sponsored by Northern Kumamoto Administrative Headquarters

During my stay in Tamana, Northern Kumamoto Prefecture, I had the opportunity to visit two businesses which, despite their differences, were very similar. Both companies made use of the area’s natural resources, unique knowledge and passion for beauty to create attractive products. The Yamachiku factory specialises solely in bamboo chopsticks while the Issakigama workshop is home to a style of pottery known as “Shodai Yaki” and has been produced by the Yamaguchi family for many years.

These local ventures create beautiful products that serve a purpose in our everyday lives. In fact, I returned with items that were not only souvenirs but things I could use every day. They represent the area where they were made and the inspiration behind their creation is clear to see.

Yamachiku: Nothing But Bamboo Chopsticks

Every day, we use many different objects and utensils in the kitchen but we rarely ask ourselves where they came from or how they were made. My kitchen, like many homes in Japan and abroad, has a selection of chopsticks from a famous Japanese brand. Their reasonable price made me assume that they were mass-produced in a large factory, perhaps in China. However, they were in fact ethically-made with love and care at the Yamachiku factory that I had the pleasure of visiting.

The company motto 「竹の、箸だけ」 (in Japanese: take no hashi dake) can be translated as ‘nothing but bamboo chopsticks’ and perfectly explains what the company does. Bamboo chopsticks have been the only items produced there since 1963. At that time, there was a tendency to make many everyday items out of plastic but the company was able to resist this trend and is still surviving today.

Mr. Yamasaki, the Manager, greeted us and gave us a tour of the factory. Everything, from the carving of the bamboo to the packaging of the final product, is done here. His passion was clear to see as he explained to us how much he admires bamboo and about the material’s surprising qualities. 

The Yamachiku factory only uses Japanese bamboo and so their products can be said to be “100% made in Japan“. The company is developing their brand by focusing on three areas: Japanese production, quality, and environmental responsibility. Mr. Yamazaki explained to us that the scraps and dust from the bamboo are burned to produce energy… even the ash is supplied to a konnyaku factory. The company is committed to reducing waste and addressing the impact it has on the environment. For example, a household chopstick which isn’t perfect is redesigned as a smaller one, when possible, rather than simply discarded. 

Yamachiku Bamboo Chopstick Factory: Man and Machines Working Side By Side

Upon entering the factory, we walked into an industrial world that moved to the mechanical beat of machines, the potent fragrance of bamboo filling the air around them. Fine, white powder from the bamboo covered the floor and almost everything else in the building. The workforce, comprised mainly of women, was focused on the small details in order to make the products perfect. Even though the production relies on machinery, human expertise is the key to creating a quality product. I must say that I was surprised by the many stages that this seemingly simple product goes through, as well as the different styles that were available.

Mr. Yamasaki then took us to another building where the odor of bamboo was replaced by the smell of solvents. This was the place where the chopsticks were coated, painted, and varnished. Hundreds of chopsticks were lined up on shelves drying. Machines may be essential for increasing productivity and precision but an expert workforce is still required to ensure the finished product is of a high standard.

Yamachiku also does silk-screen impressions on the chopsticks. Some of the designs depict the region of Kyushu, such as the inescapable mascot Kumamon or the tower of Kumamoto castle while others display a goldfish, the symbol of the nearby town of Nagasu. Clients can also customise their chopsticks. Mr. Yamasaki explained to us that some people order chopsticks adorned with the names of those invited to their wedding which serves as a place setting for that person. 

Finally, we visited the workshop where the chopsticks undergo a quality check and are packaged up — it all happens within the same building.

The factory access is not usually open to the public, even though guided tours can be organised for groups with prior reservation. But don’t hesitate to stop by if you are visiting Tamana’s area; a small sales stand was set up in the factory’s hall.

The chopsticks I mentioned at the beginning of the article are very simple, according to the brand’s image, but the company logo is made up of a variety of styles and colours, some being genuinely luxurious products. It is even possible to try the chopsticks and see how to hold them properly before you make your purchase. You will certainly be able to find the perfect pair at Yamachiku!

Here you can see a video produced by Yamachiku which shows the different stages of production. 

*You can also buy Yamachiku’s chopsticks on this website.

