Sakura cherry blossoms are probably one of the first things that Japanese and foreigners alike associate with the image of Japan. Although Japan does not have an official national flower, when asked, most people will reply with either sakura or kiku (chrysanthemums). Sakura is more than just a pleasant sight to behold−it is synonymous with the arrival of spring, and interwoven in the fabric of Japanese culture. Indeed, the whole tree is used in various ways, from food to arts and crafts.
Kabazaiku, a traditional craftwork of the town of cherry trees
Kabazaiku (kaba “cherrybark” + zaiku “craftsmanship”), is a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation in Kakunodate, Akita. Home to traditional samurai residences and rows of magnificent cherry trees, the town is often described as “michinoku no sho-Kyoto”, the “little Kyoto of the North”. Michinoku refers to the Mutsu province, an old province of Japan in the areas of present-day Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, and parts of Akita prefecture, although sometimes the word is used in broader terms to describe the entire Tohoku region. Sho-Kyoto is used to describe areas that look like or have historical ties with Kyoto, or boast notable traditional industries or performing arts.
Originally kaba used to refer to all types of bark, but nowadays the word is synonymous with wild cherry bark. Although there are mainly five to seven types of cherry blossoms, kabazaiku only makes use of yamazakura (hill cherry), due to its durability. Its beauty has been praised in classical texts such as the Manyoshu and The Tale of Genji.
The history of kabazaiku
Kabazaiku is said to have been introduced to Kakunodate around 230 years ago during the Tenmei era (1781-1788), although its actual roots are unknown. Under the feudal lord’s protection, lower-class bushi (warriors) used to take up kabazaiku as a leisurely activity or side job. Pillboxes and cigarette cases were the most common products during this period, and feudal lords used to bring them as tributes when they reported to Edo, the former name of Tokyo.
Upon entering the Meiji era however, the samurai post was abolished and many warriors found themselves out of work. With this, kabazaiku transitioned from simple side work into full-time jobs, and with the emergence of powerful merchants it gradually flourished into a stable industry. In 1976, kabazaiku was the first in Akita to be designated a traditional handicraft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.The crafting process
Kabazaiku is a time-consuming and meticulous process. To begin with, the bark is stripped from the trunk and left to dry for a year, until all moisture is completely removed. Next, the rough surface of the bark is scraped off with a knife and glued onto wooden molds with an adhesive called nikawa. The surface is then sanded with shagreen (sharkskin) until smooth, and finally polished with a cloth. The procedure that requires the most care is the scraping of the surface with a knife, as the slightest error could lead to a dull and discolored product.
Sustainability and modern usage
Some of you may wonder if the kabazaiku tradition is harmful to the environment. The yamazakura tree happens to be protected by an outer and inner layer, so unless the tree is completely stripped of both layers, it will not die. Experts called kabahagi will remove the cherry bark in a way that does not harm the tree, thus allowing the yamazakura to regenerate a new layer of bark and continue to grow.
Nowadays a wide array of kabazaiku products are available, ranging from tea tins and kitchenware to trendier items such as earrings and even iPhone cases. The durability, unique texture, and delicate handiwork of these products are sure to impress you.