A broken ceramic bowl sits out of focus on a table, where dried flowers sit next to it, show from above
Life Lessons of Kintsugi with Noriko Kawamura
In our modern world of consumerism, where trends move at a breakneck speed and are gone again before there is even a chance to discern their particulars, a traditional Japanese method of repair is gradually regaining ground as a way to slow down, appreciate the value of what you have and hold on to what’s important. Kintsugi is the repair of broken ceramics (amongst other things) with lacquer and decoration with gold powder, and a practice that is once again becoming popular in a world where people are seeking to shed meaningless trend addictions for a more conscientious way of living.

Ample sunlight streams in through a wall-of-windows, overlooking a collection of antique furniture, the shelves of which showcase battle-scarred ceramics, healed with veins of gold. The studio is pleasing on the eye, a storage house on the grounds of a traditional merchant’s home in Hino, Shiga. The entire property is vast and sat for years unoccupied before Noriko, who asked me to call her by her first name, and her husband, Tom, began a new chapter here four years ago. Once belonging to a rich merchant family, the constituent buildings were left stuffed with antique ornaments and tools for daily living, many of which can be found, respectfully restored, in Noriko’s now-studio.

‘I met my husband, Tom, when I was living in Aichi and we found our house online. It had been empty for about ten years. We found it, two months later our offer was accepted, we spent a year renovating, and then we moved in. Last year we completed the renovation work on my studio so now I work full-time as a restorer and teacher, though I haven’t been teaching as much as I’d like due to the coronavirus putting a hold on things.’

Noriko works from here almost everyday, fixing her clients’ beloved pieces and instilling the virtues of the art of kintsugi onto her students, encouraging the development of their individuality, expression, and creativity. Each Sunday, we sit and converse over kintsugi, me yearning to absorb the pristine technique and quiet wisdom that Noriko has developed over the years.

Noriko inspecting a crack in a dish in preparation for kintsugi
Preparing broken ceramics for the kintsugi process
An array of vases and bowls that show cracks and scars healed by Noriko

‘I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Setagaya, [an affluent residential district of Tokyo]’, Noriko begins her story of how she came to be where she is. ‘My mother was a fashion designer and my father, a salaryman in the travel industry, so I guess I was exposed to the creative industry from a young age. I studied visual merchandising at art school, subsequently getting a job in retail design upon graduation, but that only lasted a year or two. I moved on to an agency representing contemporary artists in the city and loved it. It was during the economic bubble and demand for artists in advertising was high. After a few years I set up my own agency and combined my background in retail design to bring artists into high-end retailers, like Barney’s and Isetan, to create some interesting collaborative design displays, the likes of which had never really been done before. It all came to an end six years later when I decided to get married and start a family.’

‘My first husband is a potter, and my work in galleries and in the art scene exposed me to a host of traditional and not so traditional Japanese crafts. I was fascinated by kintsugi. I started the practice as a hobby. I loved the feeling – in Japanese we call it mushin, an empty state of mind, almost trance-like; it gave me a moment of quiet to reflect on life. That has stayed with me to this day. Nowadays we are so bombarded with stuff, in our eyes and in our ears; kintsugi is important to me in that it offers me time to not have to think about this.’

Noriko's studio

My lessons with Noriko have taught me many things, primarily that kintsugi is not just the physical act of repair. It teaches us much about living: the act of patience, the rejection of wastefulness, and the acceptance of imperfection. Kintsugi holds the Japanese feeling of mottainai, which although a modern word, is attributed to the classical Buddhist concept of penitence over misspent resources. Wabi-sabi too, an aesthetic that embraces and celebrates the transience of life, its decay and imperfections, as a natural and beautiful part of living, informs the practice of kintsugi. It’s thought that kintsugi as an artform was developed around the 15th century as a way to placate an agitated shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, after he had broken his favourite tea bowl; however, broken ceramics repaired with lacquer have been found much earlier in Japan, dating back to the prehistoric era. It wasn’t until the tea ceremony era, and the time of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, that the addition of gold powder occurred as a way of highlighting the break.

