Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [second part]

Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [second part]

Approaching a wooden bucket craftsman who is taking on the challenge of creating products that match the modern age by combining traditional techniques with new designs.

ANAORI: For wood bucket craftsmen, wood is vital. They must therefore train their eyes to be able to judge its quality. How did you acquire the know-how and skills required for this?

Nakagawa: I learned them myself and through consultation. My father used to take me to timber markets in Kiso and Yoshino several times a year since I was in junior high school, and I would examine these materials. But in reality, the ability to choose good quality wood didn’t develop until I bought wood myself. Then after five or ten years of buying a dozen kinds of wood a year, I began to understand what kind of wood is suitable for our work, and to discern the good wood from the bad. Rather than buying wood from specialized dealers, we go to markets where numbers of trees are lined up and sold in a place like a sports field immediately after cutting out from the mountain or that sell them by bids or by auction, and that are organized in places like sports fields. We examine and look at dozens or hundreds of trees one by one.

It is a kind of gamble when we buy wood, because we buy it in logs, and we can’t ask for it to be cut to see what it looks like on the inside. We have to walk around the tree logs several times, look at the condition of the bark and whether it’s swollen, and try imagining the inside from the state of the bark, bumps and the cuts, then buy it. Even then, we sometimes find that the wood is rotten after cutting it, or that the color has changed, etc. So there really is an element of chance like gambling. But I also take great pleasure in it, because I sometimes buy good wood at a low price, or on the contrary, I spend a lot of money for wood of bad quality. The conversations that ensue form an important part of this pleasure.

The annual rings indicate how the tree has grown, so I imagine its growth by looking at it. I will go buying wood thinking that this kind of wood is suitable for making this or that product. On the other hand, my wife sometimes complains that I don't get home for quite a while when I go to buy wood.

ANAORI: Our knowledge of trees and plants has grown dramatically in the last ten to twenty years. Plants form an active ecosystem, and some researchers say they are even intelligent. Our perception of trees and plants in general has greatly changed, but how can we take advantage of this research to evaluate the quality of wood and trees? Do you mostly rely on your experience and the criteria you have been taught? 
Nakagawa: No. The wood that I use most often, or that my father or grandfather used more often than me, had this kind of accumulated information passed down to us. I also buy and use wood while referring to what comes out of new research.

I don’t just rely on my experience, but also use data such as moisture content, Young’s modulus, repulsive force of the wood when stretched or shrunk, etc. And I think the most important thing is that in the past, there was definitely a cult of natural wood. A natural forest is one where no one interferes with the growth of the trees: the seeds are left to disperse and the tree sprouts and grows for hundreds of years. On the other hand, an artificial forest is a forest where the trees are cut in the mountains, then alpine farmers planted seedlings, pruned the trees to grow over generations.

Of these two schools of thought, the natural forest school has been around for a long time in the woodworking industry. But cut natural wood, and it’s all over. After that, all you have to do is wait for the seeds to fall out on their own. But in the case of artificial forests, humans are to some extent involved with nature to grow the trees, so it is a more sustainable ecosystem. In the case of Japan, and especially for the trees in Yoshino, there has been a wood production system for about 500 years, with people working in harmony with the mountains, so these trees have several advantages. In many regards, these advantages are at the same level as those of natural trees, or even higher.

That’s why, even nowadays, when we say that a table was made from a single piece of natural wood, we think it’s of great value, but in my opinion, a tree that has been looked after by humans for 500 years, which is more than 10 generations, has a value that bears comparison with natural wood. In fact, if you take an ecosystem perspective, I think that it has even more value. That’s the kind of thing that comes out of recent research, and that I take into account when buying wood.

ANAORI: What kind of wood do you actually use?

