With natural cherry tree gnarl patterns and an elegant brown color, this square kabazaiku tray perfectly complements modern décor.
When spring comes, cherry trees bloom in New York and entrance people with their beautiful flowers, but most New Yorkers may not know that the bark of cherry trees is also used to make beautiful wooden crafts. Tableware and other household items covered with reddish-brown cherry bark look rustic yet chic, complementing both traditional, Japanese-style rooms as well as modern décor. The town of Kakunodate, in Akita Prefecture, has been specializing in kabazaiku (literally “cherry bark craftwork”) for more than 200 years.
Kakunodate, located in a mountainous area in northern Japan, began as a samurai town first governed by the Ashina clan and later by the Satake clan. About 220 years ago, a samurai in the Satake clan learned how to make kabazaiku from a local Shinto priest, and the Satake government then encouraged people in the region to develop this craft into a regional specialty, both because of its beauty and to benefit the local economy. Making kabazaiku soon became a side job for lower-ranked samurai in the region.
There are a few types of kabazaiku determined by different production methods, but the most common style uses gelatin glue to cover items like tableware and stationery with cherry tree bark. Once the bark is removed from the trunk, it’s dried for two years and then polished with a special blade. When the surface is polished, a reddish-brown color is revealed, and the lustrous, smooth surface highlights the bark’s rough gnarl patterns. These processed bark sheets are then glued to tea canisters, tea scoops, trays, and even tables.
The bark often covers the entire surface of an item, but there are also more elaborate techniques such as inlay. The bark is typically polished, but a newer style, shimofuri-gawa (frosted bark), leaves it unpolished, giving it a “frosted” look.
Kabazaiku products are made with yamazakura (mountain cherry trees) because of their durability and beautiful colors and gnarl patterns. The bark is stripped in August and September, when cherry trees contain enough moisture that it is easy to peel the bark from the trunk. Usually only one-third of the bark of a tree is stripped, and the remaining two-thirds keep the tree alive. The bark grows back, so the production process is environmentally sustainable.
Another reason why kabazaiku developed only in Kakunodate is the abundance of cherry trees. The region is one of the best-known cherry blossom–viewing destinations in Japan and is particularly famous for its beautiful shidarezakura(weeping cherry trees) and streets lined with historical landmarks, including samurai mansions. Because of its traditional atmosphere and culture, Kakunodate’s nickname is Sho-Kyoto, meaning “small Kyoto.” From late April to early May, when cherry blossoms are in full bloom, this area attracts tens of thousands of visitors from throughout the world.
Kabazaiku is beautiful, artistic, and functional, and works well with both traditional and modern aesthetics. So the next time you travel to Japan in the spring, head north to visit Kakunodate. Then you can enjoy cherry blossoms and bring back beautiful kabazaiku items to remind you of your visit.
Tea canisters and tea scoops are the most common kabazaiku items. Cherry tree bark is durable and effective at keeping tea dry. Each item has a unique pattern, so look closely before you buy to choose the one that you like most.
This plate is an example of contemporary-style kabazaiku made with unpolished cherry bark. Since it looks frosted, this style is called “frosted bark.”
Kakunodate is famous for cherry blossom viewing. Pale pink cherry blossoms and dark fences alongside a street create a stunning view.
www.city.semboku.akita.jp/sightseeing/densyo/kaba.html (Japanese only)