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The Heart of Monozukuri: Takaoka City

2018.04.20

Kanaya-machi streetscape (Photograph courtesy of Takaoka City, Toyama)

The Kanaya-machi district in Takaoka was founded in 1611 when Maeda Toshinaga, retired second lord of the Kaga Domain, gathered seven metal casters together to kick-start the industry. Today, that history still lingers in the streetscape, from the senbon-koshi vertical lattices to the fragments of copper embedded in the paving stones.

When the Hokuriku Shinkansen began service in 2015, it drew Ishikawa and Toyama Prefecture much closer to the capital. The area is full of unique and appealing towns, but on this visit we went to Takaoka City in Toyama. Halfway between Toyama Station and Kanazawa Station, Takaoka is known as a “monozukuri town”—monozukuri being a Japanese word that refers, roughly, to artisanal manufacturing. So, let’s explore the charms of Takaoka City!

 


How Takaoka Became a Center for Traditional Crafts

 

Maeda Toshinaga’s Monozukuri Wonderland

The town of Takaoka was founded in 1609 when Maeda Toshinaga, second lord of the Kaga Domain, built his castle here. Today, Shin-Takaoka Station is the stop between Toyama Station and Kanazawa Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, about ten minutes from both. From Shin-Takaoka Station, the center of town is just a three-minute local train ride or twenty-minute walk away.

The old streetscapes still survive in Takaoka, making for a deeply picturesque town. Takaoka Castle itself was torn down after only six years, but the site is now a public park, and the castle town remains under the watchful gaze of the Great Buddha of Takaoka—one of Japan’s “Three Major Great Buddhas.”

In fact, the 15-meter Great Buddha is also a visible symbol of Takaoka’s monozukuri roots. Along with urushi lacquerware, Takaoka is particularly famous for work in copper and its alloys. The city is recognized as a traditional crafts manufacturing center by Japan’s government, and boasts a 95% share of Japan’s copperware market.

The Great Buddha of Takaoka (Photograph courtesy of Takaoka City, Toyama)

The Great Buddha of Takaoka was originally made of wood, but in 1933, after it was destroyed by fire for the second time, the craftsmen of Takaoka came together to cast a new Great Buddha in bronze.

Takaoka has two Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings. One is Yamacho-suji, where old residences and storehouses still stand. The other, across the Senbo River, is Kanaya-machi.

Maeda Toshinaga always intended to make Takaoka a center of commerce and industry. In 1611, two years after the town’s founding, he put his plan into action, ordering seven metal casters from nearby Nishibu Kanaya Village to move their operations to Kanaya-cho. This was the beginning of Takaoka copperware.

Takaoka urushi lacquerware began in a similar way, with Toshinaga having artisans create armor, furniture, and everyday items. Toshinaga was the driving force behind it all—but he died in 1614, and because of the “One province, one castle” ordinance promulgated in 1611, Takaoka Castle was torn down soon afterward.

Things looked bleak for the town, but fortunately the third lord of Kaga, Maeda Toshitsune, was even more intent on promoting development in the area. Some say that the low samurai population due to the absence of a castle gave the merchant and artisan classes more freedom to prosper and grow. The area has had its ups and downs over the years, and times are hard right now, but the next generation of Takaoka artisans is leading the search for new styles of monozukuri.

Takaoka’s Latest Sightseeing Spot: The New Nousaku Office and Foundry
 
To everyday consumers like us, one of the best-known places in Takaoka is Nousaku Corporation. Nousaku was founded in 1916, giving it more than a century of history in casting. For much of that history, it was a supplier of cast copperware, largely for Buddhist altarpieces, but when current president Katsuji Nousaku took the reigns, the company began designing, producing, and selling its own products, particularly working in tin. Today, Nousaku has outlets in the Palace Hotel Tokyo, Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi, and elsewhere, and its creations are praised around the world.

