Year of Grace, Day 37. Reverse engineering

I love baskets, and before M and I decided to downsize, I collected them. I still have my old collection, stored in Leamington, where I hope they have survived without being touched or seen or appreciated all these years. And more importantly, I trust they have not dried out, as they need immersing in water to rehydrate the fibres and wash off any accumulated dust, once a year at least. It had occurred to me to donate them to the nearby museum of country crafts and handiwork. There, with proper storage under controlled humidity and temperature, they may last longer than with my amateurish efforts. Perhaps others may find in their often quite complex structure, or even in the simplest ones, the natural harmony of form and function that I appreciate.

One of these I simply could not bear to part with and I have it with me here in Bonn. It is my favourite. Its form is that of a hexagon. It would’ve been a proper circular basket, but at three points, a flat piece of bamboo wider than any other in the basket has been inserted to create a narrowing in of the form; thus creating six sides – three convex and three concave.  Ever curious about the how of things, I tried my hand at recreating it in Leamington, though not quite succeeding. But the attempt at reverse-engineering it was quite fun and provided a few days’ entertainment and recreation (pardon the pun).

My reverse engineering attempt

My one  attempt at reverse engineering a beloved basket.

While living in Yuzawa, Akita in Japan’s Snow Country, I took to visiting craftsmen other than my friend, Goto-san the cooper and kitemaker. There were quite a few basket makers, most likely the last of their kind there. Just as with Goto-san, none of them wished their offspring to take on their specialized skills or their occupations. They preferred them to work in a regularly paid job – to be “salarymen” サラリーマン. And that meant finding a desk job as Goto-san’s son did.

I share with you a few photographs of those craftsmen. In this day of plastic bags and industrially assembled disposable containers, their handiwork is now considered out of reach of ordinary people’s pockets. There are a few fortunate craftspeople in Japan whose work is exceedingly valued and they have been designated National Living Treasures. These Yuzawa craftsmen created everyday baskets – for fruits, mainly apples, which are the region’s most abundant fruit; for fish; to go to market with; for just about anything that needed to be carried. They are not all baskets meant to grace a decorative alcove – tokonoma – in a tea room with a few choice flowers in season. A few are. But most of these craftspeople’s work were simple everyday, unabashedly straightforward baskets. They are all to me — whatever their purpose, whether functional or decorative — equally lovely. Perhaps now, over thirty years later, no one makes them anymore in Yuzawa. What there is, is most likely made in and imported from China. And more’s the pity.

I wish now I had taken more photos, made more visits, bought more baskets. It is evident from their faces that, difficult though it must have been to be economically secure from their specialized skills, they were happy in their work. Their faces look content and satisfied. And what’s more, their physical agility would put much younger people (that would’ve meant me at the time)  to shame.

I am grateful that I had a chance to visit these craftsmen in Yuzawa, Akita and observe their skills. With so many years in between and my notebooks of that time in storage, I am afraid I have forgotten their names or may have mislabelled some photos. I ask for forgiveness in advance. If any reader from Yuzawa should chance upon these photographs, I would appreciate your identifying some of these marvellously skilled and fine Yuzawa craftspeople. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to spend some time with them.

どうもおつかれさまでした。Domo otsukaresama deshita. Thank you for all your fine work and untiring efforts.

2 thoughts on “Year of Grace, Day 37. Reverse engineering

  1. Wonderful that you were able to document a dying breed of craftsmen. There were many things Japan lost with its industrialization after the war and during the war. The period leading-up to this, was also a period when many things were lost. What people don’t realize is that there are some things you cannot get back, once they are gone.


    • Sadly, there is a steep price we pay towards industrialization and economic development. The interesting thing is that now, when these skills have been all but lost, there is a heartening revival of interest in them.


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