Nestled within Tokyo’s sleepy Kameido district lies a handful of workshops leftover from the Edo period, when the art of traditional Japanese glass cutting was born and blossomed.
Their hands steady and their lips pursed in concentration, Edo kiriko artisans hold delicate, hand-blown glass pieces over a rapidly rotating blade. They position the glass, squint for accuracy and then, in one fluid movement, bring glass to blade.
For nearly 200 years, artisans in Kameido have been making everything from tiny, intricately carved guinomi (sake glasses) to elaborately designed vases. These products are held in such high regard that, in order to make them for market, one must study for at least 10 years and pass an extensive exam.
The Hanashyo workshop has its roots in the 19th century and today hosts 10 Edo kiriko masters. It’s one of the most esteemed shops in Japan, and its team of artisans created the guinomi that Prime Minister Abe gave to U.S. President Obama upon his last visit to the country.
Want to give this traditional Japanese art form a try? The experts at Hanashyo, as found on the Nippon Quest website, will teach you themselves at their workshop, whether you want to try it once for the basics or take regular classes to hone your skill.
After hearing a brief overview of the history of Edo kiriko and its styles, from traditional to contemporary, you’re handed a guinomi, smooth and untouched. The first step is using an erasable marker to create a guide for your design. This is done by securing the glass on a rotating plate. Using a tool to keep your pen stabilized, you place pen to glass, and the spinning motion creates a straight line around the diameter of the glass. Before you know it, you have an outline – but filling it in is the tricky part.
At this point, you move to the blade, and you’re ready to cut.
My teachers tell me that most people have difficulty aiming at first, but I suspect it’s just to make me feel better for my first cut: a thin, timid line starkly to the right of where I meant for it to be. They show me how to thicken the line and I pretend that was what I meant to do all along.
After the first disastrous cut, I get better, and soon my trepidation has dissolved into enjoyment. I was given my choice in glass colors for my guinomi – I chose purple because it’s one of the traditional colors – and slowly, a clumsy flower is emerging on its bottom.
I start to get cocky and miss again.
“She’s lost it!” one of my teachers says. Concentration is crucial.
By the end of my lesson, I’ve created a respectable first-try guinomi: You can tell what the design is supposed to be, and there’s only one visible mistake on it. But before I can get cocky again, I look over at the showcase, where masters have created intricate designs featuring sweeping lines just decimeters wide. Mine, in contrast, features only straight lines, all several millimeters wide.
But A for effort, right?
If you want to take an Edo kiriko class for yourself, send an email to Hanashyoo via their website. You can either join a class with other students or take a class on your own. The beginner guinomi lesson costs ¥4,000, and you can keep your masterpiece afterword.
This activity was found on Nippon Quest, a website that curates unique, off-beat Japanese experiences around the country and allows foreigners and locals alike to rate them. Learn more about Edo kiriko or find other activities on their website.
From JR Kameido Station, take the north exit and walk toward Katori Shrine. It’s 10 minutes on foot from the station, and Hanashyo’s website has a map to both their workshop and nearby showroom.