Nakagawa: There are not so many kinds of wood used for wooden buckets, especially for the ones we make. There are about five kinds that we mainly use, namely Japanese cypress, sawara cypress, Japanese umbrella pine, Japanese cedar and lignitized Japanese cedar. These are the main types of trees that we use to make buckets, and they are known as coniferous trees. Coniferous trees have a higher oil content than hardwoods, making them extremely resistant to water. Buckets are essentially containers for water, which is why we choose wood that is resistant to it. Also, if we compare conifers and hardwoods, conifers have needle-like leaves, while hardwoods have broad leaves, which is what we imagine when we hear the word “leaf”. Another difference is that conifers are less prone to warping, twisting and cracking. When hardwoods are made into boards, they tend to warp and bend due to moisture drying. Coniferous trees are less subject to this phenomenon. If you put water on it, the wood will get wet, right? If we wet it and then dry it and if we repeat this cycle, we realize that coniferous trees are more water resistant, and that is why we mainly use them. Among these, the Japanese umbrella pine is the most resistant to water, which is why it is often used for bathtubs and bath accessories. Secondly, there is the Japanese cypress which is also used for bathtubs. Another of its characteristics is its very good scent. Japanese people tend to like its smell, so it is used for building materials, or for interior items like champagne buckets, which release the aroma of Japanese cypress when water is poured into them. Sawara cypress, which is used to make rice boxes and sushi buckets, has a very sweet and light aroma, so it is used as a vessel for dishes and a container for rice. Each wood has its own characteristics, and we use each one depending on the occasion. Last but not least, cedar wood was originally used for barrels used for brewing sake, so it lends itself well to drink containers and is often used for large sake glasses and chirori (a vessel used for heating sake).

ANAORI: You can’t mention buckets without mentioning hoops. What are hoops exactly?

Nakagawa: Personally, I’m always thinking about combining the good things of the past with new things. In the traditional style, there are many bamboo hoops, which have been used for many centuries. However, bamboo begins to crack and fall apart after prolonged use, so from about the Edo period onward, metals such as wire and copper began to be used. As for us, we mainly use silver hoops with a metal alloy called nickel silver.

One of its advantages is its aesthetic appearance. The other advantage of this material, which is that nickel silver is also a material for springs, so it adapts well to the shape of wood when it expands and contracts, which happens when wooden buckets absorb water and dry, and as a result, it is difficult for the hoop to come off. If you use a copper hoop (copper being a rather soft material), when the wood expands, the hoop expands too, but when the wood dries, the copper doesn’t contract, so the hoop will loosen and come off. For the past five years or so, I have been studying these new materials and using them instead of the old ones if I deem them more suitable.

As the very common Japanese expression “the hoops come undone” (meaning: acting excessively after being freed from something that was restricting you) proves, the hoops are an essential part of wooden buckets. Buckets are made of several pieces of wood, which are held together by the hoop. At first glance, it doesn’t look like there are that many pieces of wood stacked on top of each other, but that’s what makes the hoop unique. As you can see, the structure is composed of more than 10 thin pieces, which are attached to each other with this hoop. The bottom board is inserted inside, and while there is a force trying to expand the bucket, the hoop exerts a contractile force on the bucket. It is the balance of these forces that maintains the shape of the bucket. The hoop is therefore not a mere decorative element, but one of the most important parts.

ANAORI: Unlike disposable plastic products, handmade products enjoy a relationship with the people who buy them that lasts for decades, and in some cases, generations. What about buckets? Is your relationship with customers and the repair process changing?

Nakagawa: Originally, the basic principle of traditional handicrafts was to be used for a long time, while being repaired and maintained when needed. The same is true of buckets, whose structure allows them to be repaired and maintained easily. When the hoop is removed, some glue remains between the parts, but when the parts are immersed in hot water, they come off. Then, all that is left to do is replace the damaged parts with new ones and reassemble the bucket. So, just like the human body, whose dying cells are replaced by new ones, the buckets can be used indefinitely by keeping replacing the damaged parts.

Among the products that have been renewed and have a structure that allows for an endless use, I have found interesting the repair of a bucket that was brought to me from Koyasan in Nara, and that was used as a horse trough for about 200 years. In the past, some people went to the temples on horseback. Two hundred years ago, it was customary to leave a bucket full of water outside one’s door for visitors’ horses to drink from, and I was requested to repair one such bucket. I asked my client if he still used it, and he told me that the people who came to visit him all used cars, but that he still put this bucket of water in front of his door by custom when he had visitors, and that’s why he wanted me to fix it.

