Japanese Japanese 700-year-old "oke" boat gets a fashionable makeover

It is hard to imagine that the humble bucket is a work of art, but those that Shuji Nakagawa made in Kyoto studios go for thousands of dollars and have faithful continuity.

Smooth, tactile and aromatic with the hinoki's impulsive smell – Japanese cypress made from "ki-oke" are used for various purposes by rice storage and miso pasta in water retention for swimming.

The level of craftsmanship, which has over a century of teaching and is built with traditional methods over 700 years, creates a perfect finish and it is almost impossible to see the joints between the bobbins in the bins.

"For me, there is so much skill, history and philosophy in a ki-oke," says Nakagawa.


Nakagawa employs 700-year-old woodworking techniques for the manufacture of wooden buckets and other special articles Credit: Nakagawa Mokkougei

His next years continue to grow, just like the critical appreciation of his work – he was chosen as a finalist at the famous Loewe Craft 2017 Award.

The first job of a 10-year-old

The story begins with Nakagawa's native grandfather, Kameichi, who 90 years ago went to work at the renowned Tarugen woodworking studio – when he was only 10 years old.

At 45, Kameichi left to continue his own ki-oke business, calling Nakagawa Mokkougei. Now run by Kiyotsugu – the son of Kameichi and Nakagawa's father – the company continues to operate and is one of the most well-known traditional carpenters in Japan.

Fix the schedule

Nakagawa was initially resilient to follow his father but eventually joined the family business after graduating from Seika University in Kyoto. He worked 10 to 12 hours every day to learn the boat.

In 2003, he opened his own studio – still a branch of the family business – in the rural Shiga province, a 90-minute drive from the Kyoto center lab.

Shuji Nakagawa Credit: Nakagawa Mokkougei

He says a usual piece would usually take one day to finish, but for the tracks, such as his entry for the Loewe Award, it may take up to a month to work on them.

Changes to requirements

However, the times have changed and as the cheap, plastic or mass-produced utensils have become readily available, the demand for his father and grandfather is no longer there. This third-generation carpenter had to change the way he designs, produces and – ultimately – sells his product.

"For my father's and grandparents' generations, there was always enough demand for their product so they should not have been innovative," he says.

"But because people's way of life has changed and do not use the ki-oke anymore, that has diminished. But for me, there is so much skill, history and philosophy in one.

"To lose it is" mottainai "- a great shame – to me. So if I can continue this skill, this story and philosophy, the form is not important. If I can transfer it to the next generation, m willing to change the form, to modernize as long as the substance is there. "

Promoting the limits

As a modern artist and craftsman, Nakagawa works mostly for himself, but has recently collaborated with a variety of artists and designers to present his work and expand his impressive portfolio.

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Includes the Danish design company OeO, Italian designer Denis Guidone, Japanese designer Nendo and renowned contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

A collaboration led to a new, modern use for the buckets – for cooling champagne – and for two years it was the official supplier of Dom Perignon champagne bins in Japan.

He is a member of a project called GO ON, where he works in conceptual pieces based on the theme of "household electrical appliances of the future" in collaboration with Panasonic. The works will be presented to the audience in April.

He also collaborated with OeO on a "Ki-oke stool" based on the traditional buckets and methods of making traditional buckets and an "Indigo Gradient" panel, which follows the same design language.

"What is unique is that we are all the younger generation – especially in our 30s and 40s," he says.

"When we met we realized we had our own unique issues selling products that we can work together to solve. It's not like an old guild, we all work on different media, so that's really a cross-team. "

Looking abroad

He says that the attitude towards traditional crafts in Japan has changed since his father worked for the first time with his grandfather in Nakagawa Mokkougei – today the main interest comes from distant shores.

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"If we go abroad people tend to see what we do as a creative business and consider it a very positive thing."

Despite the renewed appeal of his beautiful pieces, Nakagawa says he does not want to force his own son – who is seven years old – into the family business.

"I do not want to force my children into the family business unless they want to." Traditional crafts in Japan were usually taken over by the eldest son of the family, but I do not think it necessary.

"I'm willing to take on new apprentices and staff. It's what we need to do to increase the number of people who know how to make ki-oke."