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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Yosegi-zaiku Woodwork

At first I was going to do a history of sudoku, but instead decided to look puzzle boxes and see if there was a Japanese equivalent to those tricky Chinese things I had known about as a kid. There is, and I'll do a write up on that as soon as I can discover a Japanese term for 'puzzle box'.

While researching it, I discovered something else I thought was cool - Yosegi-zaiku (寄木細工) woodworked handcraft that is essentially a mosaic of wood known in English as a parquetry. An example of the intricate pattern can be seen on the small jewelry box I bought while in Japan.

I just thought it was a wooden box with a neat pattern on it. Hmm... actually... buying something like this in Japan wouldn't have been something I would have done. I  know I was with Ashley when I bought it at a local shop in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken... either she bought it for me, or she thought it was neat which was why I bought it. I'm such a fish when it comes to women.

Anyhow, the term Yosegi-zaiku is derived from: yose = collect, put together; gi = wood (to make); zai = small, sensitive; ku = work.

The Yosegi-zaiku mosaic was created at some point in time by artisan Ishikawa Nihei (surname first), who lived from 1790 to 1850, who used the diverse woods from around his Hakone home base in Kanagawa-ken (Kanagawa Prefecture).

The mosaic work is made from natural fine grains and textures of wood to provide differing colors.

While I suppose if YOU wanted to create such a parquetry, you could use whatever the heck wood you liked, but in this now traditional Japanese form, there are certain trees used only:
  • White- Aohada (Ilex macropoda), Dogwood, Spindle Tree (Euonymus spp);
  • Yellow- Laquer Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), Nigaki (Picrasma Quassiodies Benn), Wax Tree, Mulberry (Morus alba);
  • Light Brown- Cherry Tree, Japanese Pagoda Tree, Zelkova Tree, Camphor tree aka kusunoki (Cinnamomum camphora), and a Japanese version of Maackia;
  • Dark Brown- Keyaki-Jindai;
  • Gray- Honoki (Magnolia Hypoleuca);
  • Black- aged Katsura-Jindai (Cercidiphyllum japonicum);
  • Purple - black walnut (Juglans nigra)
  • Blue - Japanese cucumber tree (Magnolia obovata);
  • Red - Chinese cedar (Toona sinensis).
A Japanese telephone card I own, made with a Yosegi-zaiku mosaic of thin woods and lacquered. I never tried it, but it should work - that is if Japan still has pay phones. You can see my entire collection of Japanese telephone cards HERE.
The woods are selected for their natural beauty and are NOT colored by the artisan.

These woods are cut and planed, assembled into a pattern, glued and then shaved into paper thin sheets and then glued onto boxes or other woodcraft piece, with a glaze or lacquer added to make the mosaic sturdy, shiny and pretty.

In May 1984, Hakone Yosegi-Zaiku was designated a national traditional handicraft of Japan.

Andrew Joseph

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