “I believe this is the fascinating part [of silverware].”

Even if silver products get scratched, these marks are simply a record of how the owner has used them. The longer you use silverware, Mori said, the deeper your affection for the items becomes.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Gyokuhai vessels are decorated with a flowing pattern. A bead-like image can be seen in the sake-filled vessel at the front.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Various items of silverware: a brandy glass, top right; a wine glass decorated with lacquerware, top left; and cutlery

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A teapot intentionally darkened for decoration

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A metal hammer is used to shape and pattern a silver plate.

Silverware production in Japan is believed to have been established during the Muromachi period (early 14th century to late 16th century), when silver was discovered in many parts of the nation and advanced refining methods were introduced from the West.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), feudal lords patronized craftsmen working with silver in Edo, now Tokyo, who improved their skills and established techniques that have been handed down to this very day. In 1979, Tokyo ginki was designated a national traditional craft by the central government.

To make a typical vessel, silver bullion is melted in a furnace and flattened on a rolling mill into a plate about 1 millimeter thick, which the craftsperson then shapes by hand. A round piece is cut from the plate and placed over a metal tool that is fixed to a wooden bench. The craftsperson beats it into shape with a metal or wooden hammer. A buffing machine puts the finishing touches on the item.

As silver’s specific gravity is heavier than that of iron and copper, items made with the metal have a pleasantly weighty feeling.

One product that particularly shows off the craftspeople’s superlative skill is silver gyokuhai, or wide-mouthed flat vessels for drinking sake. These vessels have a beautiful luster, and when sake is poured into them, the reflection of light makes it look like a beautiful bead, or gyoku, has been created at the center.

“This is a product that can only be made in Tokyo ginki,” Mori said. “If you swallow down this mysterious bead, you can feel uplifted.”

Other products include guinomi, or small bowl-shaped sake vessels. Precise patterns are beaten into their surfaces with metal hammers.

If your silverware darkens, you can wipe it with a soft cloth. For hard-to-remove stains, put some wet baking soda on your finger and rub the stained part. Cleaning products and cloths for silverware are also available at shops.

Tokyo ginki products were very popular as commemorative gifts during the bubble economy, but their sales dropped in the subsequent recession. However, the hard times “gave us an opportunity to review which products we should make,” Mori recalled.

His company has developed new products by collaborating with other traditional crafts — for instance, gyokuhai paired with lacquerware, earthenware or Edo kiriko glassware.

“I hope we can promote the beauty of our fabulous traditional craft to the rest of the world,” Mori said. “[Tokyo ginki] products may be luxurious, but we’ll work hard to produce things that will continue to be used not only by the owners, but also by their grandchildren.”

Mori Ginki Seisakusyo’s products can be purchased on its website (moriginki.co.jp) or at the Morigin shop in Tokyo’s Asakusa district (asakusamorigin.com).

Accessories

Tokyo ginki products also include accessories cast by pouring melted silver into molds.

Animal-shaped items such as dogs are particularly popular, since this year is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac. They can be attached to netsuke straps and necklaces. These accessories are affordable, although the price tags can reach ¥5,000 at Mori’s shop.

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