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From Value One, Spring 2015 No.48  

A tea ceremony kettle crafted by Hotsuma Wakabayashi; the rough surface characterizes Tenmyo castings


Sano City in Tochigi Prefecture is well known for Sano Yakuyoke Daishi, or Sano Evil Expelling Temple. The area, called Tenmyo until the Edo Period (1603–1867), is a casting town with a ten-century history.

The origins of Tenmyo castings date back to the Heian Period (794–1185), when Fujiwara Hidesato, an influential warrior of Shimotsuke Province (today's Tochigi Prefecture), brought imoji or casting masters from Kawachi Province (the eastern part of today's Osaka Prefecture) to produce weapons. In later years, their activities were no longer limited to making weapons; they also produced diverse castings including kettles for the tea ceremony, bells and statues of Buddha for temples, and even cooking pots. In the world of the tea ceremony, Ashiya in the west (today's Ashiya-machi in Fukuoka Prefecture) and Tenmyo in the east were acclaimed as two major production centers of tea ceremony utensils. Even Sen no Rikyu, the artist who established the tea ceremony as a major Japanese art, reportedly used kettles cast in Tenmyo.

Hotsuma Wakabayashi is the fifth head of the Wakabayashi Foundry inaugurated in 1846. He's a leading authority on Tenmyo castings, and his works include the teakettle at Todaiji in Nara Prefecture. "Sometimes a kettle of mine is used in the same tea ceremony room as a historically famous one," he says. "Can you think of any greater honor or pleasure for a casting master?" Wakabayashi tells how deeply this encounter affected him, so far apart both in time and in space.

Tenmyo castings are characterized by their rough surface. Referring to this feature, Wakabayashi says, "I would like to make people feel the tenderness and healing effects of castings in spite of the hardness of iron." Inherited techniques from previous generations do not change greatly. Iron is melted and poured into molds baked from sand and clay. This simple but deep-rooted work "gives every single utensil something that reminds you of the souls of earlier generations, some mystique."

Casting was once a privileged occupation open only to those having Imperial licenses. Professor Shoji Sasamoto, vice president of Shinshu University, says: "Casting masters were respected as beings close to gods and Buddha as they made statues of Buddha and temple bells. An influential master would employ dozens of craftsmen, and had his own ships for physical distribution. He was like a trading company is today." He affirms the considerable influence of the casting business in medieval Japan.

A local casting master in Tenmyo made the bell in the premises of Sano Yakuyoke Daishi in 1658. The solemn sounds it creates on New Year's Eve conveys to us the souls of casting masters, spanning the centuries of time gap between them and us.

The bell at Sano Yakuyoke Daishi


Wakabayashi at work; he says it is his mission to hand down traditional skills to later generations


The remains of a brick-built casting workshop in Sano City




The Sano Folk Museum
2047 Ohashi-cho, Sano-shi, Tochigi
Tel: +81-283-22-5111
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; closed on Mondays, the day after national holidays, the final day of every month, and the year-end/New Year holidays (Dec. 29–Jan. 3)
Entrance is free

Hotsuma Wakabayashi and his colleagues launched the Tenmyo Casting Tradition Preservation Society to hand down the traditional casting culture of Tenmyo to future generations. The organization conserves about 1,400 precious casting utensils kept by the Wakabayashi family, and is engaged in activities for local residents that include a series of workshops to groom apprentices. In recognition of the significance of this initiative, the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan registered the society as a Future Heritage Project (Mirai Isan) that supports citizens' activities to transmit local culture and natural heritages to future generations. The Sano City Folk Museum exhibits kettles for the tea ceremony and musical instruments for ceremonial use known as waniguchi made during the Muromachi Period (1336–1573) to give visitors a glimpse of the history of Sano and Tenmyo castings.
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