Issakigama: Shodai Yaki Pottery Workshop by the Yamaguchi Family

The second place that I visited in Tamana was a pottery workshop. Here, like at the bamboo chopstick factory, everyday objects are produced from the area’s natural resources. The ceramics here are made in the “shodai yaki” style, produced by the Yamaguchi family, and are truly representative of the Northern Kumamoto area.

The Issakigama workshop is surrounded by countryside and situated at the end of a narrow road, indicated by a wooden sign that reads “shodai yaki” (小代焼). It’s open to the public and anyone can stop by to participate in a workshop, admire the pieces, or buy ceramics in the company of the craftsmen: a father and son who work tirelessly behind their lathe.

Mr. Yamaguchi began studying the art of pottery at the age of 18 and his apprenticeship took him to many different prefectures which were famous for the craft. These included Miyagi, Okayama, Hiroshima and, of course, Kumamoto, where he finally opened his own workshop, Shodai Yaki Issakigama (in Japanese: 小代焼一先窯). 

This type of pottery, originating from the foot of Mount Shodai over 400 years ago, benefits from the iron-rich soil in this part of the world to create objects that are simple and beautiful as well as useful in everyday life. Those that Mr. Yamaguchi manufactures have an authentic, timeless quality whereas his son creates designs that are more modern, often very round and with a matt finish.

Shodai Yaki Workshop: My First Pottery Class

I had always wanted to do a pottery class in Japan and I was so happy to finally get the opportunity in the friendly environment of this small, family-run studio. 

What’s more, it took place amid the sound of chirping insects and the distinct smell of insect repellent so it was somewhat atmospheric. Mrs. Yamaguchi helped me to make a cup, using a technique that didn’t require a lathe. It seemed simple enough: it was a matter of creating “rolls” of clay and arranging them in circles next to each other on a disc-shaped base, but I had to ensure that they kept their shape and did not fall apart in the oven.

Even though the technique seemed simple, it was important to make the shapes regular (more or less) if I wanted the finished product to look like I imagined it. Mrs. Yamaguchi was on-hand to help me, always happy and smiling. She would give me advice and demonstrate without taking over too much, affording me free rein to be creative and enjoy the experience. After the workshop, Mr. Yamaguchi finished off the pieces. My cup would follow in the post about two months later and I couldn’t wait to use it.

It was a pleasure to knead the clay with my bare hands. I created something that I could not only use every day but would serve as a memory of my time in Tamana with the Yamaguchi family. This type of workshop gives us the opportunity to learn about the skills of these craftsmen, many of whom have dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft and creating pieces that bring beauty to our daily lives.

Access and Practical Information

Yamachiku Bamboo Chopstick Factory

You can find information about the company on their website (only in Japanese) which also includes an online shop.

The factory is located about 50 minutes by car from Kumamoto and 1 hour from Fukuoka. It can also be reached in around 15 minutes by car from Shin-Omuta station. 

Issakigama Shodai Yaki Pottery Workshop

The Yamaguchi family’s pottery workshop can be found on Instagram. You can find more information about the workshop on this page (in Japanese only). It costs 1500 Yen per person (including tax) to participate in the workshop and requires a minimum of two people for it to take place.

The workshop is located about 1 hour by car from Kumamoto and 1 hour 20 minutes from Fukuoka. From Nagasu (長洲駅), the closest station, it takes around 6 minutes by car or 30 minutes on foot. 

Access to Tamana From Other Areas

From Fukuoka Airport: about 1 hour and 10 minutes by car
From Oita Airport: about 2 hours and 30 minutes by car
From Kumamoto Airport: about 50 minutes by car

Translation by Mark Webster

Clémentine

Clémentine

En septembre 2017, je quittai la France et mon travail dans un centre de danse contemporaine pour m'installer au Japon. Quelques jours plus tard, je séjournais dans une ferme à Oita pour écrire mon premier article pour Voyapon — dont j'allais devenir rédactrice en chef deux ans plus tard. Si vous visitez Kyoto en août, il est probable que vous me croisiez lors des fêtes de Bon Odori. Deux autres de mes passions sont les îles et les chats, et ça tombe bien : le Japon a de quoi me combler dans ces deux domaines. 

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