June 21, 2024

From the art of giving broken ceramics a new life to creating traditional personalized seals carved with hit manga and pop culture characters, centuries-old crafts are giving tourists present-day experiences with a flavor of Japanese authenticity.

Boyana Babanovski, who recently visited Japan for the first time, is among a growing number of tourists who have opted to go beyond typical sightseeing itineraries and instead are immersing themselves in activities that introduce them to traditional Japanese culture.

“This was the first activity we booked for our trip here outside of our (plane) tickets,” Babanovski, who traveled from the United States, said during a one-hour workshop on “kintsugi.”

Kintsugi is the art of restoring ceramics with durable “urushi,” or natural lacquer, and embellishing the seams with Bengal red powder sprinkled with gold, instead of piecing together broken or chipped fragments with glue or tape or simply throwing them away.

Foreign tourists participate in a “kintsugi” workshop in Tokyo on March 24, 2024. (Kyodo)

“I love the concept,” said the 25-year-old Arizona resident who came with her friends to the workshop which offered a taste of the kintsugi pottery-repairing technique, a process which typically takes up to three months to complete.

“We all have issues, cracks, broken things. So it’s nice to make something nice and beautiful out of it,” she said.

While urushi has been used for repairs with glue and protective coatings dating back to the Jomon Period (14,000-300 BC), kintsugi became popular during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573 AD), also helped by the time’s flourishing tea ceremony culture.

Yuki Matano, CEO of workshop organizer Tsugu Tsugu Inc., said she discovered kintsugi years ago when she was living in Europe and wanted to repair her favorite bowl that had broken.

Yuki Matano, CEO of Tsugu Tsugu Inc. that organizes “kintsugi” workshops, poses for a photo in Tokyo on March 24, 2024. (Kyodo)

“At first, I just wanted to continue using what I cherished. Later on, I learned about the spirituality behind kintsugi — seeing breakage as strength — and I saw the business potential in spreading this overseas,” Matano, 40, said.

She studied kintsugi herself, received a master’s in business administration, and in 2020 set up her own company.

Tsugu Tsugu repair kits, including those for beginners, have been sold online, with customers from the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia, and sometimes from parts of Asia including China and South Korea.

Matano offers workshops in Japan now and again in English, as she is determined to spread the tradition to a broader audience.

With a shift in the trend for tourists from buying “things” to buying “experiences” in recent years, Takahiro Noguchi, CEO of BOJ Inc., a Tokyo-based firm specializing in custom-made luxury tours for foreign travelers, said kintsugi has evolved to become a popular activity for overseas travelers.

The appeal behind kintsugi lies in the spirit of valuing objects even if they are broken, Noguchi said, adding interest and awareness of kintsugi has been spurred, for example, by Britain’s tea culture and the value it bestows on cups.

“For well-traveled, affluent people, who typically make overseas trips twice or three times a year, they want to learn and discover something new and be inspired,” Noguchi said.

Another Japanese tradition that has become a point of interest with foreign travelers is the “hanko” carved stamp, or personal seal, with those bearing images of Japanese anime being particularly popular.

Kojiro Okayama’s brainchild, the “Neko zukan” hanko series, features a cat image that can be used officially. The CEO of Okada Shokai Co. expressed his vision of “passing on a centuries-old tradition in a new form and adding value to it through anime.”

Having gained success from a collaboration with the production of the late manga and animation creator Osamu Tezuka and later with other works like the hugely popular anime and manga series Jujutsu Kaisen, Okayama has set his sights on breaking into the U.S. market.

The company started online sales last year, first with Godzilla, followed by anime series My Hero Academia and most recently Naruto, all of which have a strong following in the United States.

“I’d like to believe that hanko culture can permeate the United States, where it is customary to send greeting cards, Okayama said, adding he hopes to see interest in hanko take off as a hobby and a tool for communication.

Hanko shows an image of Japanese anime “Naruto.” (Photo courtesy of Okada Shokai Co.)(Kyodo)

Positive feedback from overseas customers has been very encouraging, he said.

Demonstrating the popularity of hanko as souvenirs, Okayama, 46, said that some foreign visitors have even ordered customized hanko seals for delivery to their hotels during their stays.

Ultimately, Noguchi pointed out, what foreign travelers seek are “unique cultural experiences” that could inspire or impact their way of thinking.

Hanko shows an image of Japanese anime “Naruto.” (Photo courtesy of Okada Shokai Co.)(Kyodo)

For Kaylee Weyrauch, who joined Babanovski in Matano’s workshop, it was eye-opening to learn, among other things, how urushi, the main ingredient used in kintsugi, is collected.

Matano explained to the group that urushi is made of sap from the trunk of a urushi tree. With only about 200 milliliters of sap extracted from each tree, it takes more than a decade for such trees to grow and produce sap.

The way substances were used to restore broken ceramics is “very honoring of the material,” Weyrauch said. “It’s different from how we treat things we use and throw away.”

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