Sumida Edo Kiriko-kan:
The cutting edge of a traditional craft
Sumida Edo Kiriko-kan occupies the corner of a busy intersection in the historically rich shitamachi (old downtown) part of Tokyo. In 1899, Tatsuo Hirota’s grandfather started his glassmaking workshop in this area and the family business producing household glassware continues until today. However, in 2004, Hirota decided to open the Sumida Edo Kiriko-kan to pay homage to the exquisite traditional craft of Edo Kiriko cut glass. Alongside a small showroom, Sumida Kiriko-kan also allows visitors the opportunity to try and make their own cut glass.
In 1824, a master glass craftsman Kyubei Kagaya in Edo (former name of Tokyo) began experimenting with cutting designs into glass. Other craftspeople began to embrace this technique and by the Meiji period (mid-19th century), Western tools were introduced allowing more products to be made, turning this into a cottage industry that allowed the rising middle-class to indulge in fine dining ware. In 1985, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government designated Edo Kiriko a traditional craft because it dates back over a century, uses traditional materials and requires expert manual skills. Today, it is a small industry with 89 companies and 165 skilled workers.
Edo Kiriko begins with a glassblower creating a two-layer structure – a clear glass inside with a paper-thin layer of colored glass on the outside. By cutting patterns into the outside surface, a vivid contrast is created between the colored glass and the transparent glass.
While the colored glass is most representative of Edo Kiriko, there is another style where using clear glass to etch designs by hand. At Sumida Kiriko-kan, there are exquisite pieces of artwork with various landmarks of Tokyo or seasonal flowers on display.
“Department stores only carry a limited line of Edo Kiriko, the lower priced products which sell easily. I wanted to celebrate the entire culture of Edo Kiriko and show people a wide range of products,” Hirota explained his rationale for starting his showroom.
At Sumida Kiriko-kan, they specialize in the Otomo family style which has a history dating back four generations. While some traditional crafts are dying off, Hirota is committed to not letting traditional Japanese glasswork end with a whimper. “We must take responsibility for training a younger generation of craftsman who know all the traditional techniques. Yet they have to create new frontiers that meet the needs of current society,” says Hirota.
Some innovations at Sumida include using Edo Kiriko as lampshades. There are also glass mugs capable of holding hot beverages. An intriguing type of tumbler originating at Sumida is the 11-sided glass – something only made possible by hand. The uneven number of sides allows for light and color to reflect through the glass in a more spectacular way. Another innovation here is a prism etched with the Tokyo Sky Tree in it. Another Sky Tree motif is the series of tumblers designed with a vertical lattice symbolizing the structure of the new landmark tower nearby standing 634 meters tall.
While there are affordable glasses perfect for souvenirs and home use available, the showroom attracts visitors who can gaze at the more unique items – such as Cinderella’s glass slipper. Indeed, Hirota Glass had the honor to make a glass slippery for a display at Tokyo Disneyland. Using the Edo Kiriko style, a decorative piece straight out of a fairy tale was created here.
Right now, their master glass cutters are working with designers to create an original line for a five-star hotel’s gift shop. Kozo Kawai, a 20- year veteran and one of the nine master glass cutters here, says developing new work is very exciting. “Of course, as an artisan, I take pride in giving 100% in everything I make,” he says. After high school, through his uncle, Kawai had the opportunity to apprentice as a glass cutter. “It’s not a world where people can easily enter and that made me curious,” he says. A child who loves using his hands, Kawai says that he never used a pencil sharpener – always a knife. The company he first worked for had a policy of letting newcomers learn the trade from the onset unlike some traditional crafts where apprentices are allowed only to clean up and prepare materials for some years.
While the image of an Edo traditional craftsman is someone who works diligently and do not socialize much, because they are asked to teach workshops constantly, at Sumida Edo Kiriko-kan, someone like Kawai also takes pride in communicating with visitors. He gives succinct instructions and offers practical advice about choosing appropriate patterns for beginners. What’s most impressive is his dedication to checking people’s work to ensure everyone goes home with the best possible creation. His commitment as a master craftsman to promote his trade to every visitor is perhaps the best reflection of an Edo artisan’s spirit.
Process of Making Edo Kiriko Glass:
- Choose your glass. There will always be several types of glasses to choose from. The blue color provides the greatest contrast when the glass is cut, but it is also the most difficult to see the lines when you are working. A fluted glass is more delicate and suitable for thin lines whereas a tumbler looks striking using a wider cutter.
- The next step is to decide on the pattern to engrave. There are samples to choose from. The instructor will help you pick out something realistic from amateurs yet still retains the Edo Kiriko look. Then you draw your pattern on the glass with a washable ink pen.
- Before you work on your own glass, there are sample glasses where you can practice your cutting techniques. It is highly recommended to use this time wisely. There are two diamond cutters, one which cuts thin, delicate lines and the other deeper, wider lines.
- The cutting stone rotates at a high speed. By placing the glass onto the stone, it engraves a line into it. How long and how thick the line becomes is dependent on how hard and long you press the glass onto the stone. You cut according to the lines you have drawn. Because it is difficult to figure out the exact amount of pressure each time, for a beginner, each set of lines end up looking different from the next. From certain angles, it is difficult to see the lines you have drawn onto the glass. Cutting glass is not an easy task.
- After the cutting is finished, you take a washcloth to wipe off the marker lines and admire your piece of artwork.
Of all the traditional crafts I have tried, Edo Kiriko is probably one of the most enjoyable activities. The reason is because most places offer an easy option for people to do – such as a cardholder using material to make a Hina doll or else the master mostly does the work for you like making Edo wind chimes. With Edo Kiriko, you do the work, make mistakes and your creation look nothing like that of a master. Still it is extremely rewarding to have the chance to experience firsthand how such an exquisite work of art is created. It is a difficult task but if you concentrate a few hours on, you can create a really unique and beautiful drinking glass. Most visitors go out the door thinking about what design they would challenge themselves next. This is a highly recommended activity.