A Unique Japanese Handicraft


DENSE forest covers the mountains of Hakone in the vicinity of Mount Fuji in Japan. Taking a seldom-traveled winding mountain road, we arrive at a quaint hamlet named Hatajuku. This tranquil community is the birthplace of yosegi.

Yosegi literally means “combination of pieces of wood.” Its hallmark is geometric designs on the surface of wooden handicrafts ranging from simple bookmarks to boxes with sliding drawers. There are designs in a variety of shapes and colors. Upon realizing that these patterns are not painted but are assembled by gluing together wood of different colors, we view yosegi items with renewed appreciation.

 How has this unique handicraft developed? In the 1800’s, a craftsman named Nihei Ishikawa devised the concept of gluing together wood of different colors. Then, by crosscutting thin sheets of wood from the original blocks, he crafted boxes and other items with mosaic designs.

Later a more efficient method of producing yosegi was developed. This involved planing original blocks into paper-thin sheets and gluing them onto thicker pieces of wood as a veneer. This made it possible to create affordable souvenirs for those visiting the nearby hot springs of Hakone.

Many different woods are used to make yosegi. The white color, for example, comes from the spindle and dogwood trees, yellow from the lacquer and Japanese wax trees, light brown from the cherry and zelkova trees, and black from the katsura tree.

When visiting Hakone, you may be content to purchase small yosegi coasters or bookmarks, which are comparatively inexpensive. Even these small mementos will bring back memories of visiting Hakone in the vicinity of famous Mount Fuji and getting a glimpse of an intriguing craft that started more than 150 years ago.

[Box/Pictures on page 19]


The yosegi craftsman planes woods of different colors to the desired thickness. Then he glues the sheets together in layers. A colorful pattern appears on the side of the glued sheets. The craftsman then crosscuts the glued sheet to get strips of layered wood to fit into a special mold. (1) After smoothing the strips with a plane, he takes them out of the mold, glues them together to form a pattern, and binds them with cotton strings. This becomes a basic unit for yosegi.

Next, the craftsman again glues together several units to produce a larger unit. (2) This he saws into slices. (3) Then he arranges these into a yet larger pattern and glues these together. This process continues until the craftsman has made a large plate called a tanegi, or a wooden material piece.

The craftsman now has a basic pattern for the finished product. (4) With a special plane, he shaves the tanegi into paper-thin sheets called zuku. (5) After these sheets are ironed, the craftsman is ready to decorate his wooden artifacts with the zuku veneer.

[Pictures on page 18]

“Yosegi” patterns are not painted but are assembled by gluing together wood of different colors