Genten kaiki (原点回帰) means something like, “returning to the original starting point,” or “going back to the origin.” It’s an idea lacquerware company Gato Mikio adopted as their guiding approach, a philosophy that goes into each and every bowl, plate, tea canister, vase, or sake cup they design and produce.
Since 1908, the Yamanaka Onsen-based company has been making one-of-a-kind objects, remaining steadfast in their commitment to preserving centuries-old techniques. But while Gato Mikio’s creation process is decidedly traditional, their creative process is markedly unconventional.
Gato Mikio was originally a woodworking plant, and its metamorphosis into one of Japan’s most compelling lacquerware producers took three generations to accomplish. As the business was handed down through the Gato family, the emphasis shifted from pure wood-turning to lacquerware, with particular focus on fuki-urushi, a special kind of lacquering process that highlights that natural grain of the wood.
Fuki-urushi is a clear lacquering technique, one that uses lacquer’s gleam to accentuate the organic beauty of the wood itself. Urushi (lacquer) is actually a kind of sap – when the trunk of a lacquer tree is cut, it excretes a yellow-grey sap, which is collected and then filtered of impurities. In other kinds of lacquering processes, colored pigment is added to the processed sap.
But in fuki-urushi, the glossy resin is left as-is, without dyes or added color. This permits the wood to soak up the lacquer unimpeded, causing the patterns of the wood to stand out with a healthy sheen. This surface is then polished with sandpaper, and the entire process is repeated five or six more times, to ensure both prime luster and durability.
Today fourth-generation owner Masayuki Gato and his small team of artisans are using time-tested urushi techniques, as well as kashokubiki, a kind of decorative wood-turning distinctive to the lacquerware of the Yamanaka region. Gato Mikio focuses on a particular motif called sensuji, or “thousand stripes,” which involves using a potter’s wheel to create extremely fine lines in the surface of the wood. The creation of these concentric patterns involves a pain-staking precision, as one mistake risks distorting the entire design.
While Gato Mikio approaches the physical construction of their products from a highly traditional standpoint, their designs radiate an undeniably modern ethos. They have received a variety of awards, including the 2011 German Design Plus Award, both for design sense and efforts in cultivating an ecologically conscious company. In 2012, Gato Mikio received a German Federal Design Award for Karmi, their series of minimalist tea canisters.
Despite international acclaim, Gato Mikio remains firmly ingrained in the community of Yamanaka Onsen. In refusing to trade their traditional methods for modern mass-production, the lacquerware company stresses their commitment to uplift the region and its craftspeople. This is part of their philosophy of genten kaiki – in staying rooted to the community, and in their dedication to age-old techniques, Gato Mikio is working to recover the origins of a lost ideal, a primordial faith in pure creativity.
Paul Discoe, Meditation Room Made of Recycled Cardboard for Burning Man.
"A ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Paul Discoe studied art history and philosophy as an undergraduate in the United States and Buddhist temple design and construction in Japan. He became a student of Suzuki Roshi at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, and, after four years, Suzuki sent him to Japan to train under a traditional master builder for five years. Discoe founded Joinery Structures in 1988. His projects include the Kojin-an Zen temple in Oakland for the Akiba Sensei, the founder's hall and kitchen at Tassajara, the Lindesfarne guesthouse and Wheelwright Center, and the abbot's house at Green Gulch, as well as several private and public projects internationally."
Listen to Paul Discoe's explanation about the project here.
As a memory and reminder for the Japanese Tatami soul and culture, built using only natural materials, this 3 and a half tatami-sized space “Shouji Kekkai An” can be put together and taken apart for easy assembly and stow away, a perfect atomosphere for a tea cermony, or as a guest room. The basis for this furniture, the Ceremony Space, was exhibited in 1987 as an invitation piece at the 10th anniversary of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Adrian Cheng and Shigeru Uchida. Exhibition 'Wander from within'. (2018)
Inheriting the spirit of mindfulness and Japanese tea culture, Shigeru Uchida designed three tea houses, each bearing a different structural form. Built from bamboo with a Japanese paper lining, the small-scale rooms can be dismantled and re-assembled in different locations. This tea room was where Adrian Cheng and Shigeru Uchida held their final design meeting.
The exhibition featured five works created in collaboration between the two designers. ‘au1’ is a bench that seeks to achieve a sense of calmness – a state of mind that mankind has long been seeking. ‘au1 puts the sitter at ease, bringing one closer to nature.’ Sitters within ‘au2’ are embraced by the lightness of japanese chestnut wood and an enveloping form, designed to resemble a cove or valley. the chair becomes a haven for meditation, over which are expansive mountain ranges that spread out like the arms of mother nature, symbolically protecting those inside from troubling thoughts.
