For centuries, Japanese craftsmen have, with a mix of remarkable dexterity, a keen eye for detail and a finely honed aesthetic sensibility, transformed all manner of material into works of art, in the form of pottery, textiles, basketry and even glass.
While it takes countless years of dedicated practice to achieve even a moderate level of success in any type of craft, it is possible these days to find studios all over Japan where complete novices can try their hand at throwing a pot on a wheel or dyeing fabric with natural indigo dye.
What better way to appreciate the beauty of traditional Japanese craft than to have a go at it yourself?
So it was that two dozen of us, former classmates in Tokyo who had scattered all over the world in the decades since we studied together, met in Asakusa, in the western part of Tokyo, to learn (first hand) about Edo Kiriko, the famed Japanese form of glass-cutting.
The occasion was a class reunion, and the idea of spending an afternoon learning about a traditional craft seemed a fun thing to do — not just for those visiting from abroad but also for those of us who lived in Japan but had rarely ventured beyond our 21st century settings.
The venue was Soukichi, a small shop specialising in glassware, which also offers lessons in how to cut simple Edo Kiriko designs into glass tumblers and small sake cups.
The shop is located just a stone’s throw away from Asakusa station and the imposing Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, which leads to Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji, built in 645.
The store was packed on the day we visited, with customers precariously picking their way through the small retail space crowded with displays of exquisite glass ware.
When the time for our Edo Kiriko lesson arrived, we were escorted through a door next to the shop entrance, up a flight of stairs in a rather dingy building, into a tiny room crammed with desks at the front and strange looking apparatuses towards the back of the room.
After taking our places at the desks, in front of a selection of glasses in different shapes, colors and designs, we were instructed to choose the shape of glass tumbler we wanted to use, as well as what kind of design we would like to cut into the glass.
I chose a simple tumbler and a design resembling thick grass growing around the base of the glass.
Edo Kiriko glass-cutting was started in Tokyo in 1834 by Kyubei Kagaya, who ran a glassware store in Edo, the current-day Tokyo, after he returned from the western city of Osaka, where he learned various glass-cutting techniques.
What distinguishes Edo Kiriko from other types of cut glass is the use of patterns originating from the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, such as yarai, a rough bamboo fence pattern, and nanako, a pattern of small dots resembling fish roe.
Such designs are often very intricate and can cover the entire glassware.
But, not surprisingly, perhaps, the patterns available for us novices were of the simplest kind, making it relatively easy for us to choose what we wanted on our glass tumblers.
Once we had selected our glass and design, we were given black felt markers and instructed to draw an outline of the pattern that would go on the bottom of the glass.
Then came the difficult part – cutting the design into the glass with a power-driven cutting wheel.
When the instructor gave us a demonstration, it did not look that difficult.
But the glass needs to be held at a certain angle and kept steady, so that the wheel hits it exactly along the lines of the design you want to cut into it.
I quickly discovered that there were two problems trying to do this. First, the water squirting onto the glass to keep it cool made it almost impossible to see either the design I had drawn or the exact spot where the wheel was hitting the glass.
The second problem was trying to keep the glass steady under the pressure of the cutting wheel that was rotating at a frenetic pace. Try as I did to keep a firm hold, the tumbler kept wobbling under the pressure of the rapidly revolving wheel, so that the straight lines I thought I was cutting turned out crooked.
The one comfort was that I could tell from the way everyone was concentrating on the task at hand, the gasps of horror emanating when someone’s cut turned out to be too long or too short, and the excited comments that punctuated the hour or so we had at the cutting wheel, that we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of trying to make Edo Kiriko glassware.
Although many of us conceded defeat and ended up asking our instructor to re-cut the designs we had made, to make them look better, we left mightily pleased with our efforts and the one-of-a-kind cut glass tumblers we took home with us.
Edo Kirko Glass Cutting Lessons
Soukichi can accommodate up to 12 people (6 each in two rooms) and has one English-speaking instructor.
Y3,240 and upwards depending on the type of glass chosen.