‘In the West, there’s talk of kintsugi representing the cracks in your own self. Fixing and highlighting your flaws, embracing them and showing them proudly as a wound that has been healed. But the original philosophy of kintsugi doesn’t focus on seeing the break as a reflection of a person’s emotional flaws', Noriko explains, whilst folding the edges of a tiny piece of sandpaper into a perfect point and dipping it into water before carefully working away at some dried lacquer on a broken bowl. ‘Though, just because it’s not strictly true, doesn’t mean people can’t take comfort in this as a metaphor for life. What is true, is the aesthetic appreciation of the break. This key wabi-sabi element is important in kintsugi.’

Hand-drawn gold bird detailing
A selection of pottery in Noriko's studio
Noriko hard at work in her studio

It is a fine line between balancing advancement and respecting traditions. Noriko reminds me that even in Japan, many people have lost their connection to the past. They aren’t aware of kintsugi, or urushi, the natural sap collected from the Toxicodendron vernicifluum tree that becomes lacquer. In a world where traditional crafts are being lost at an alarming rate, and so much onus is placed on young people to be academically intelligent, the creative and traditional industries are somewhat suffering in Japan.

‘I’ve always tried to teach my children to have their own opinion, that it’s OK to be different and every opinion is valid’, Noriko says, ‘but kids in Japanese schools are generally taught that there is only one correct answer, one correct way of thinking. Kintsugi has a way of nurturing people to think outside the box. There isn’t only one correct answer or one right way of doing things; you must try new things, solve problems, decide for yourself how to achieve what you set out to do. Take the Zen garden: The simplicity of design is a carefully thought-out choice. The creator intentionally constructs a space into which you can project your own manifestations from your own life experiences, your own knowledge and reasoning. It very much pushes the viewer to participate on a personal level, the whole point being to project your own character into the art. This is also true for kintsugi, and most other traditional and contemporary crafts. It is why I believe these practices, the act of learning through actually doing, are so fundamental in fostering individuality and creativity in people. Often people don’t take the necessary time to form their own opinions, and particularly in this day and age where the internet has boundless information available at our fingertips, they think they know everything. A quote from famed philosopher Soetsu Yanagi springs to mind, it’s difficult to translate directly, but in essence it means “look before you know, don’t know before you look.”’

Hours have passed since we started our lesson-turned-confab and the sun no longer shines through the wall-of-windows. Instead, the light from studio lamps highlight flashes of gold around the room and the topic of conversation moves from the emotional aspects of kintsugi to the practical. Thinking back to the first time visiting Noriko’s studio, I remember watching her work urushi and soil into a fine paste with deft movements and a wonderful rhythm, creating a gum-like consistency perfect for filling the fractures in damaged articles.

A brush rests on Noriko's home-made tool holder

‘I recommend using natural materials. It’s more sustainable and for me, aesthetically more pleasing. You can use synthetic materials, glue and gold-coloured paint, it does the job, but there’s nothing interesting about it’, she says. ‘I like to make my own tools from used chopsticks. There’s something satisfying about whittling them down to create a spatula that works perfectly for me. That’s the important part: use any tool that works for you.’ She tells me this whilst laying an array of hand-made implements and brushes, most are thinner than a pencil with fine, pointed bristles slicked in camellia oil to keep them in peak condition, down on the table in front of me.

‘I also choose to work with Japanese lacquer, it’s richer than other Asian lacquers, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, I just prefer it, it gives a wonderful sheen. In Japan, only a tiny bit of sap is taken from each tree at one time. The yield is low, but the lacquer is rich. It’s time-consuming and costly, but it’s important to support our suffering domestic lacquer industry, and support sustainability. It also helps that the results are incredibly beautiful.’

Chopstick shavings from Noriko's home-made spatulas gather on the table
A black ceramic bowl with a beautiful gold fixing hand-crafted by Noriko
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies