Searching all of Japan for handcrafted items that express its heart and soul, our proprietor, KASHIYUKA, presents things that bring a bit of luxury to everyday life. Her pursuit this time led her to Higo Zōgan, a metalwork studio in Kumamoto. There’s great pride in this traditional craft, founded about four centuries ago as a decorative element on the tsuba, or hand guard of the Japanese katana.
I was thinking that I’d never looked into the crafts surrounding the weaponry of samurai culture when I came across Higo Zōgan, a traditional technique used for the decorative elements of things like the sword’s hand guard. When I looked closely I was astounded by its intricate beauty. I’d never known that swords were this ornate!
“Higo Zōgan (Higo Inlay) is a technique whereby grooves are cut into an iron base, into which gold or silver is lain to form the decorative pattern. It was begun around four centuries ago and flourished under the Hosokawa clan, the feudal lords of the Higo region,” says Mitsuhide Kentaro Inada. The artisan resides on the hillside of Mount Kinpo in Kumamoto prefecture. He not only works on the artistic components of swords, but makes accessories and jewelry apropos of a modern sensibility. Every piece is order-made, and he does all the work himself, from preparing the base material to the finished work.
Today I have the opportunity to observe the making of a brooch in the form of a katana’s hand guard. Grooves are etched horizontally, vertically, and diagonally into a base of iron using a technique called nunome-kiri. The grooves are formed by applying a chisel’s edge to the metal surface and gently, rhythmically tapping the handle with a hammer.
“It may look as though I’m continuously moving the chisel, but in fact the chisel itself moves very slightly from the tapping, cutting uniform grooves of between .1 and .2 millimeters.