As soon as I arrive to Asahikawa in Hokkaido, I felt at home! The climate is very similar to that of our hometown in Canada, so seeing patches of snow on the ground in late May was actually a welcome sight. I am immediately greeted by our friends Taku (President of IFJ Holdings) and Naoto (To-Mo-Ni) upon arrival and embark upon a very tight schedule of studio visits and factory tours over the next 30hrs.
Our first stop is the studio and factory of master craftsman Takahashi Kougei, most notably the maker behind the wood dinnerware brands Cara and Kami and the founder of the Asahikawa group of wood tableware makers.
Takahashi specializes in producing products on the lathe, initially making table legs and ornamental pillars before turning his attention to producing wooden cups and sugar pots in the late 1980s.
The company has grown rapidly since partnering up with prominent designers Oji Masanori and Rina Ono, but still maintains a focus on creating simple, functional tableware from locally sourced lumber in Hokkaido. It was truly an honor to see the production behind our latest order of wooden vessels, along with all the specialty tools and trade secrets used to achieve such a design.
Next stop, the Taisetsu ceramics studio.
During our pop-up in Manhattan, we carried a selection of colorful ceramic bowls with a crystalline finish. To say they were very popular would be an understatement, so I knew I needed to visit the Taisetsu studios to find out the process behind their beloved crystal glaze.
We first come across a house converted into a showroom with a small passageway leading to an adjacent building. Opening the doors reveals the organized chaos of any ceramics studio, but heaven to any artist fortunate to work with clay. I immediately have flashbacks to days longs ago when I could consider myself as one of those artists. Specialty tools used to shape clay, smooth surfaces and apply glazes line each table, while shelves packed with unfired forms line the exterior walls.
The 5 kilns in the studio are both electric and gas powered, in order to create specific desired effects. The notorious Taisetsu crystal glaze being the hardest to achieve, involving a delicate balance between temperature fired, time in the kiln and the amount of glaze applied. I spend the rest of the visit shopping for items to line our cupboards at home and afterwards Taku, Naoto and I grab a bite to eat.
As customary it seems whenever I meet up with these two gentlemen, we fit in some time to indulge upon some of the local delicacies… green tea soba, a Japanese take on a baked potato, soft tofu in ponzu and of course, sake! Oh, they know me so very well! My favorite, definitely the buttery miso ramen. I also learned all about using the word “barikata” upon ordering to ensure your noodles are cooked extra hard. Soft noodles are common for ramen in Hokkaido so ordering hard noodles ensures it will come out perfectly al dente.
Afterwards we continue on the tour and visit Naoto’s very own stomping grounds.
At Naoto’s studio we learn all about the inspiration behind his To-Mo-Ni wrapqraw, the cord management tool for all your devices, particularly useful for headphone cords.
Fun-loving Naoto Yoshida is a former Japanese rock band star and a technology aficionado, so a laptop, ipad, iphone, digital camera, wireless routers and even motion sensors are always within his reach. Now, what do all these items have in common… they all require a variety of cords to function and charge. Hence, the need for cord management tools. Making them look beautiful too, brilliant! We sit down with Naoto’s Mom and enjoy a cup of green tea before heading to meet Hiroyuki Inoue of Akarino-Tane next.
Hiroyuki Inoue is the maker behind a line of wooden products with his main focus on projects for children. When we visit his wood-shop with shelves lined with photographs of his kids, we clearly see where he gets his inspiration.
Hiroyuki is best known for the Korokoro Akari lamp constructed of wood veneer triggered by motion sensors that lights up gradually. This lamp is popular amongst children in Japan, but I do have to admit, it also appeals to me. Particularly noticeable amongst the rest of his works is the scale of the pieces. Smaller and more delicately crafted, his works are all about the details, especially apparent in his miniature Chiisaki-Hanaire vases.
Visiting the Tanno Masakage studio was especially exciting. I’ve been admiring their wooden business card holders ever since the day Oji Masanori pulled out his business card from one of their intricately crafted boxes and handed it to me.
The visit was made even more memorable when we had the chance to meet Tanno’s father, Norio Masakage. Norio taught his son the art of wood crafting and Tanno has been continuing the tradition ever since. Since Norio stopped making his boxes full time, it was great to see some of his old designs in all of his favorite kinds of wood. We were even able to pick up a selection of Norio’s boxes for the store, a unique opportunity that we’re so grateful to have.
The father and son duo have been working alongside each other for years in adjacent workspaces so it’s easy to see where Tanno gets his attention to detail. Their skills are shared and their traditions passed down, making each box meaningful as part of their wonderful family legacy. Maybe one day Tanno’s baby will take over the reigns as well!
Our last stop was to Ibazen, to visit the workshop and home of founder Iba Takahito. Ibazen is best known for their stools that Iba creates with solid oak wood and a special urushi lacquer finish. The results are beautiful!
It was nice to see his family making use of the furniture he made with his own hands… wall clocks, a collapsible low dining table and of course his stools in different heights.
Needless to say, this trip to Hokkaido was pretty incredible! It was great to see how the work of each designer or artisan was influenced by their daily lives. Many, like Iba Takahito, lead a family-oriented lifestyle and we’re so thankful to have been invited into their homes and studios where they work on a daily basis, see their process first hand and to meet their families. Thank you, Hokkaido!
Special thanks to Taku and Naoto for guiding the tour and to Naoto for the additional photos.