Glistening in light, the pearl-like, bright water drops look so surprisingly real as if they might drop from the canvas at any minute.
For more than 40 years, artist Kim Tschang-yeul has persistently painted only one thing, water drops. Though it is hard to comprehend at first glance why the artist, better known as a "water drop painter," spent the better part of his life painting them, one can naturally assume they must mean a lot to him.
Ironically, the 86-year-old said they don't mean anything.
"Water drops mean nothing to me. If anything, they help me erase memories," he said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at his residence in Seoul.
Kim was born in Maengsan, a small, mountain town in North Korea, in 1929, when Korea was still one country under Japanese colonial rule. Living with his extended family, he was taught Chinese characters by his erudite grandfather, who wanted him to become a scholar.
In his early teens, he stumbled upon a book about Leonardo da Vinci in a local library. "Among many great men in history, he looked the greatest to me," he recalled the encounter more than 70 years ago as if it were just yesterday. "He happened to be a painter. I thought, 'I don't need to be ashamed of painting.'"
Once he set his mind, nothing, not even a long letter from his grandfather pleading his eldest grandson -- the one who was expected to carry the family heritage under the Confucius belief -- to reconsider the decision, couldn't stop him.
"Everyone in my family opposed me painting. My mother was the only one who supported me and my decision to become a painter."
In 1949, he entered Seoul National University, majoring in art. The next year, however, he had to leave the school as the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out. The following few years were both traumatic and life-changing as he witnessed firsthand the great tragedy of war.
"I saw countless dead bodies scattered on the streets. One time, I saw the body of a burnt woman hanging upside down on an electric pole near Seoul Station," he grimaced at the painful memory. "I have never seen a more gruesome scene in my whole life."
In 1957, he, with a few like-minded artists, led Korea's Imformel movement that had started in Europe to pursue abstract expressionism. In the '60s, he started venturing into a bigger league by joining the Paris Biennale in 1961 and the San Paulo Biennale in 1965. From 1966 to 1968, he studied at the Art Students League of New York. Eventually he settled in France in 1970, where he married a French woman and spent the next 45 years.
Less than three weeks ago, the Jeju provincial government opened the Kim Tschang-yeul Museum to honor the artist who briefly lived on the southern island during the war. He donated 220 pieces of his paintings to the 1,587-square-meter museum that sits on 4,990 square meters of land.
"As I got older, living in a foreign country increasingly felt like being in exile. I always wished I had a final destination to settle down, and Jeju accepted me," he said at a press briefing before the opening ceremony of the museum on Sept. 24.
"The famous monk Dharma meditated for nine years facing a wall in a cave to achieve spiritual enlightenment," he said. "I painted water drops for 40 years but wasn't able to reach dharma's level of enlightenment. But I earned a museum instead."
One morning in the early 1970s, he woke up in a barn in a Paris suburb that he was using as his studio and home. The previous night, he sprayed water on a canvas to remove the dried oil paint and reuse the canvas. The sunlight was slanting through the small window. Water drops on the canvas were shining glamorously.
The view struck him like a bolt of lightning.
"It was spectacular. It was like a symphony," he said. "I took pictures of them and started thinking about how to express them on a canvas. Then began my lifelong task."
He painted the same thing over and over again because he was a "fool who couldn't do anything else," he said with modesty. But engaging in what he called a "foolish act" for such a long time, in fact, was his way of earning inner peace and healing the deep scars that haunted him since the war.
"For me, thinking about transparent water drops is an act of making bad things go away. I've dissolved and erased horrible memories by painting them countless times," he paused before saying, "I'm almost cured, I think."
Elegant and flowing form that fits straight into one’s hands, texture like handmade Japanese paper, subtle shading, and the beautiful image of the dishes stacked on top of each other. We place great importance on the touch of the tableware and the feeling when you bring it to your mouth. In the search for a design that is easy to hold, we settled on the organic form of WASARA. It has a natural fit with the curvature of human hands, and brings grace to the movements of everyone who holds it. With elegant form and texture that reflect its handcrafted roots, WASARA is the essence of functional beauty, made possible by the unparalleled skill of Japanese craftsmen. Such skillful modeling has resulted in these exquisite forms overflowing with character.
Tekuno is a San Francisco-based tea company that works directly with farms and producers to showcase the quiet yet expansive world of Japanese teas. Each year, we source seasonal teas that are unique in their expressions of their terroir, tea makers, and processing. We aim to represent each tea with the same nuance and respect as that which went into crafting it. In doing so, we hope to inspire meaningful interactions—with one another and with our Earth.