Looking at this bucket that has been in use for nearly 200 years, I saw signs of repairs that must have been from about 100 years ago, and others from 50 years ago. The bucket had been used so much that it was almost completely black, but in some places the color was a little lighter. I proceeded to replace two damaged parts with brand new wood, and all the rest was black. As I repaired this bucket, I thought to myself that new parts were mixed with parts from 200, 100, and 50 years ago to form some kind of mosaic, and that this bucket will continue to be used whilst all its parts will eventually be replaced.

In the days when there were still many bucket makers, about one per town, it was easy to have them repaired and maintained. I was told that children were sent to the local bucket maker to have the hoop tightened, as if they were sent on an errand. But now that it is difficult to even find a bucket maker, people from all over Japan are sending me buckets for repair, whereas in the past, the person who made the buckets was responsible for repairing them.

What I find interesting when it happens is that by taking apart and then reassembling another craftsman’s bucket, you can discover manufacturing processes different from your own. You then realize that he attached a lot of importance to a particular part of his work. Even though I know nothing about this craftsman from the past, I feel like I am talking to him as I repair his work.


ANAORI: Except for now, due to the current situation, you used to travel abroad a lot and had many contacts in foreign countries. In this context, I think you have noticed the place of bucket making in Japan, and the differences with similar techniques and traditions in other cultures.

Nakagawa: Yes, before COVID, I used to travel abroad seven or eight times a year, for almost two months each year, because I exhibited in fairs and shows abroad, but that is no longer the case. What I discovered abroad is that wood buckets were actually used all over the world until about 100 years ago. They have disappeared due to the widespread use of plastic and other industrial products. In Europe, where I often go, you can see a lot of buckets and barrels in the illustrations of old books, but in reality, those that are mainly used in everyday life are barrels for wine and whiskey. Only barrels for brewing remain, and in households, neither wooden buckets nor barrels are used anymore.

In this sense, there is more left in Japan. In short, while buckets were discontinued over 100 years ago, only in Japan, until about 40 years ago, you could find at least one bucket in every home. But since there is a span of almost 100 years, when I bring in a wooden bucket like this one, I think it creates a sense of nostalgia but also of novelty. This is especially the case in Europe, where it is common to paint wooden buckets, but also the outside of barrels. But buckets completely made of raw wood like this are a rare sight. At least, that’s the impression I got.

So, it was often perceived as something old but new from Japan, which was a novel experience for me. That’s why it’s easy to link it to design. When I show my work at international trade shows, I get many requests from designers who want to collaborate with my techniques. So, I think this has to be something unique abroad.

On the other hand, it is the nostalgic side that stands out in Japan. I am often told to do my best to preserve this culture of the past, but if the people who tell me that don’t buy anything, how can they expect me to do so? Despite that, I wish that this feeling of nostalgia would remain present, even if my buckets are not used in everyday life. Although I hope that this nostalgic aspect remains, it is unfortunately on the wane.

And without subsidies from the government or the prefecture, this culture will ultimately disappear. If we want to pass on the wooden bucket as a living technique, it is better that it is perceived in a positive way as a novelty from overseas, because this proves its potential, and that is why we are challenging the foreign market.

In the final part next time, we will introduce an episode about the development of the kakugama’s wooden lid.
Stay tuned for updates!

Photographer: Kentaro Kumon


Shuji Nakagawa


Born in Kyoto in 1968. Graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Kyoto Seika University, majoring in three-dimensional art in 1992. Upon graduation, studied under his father Kiyotsugu (a living national treasure and holder of important intangible cultural assets) at NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI. Has been running NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI Hirakoubou in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, as the third successor since 2003.

1996: Won the prize for excellence at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
1998: Won the Grand Prize at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
From 2001 to 2005: Worked as a part-time lecturer at Kyoto University of Art and Design
2010: Produced an official champagne cooler for Dom Pérignon
2016: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London, UK
2017: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts), in Paris, France
2017: Selected as a finalist for the Loewe Craft Prize
2021: Won the 1st Japanese Culture Grand Prix
2021: Won the 13th Creating Tradition Award
Additionally, he has participated in many individual and collective exhibitions both in Japan and abroad. He has been a member of GO ON, a group of young traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, since its formation.

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