Tea Caddies That Last for Generations

KYOTO, Japan — Kaikado tea caddies, sleek cylinders of various sizes that come in brass, copper and tin, look like prototypes for the future. Which makes it all the more surprising that their design has not changed in nearly 150 years.

Crafted by the Yagi family for six generations, the caddies are called chazutsu in Japanese (“cha” is the Japanese word for tea, “zutsu” for canister).

They come with simple care instructions: don’t wash, don’t refrigerate and gently caress them every day; the oil from a person’s skin helps gives them a gentle sheen and changes their colors over time — ranging from a few months for brass to a few years for tin.

“You need to use your tea caddy every day, so the color changes in a good way,” said Seiji Yagi, 75, chairman of the board at Kaikado and a fifth generation craftsman. “If you don’t use it daily, you can’t enjoy the color changing.”

The main characteristic of the caddies is that they are airtight, an important feature to maintain the flavor and quality of fresh tea leaves. “When you line up the joints of the lid and body, the lid smoothly goes down to the exact same level while expelling air from the caddy,” Mr. Yagi said.

Kaikado was established in 1875, shortly after Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world and the Meiji era saw change throughout the country. (“Kaika” is the Japanese word for enlightenment and “do” for shop.)

The company’s history notes that new imports were among those changes, and tin-plate from England became fashionable. Seisuke Yamamoto, Kaikado’s founder and a metal craftsman, designed a tin tea caddy and made it into a commercially available item (he later passed the business to the Yagi family). Even now the body of all caddies, regardless of their external metal, have tin linings because the metal does not interact with foodstuffs and helps preserve freshness.

On a weekday in late September, Mr. Yagi welcomed some guests to the Kaikado headquarters, which stands on the original site of the business. A 15-minute walk from Kyoto train station, it consists of three buildings: the shop, office and family home; a workshop that is more than 120 years old; and a newer workshop.

Making a caddy involves 130 to 140 steps and the process has remained virtually unchanged over the years. Even some of the dies and molds used in the early years of the company are still employed today, Mr. Yagi said as we entered the first workshop, a preparation area, where there are boxes piled high with tin sheets.

For the caddies, “the tin we use is still processed the same way as it was in the Meiji era,” he said. “Only one factory, located in Nagoya, still does it in Japan.” The technique is called dobozuke and produces a dull surface instead of a mirror shine.

Mr. Yagi showed how he cuts the tin-plates using what looks like a guillotine paper cutter. “I always cut by hand to keep the edge smooth,” he said. (Some of the business’s other artisans cut tin, too, but Mr. Yagi’s process is considered so special that his son Takahiro said they are working with Nagoya University on a computer project to capture his father’s movements.)

The strips of metal are brought to the workshop next door, where we watched a male artisan using a gas flame (coal was used in the early days) to solder together the edges of a copper strip to create a cylinder, which would become a caddy’s exterior. The seam “has to be completely straight so it’s a very delicate task,” Mr. Yagi said.

Once the tin lining is added to the cylinder and the two pieces of the lid are soldered together, a great deal of finishing and adjusting are done and the caddy is polished to create a gleaming surface. An artisan makes sure the lid slides on smoothly and, in a final step, another does an overall quality check. The business makes about 40 caddies each working day.

Eight artisans work full-time at Kaikado; they are a young team ranging in age from 25 to 37, most with an art school background. (Including part-timers and office workers, the company’s employment figure rises to 15.)

Tsubasa Miki, 27, joined in June. He is from Tottori Prefecture, on Japan’s east coast, and after graduating from college, he applied to Kaikado. “I wanted to work for a company that was traditional yet innovative,” he said.

The caddies seem to have an eternal guarantee. “People bring back 100-year-old tea caddies to get them fixed so they can keep using them,” Takahiro Yagi, 48, wrote in a later email. “We can repair them because we never changed the way we make caddies, or their size, so we can replace parts.”

“When it’s that old,” said the elder Mr. Yagi with a smile during the interview, “I sometimes secretly think they should just buy a new one.”

Prices start at 13,500 yen ($93), while coffee ones that come with a top handle and scoop start at 25,500 yen. The Kaikado signature product is the tea caddy, but some innovations have come along. Takahiro Yagi, for example, developed a two-tier caddy and he has initiated collaborations with brands, including Panasonic, which put a Bluetooth speaker into a caddy.

Another collaboration was with OEO Studio, a design business based in Copenhagen. Thomas Lykke, its founder and now head of design and creative director, wrote in an email: “Our design intent was to tell the story of Kaikado in new ways with a water pitcher, a tray, a flower vase and even a lamp — yet all in the spirit of Kaikado.”

Mr. Lykke’s studio also designed the Kaikado Café, which opened in 2016 and is just a five-minute walk from the headquarters. Along with Kaikado products, it sells housewares from a group of Kyoto artisans and serves tea, coffee, alcoholic drinks and delicate Japanese confectionery.

Walking back to the workshops from the cafe, Kyoto’s streets were relatively quiet, but they likely would not be for long. On Oct. 11, Japan reopened its borders to independent tourists after being shut for almost three years as a pandemic precaution. While the strict measures had given residents some feeling of security, it had financial consequences for local craftspeople.

Takahiro Yagi said he expects a surge in demand, but Kaikado’s output is limited. “We will have to ask customers to wait for some time,” he said. “If Kaikado is well-known around the world, but we can still stay small, we are very happy. Then we might be able to continue for the next generations.”

Kaikado is truly a family affair, with Seiji Yagi’s wife, Kazuko, as the business director and Takahiro Yagi’s wife, Mitsue, working in the office. (The Yagis’ younger son, a professional firefighter in Nara Prefecture, is not involved in the business.)

But when it comes to passing down the craftsmanship in the family, there is no teaching, just showing. “Kyoto craftsmen don’t teach their children,” said Mr. Yagi. “If you teach them, they won’t develop their skills. They need to develop their skills by themselves and outgrow their parents.”

Takahiro Yagi said he now understands this attitude. “As craftspeople, we hand down our philosophy not with words, but with our hands. For me, school was the daily life with my family. There were so many things to learn from my father and my grandfather.”

Despite his age, Seiji Yagi said he is still not ready to retire and wants to continue working and transmitting his skills. “The best craftsmen are not good from the start,” he said. “They develop their skills overtime, and that is how they can continue for a long time.”

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