(Photographs courtesy of Nousaku Corporation)

Left: “Kago-Peony-L,” a bendable tin bowl
Part of Nousaku’s series of “bendable” 100% tin items. Reshapable by hand, these are some of Nousaku’s most popular products.
Right: “Kuzushi-Tare” tableware set
Tin is soft, with a low melting point. It conducts heat well and has antibacterial properties. To distinguish its tin products from those made elsewhere, Nousaku began making tableware out of pure tin.

Nousaku’s new head office is twenty minutes’ drive from Takaoka Station. The building was completed in 2017, and includes a foundry as well as a factory shop and cafe.

Nousaku’s new office and manufacturing center (Photograph courtesy of Nousaku Corporation)

Wooden models on display (Photograph courtesy of Nousaku Corporation)

The first thing visitors see when they cross the threshold is this array of magnolia wood models used in the casting process. The display is more than decorative—some models are still in use, and occasionally employees will come to retrieve one for their work.

The main attraction is the factory tour. This runs five times a day, and accepts tour groups of between one to sixty people. Nousaku actively encouraged visits from children and others even at its old location, but its new office includes a specially designed tour route that goes right past the artisans at work, allowing visitors to experience the sounds, heat, and smells of the workshop for themselves. Even the smallest groups are taken through the facility by dedicated staff members like Head of Industrial Sightseeing Chiharu Nousaku, and tours can also be conducted in English. (As a general rule, tours last thirty minutes.) Nousaku’s old site reportedly attracted ten thousand visitors every year, but their new office sees that many every month, coming from inside and outside Takaoka City. 

Head of Industrial Sightseeing Chiharu Nousaku speaking to a tour group (© Mime Kihara)

Head of Industrial Sightseeing Chiharu Nousaku spent her college days in Kobe, then worked at an apparel company there after graduation. She decided to return to the family business after seeing Nousaku’s products appreciated in Kobe and being inspired by the buzz around them.

 

(Photograph courtesy of Nousaku Corporation)


Top left: The workshop (© Mime Kihara)
Brass signs hang here and there on the workshop walls, indicating different work areas with the Japanese characters for “Copper,” “Tin,” and other materials. Casting is performed twice a week under the sign reading “Furnace.”
Top right: The hands-on casting workshop
Visitors can try casting for themselves, making tin cups, chopstick rests, paperweights and so on. The time required depends on the product, and can range from 30 to 90 minutes. Unlike pottery or work in other kinds of metal, the finished product can be taken home that day.
Bottom left: Imono Kitchen
At Imono Kitchen, visitors can enjoy lunch or buns served on Nousaku tableware—a great opportunity to experience its heat conduction and usability first-hand.
Bottom right:
Toyama Prefecture tourism information corner (© Yasushi Nakamura)
The Toyama Prefecture tourism information corner inside the facility. Nousaku surveyed its employees on their favorite places in Toyama, and included every restaurant, hotel, or sightseeing spot that got three or more votes. Employees from the Industrial Sightseeing Department visited each spot to write up reports, complete with photographs, which are on display on cards here. Free of charge.

As well as these permanent displays, Nousaku also regularly collaborates with companies in other industries. “We’re planning seasonal tea parties in the gardens and all sorts of other events to encourage return visits,” says Chiharu Nousaku. Sightseeing holidays tend to focus on shopping and eating, but Nousaku hopes to convey the interest and coolness of monozukuri by helping visitors see and feel it for themselves. They certainly have plenty to offer. But is it because they’re a unique kind of company?

In fact, no. The unique appeal of Takaoka is exactly what it lets visitors in to see.

 

 
Nousaku
8-1 Takaoka City Office Park, Toyama
http://www.nousaku.co.jp/main/en/

  • Factory Tour: Free of charge. (Advance reservation required. Closed Sundays, public holidays, year’s end/New Year’s period, and some Saturdays
  • Nousaku Lab (metal casting workshop): Paperweight - 1,000 JPY; Chopstick rest - 2,500 JPY; etc.
  • Imono Kitchen (cafe): Lunch set - 1,500 JPY; Cheesecake - 450 JPY; etc.

 

Writing and photography by Mime Kihara