Kintsugi - The Spirit of the Broken

By Umami Recipe
Kintsugi - The Spirit of the Broken

"Don't dispose of what's broken, don't hide it, just recreate it more beautifully."

A spirit that is relevant to today's world of social responsibility and sustainability is rooted in the traditional Japanese craft of Kintsugi.

In this article, we interview Mr. and Mrs. Yoshiichiro and Yoshiko Kuge, ceramics and Kintsugi instructors who run Kuge Crafts in Tokyo. Enjoy the history of Kintsugi and ceramics, and the messages and thoughts they convey through Kintsugi.

The Beginnings of Kintsugi

Kintsugi is a restoration technique in which damaged parts of cracked or chipped ceramics are glued together using lacquer, and then decorated with gold or other metal powders. It is said that ceramics developed in Japan particularly during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) and the Edo period (1603-1868), when ceramics were distributed only to the upper classes, such as samurai, warriors, and monks. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the tea ceremony culture spread in Japan under the influence of Sen no Rikyu (a pioneer of the tea ceremony), developing as a place where people of the upper society gathered in one room to train for spiritual unification. As the tea bowl used in the tea ceremony were distributed, "Kintsugi" was born as one of the restoration techniques.

The Atelier and Couple who Run Kuge Crafts

"Just as we change our clothes with the seasons, we also change our tableware accordingly. My late father had many friends who were antique dealers, and because of this connection, I grew up surrounded by a lot of ceramics."

- How did you and your husband come across Kintsugi and ceramics?

Yoshiko: I've come to feel that my roots in ceramics came from my family. Actually, my father died when I was very young, so I was raised by my grandparents. My father was from Kyushu and had many good friends in antique shops, so we always had a lot of ceramics in the house. In Japan, there are four seasons, and people change the clothes in their wardrobes every season, but at that time, my family had a custom of changing the dishes in the cupboard every season. For example, in the hot summer, we would put fruits in cool glass dishes, and in the cold winter, we would use ceramic dishes that were heavy and warm. As a result, I grew up surrounded by a variety of dishes at every meal from an early age, and naturally developed an interest in them.

I went to an art course in junior high school, but there was no ceramic art class at that time. So I thought, "If there is no ceramics that I like, then I can make it myself!" So I bought a textbook and started learning on my own. 

- It's a wonderful environment to have been naturally surrounded by ceramics since childhood. Also, I realized that "experiencing the seasons through tableware" is an important culture in Japanese cuisine. How did you encounter Kintsugi?

Yoshiko: I love visiting antique shops, and when I was talking with one of the owners, I learned that there is a technique to repair broken ceramics instead of throwing them away, because you can never have the same piece. That was Kintsugi.

Yoshiichiro: I have always loved the Do it Yourself mentality. I graduated from an industrial high school and worked in the electrical and automobile industries after graduation. One of my colleagues took me to Yoshiko's class, and that was my first encounter with her, pottery and Kintsugi.
(As a side note, I make everything I can with my hands! The desk, electrical outlets, walls, and floor in our studio are all handmade by me. I do a little bit of cooking, but because of my wife's influence, we have a lot of dishes that I can't put away because I don't know the right place in the cupboard.)

Although they came to Kintsugi from completely different backgrounds, they are now surrounded by a lot of ceramics, both in the studio and at home, and a deep sense of belonging is evident in their warm smiles.

Kintsugi Experience at Kuge Crafts

Past Participants - Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had participants from literally all over the world, including Australia, Singapore, Europe, and Canada. They are of different ages and occupations. Many of the participants are couples or friends, and many come to learn for their own career. One thing I can say consistently is that people from overseas are much more familiar with Kintsugi culture than Japanese people. As well as the culture, they also value the techniques of restoration and listen to us very attentively.

Tools - Of course, we will lend you the tools you need to experience Kintsugi, so please come empty-handed.
However, we want to convey not only the culture of Kintsugi and ceramics, but also the techniques as much as possible. For this reason, we provide a tool list so that people from overseas can purchase tools in an easy-to-understand manner. You can easily get them at Tokyu Hands (Japanese big tools and materials store) or other stores that specialize in tools and materials (about 3,000 yen in total). If you buy them in Japan and return to your home country, you will be able to do Kintsugi easily at home.

The Procedure of Kintsugi

  1. Knead the epoxy resin putty by hand.

  2. Embed the putty in the chipped part of the rim of the ceramics → wait until it hardens (it will harden in 5 to 10 minutes).

  3. Scrape with a stick file, then smooth with sandpaper wetted with water.

  4. After familiarizing the brush with thinner, glue the cracked part with lacquer. (Since there is a lot of detailed work, we use a brush made of raccoon hair, which Mr. Yoshiichiro remade into a thin brush using disposable chopsticks.)

  5. When dry, sprinkle gold powder with a brush (type: Mica, Brass, Brass+Copper) → Do not touch the painted area directly, but place the powder from around it.

  6. Let it dry for two weeks, wash it with water, and you're done!

About Lacquer & Ceramic Kilns

Lacquer - A good quality lacquer bowl costs over 20,000 yen. They are made to last a lifetime, but they are not microwaveable or dishwasher safe and are not as easy to use as modern tableware. They also get damaged by room temperature and humidity, so treat them as "living creatures" and choose where to put them in the cupboard (chest to waist height is best). If the humidity is low, place a glass of water next to it to control the humidity. In spite of this, the value of lacquerware has not wavered until the present day, and its high reputation is probably due to the fact that it is beautiful with such high quality.

Kilns - In the beginning, ceramics kilns only had wood as a means of heating, but later coal, oil, and gas came into use. The one that burns the best is wood from pine trees. There is pine resin inside, which becomes fuel and burns well. When burned in a climbing kiln, it has the longest fire legs and the least amount of debris after burning.
Also, when fired in a kiln, the ashes cover the ceramics when it is fired, creating a pattern. The inside is transparent like a beautiful marble, and glaze (a glassy powder used to make the surface of unglazed ceramics shiny and prevent liquids from seeping in) is formed from the ashes. I'm really impressed with how they devised the fuel and made glaze from the ashes, and how much research they must have done in the past.

History of Ceramics

"The wishes and hopes of the maker are all packed into a bowl that is large enough to fit in your hands. The story that attracts people from overseas seems to be 'the message' from the craftsmen who lived in the past."

- As you mentioned, ceramics are an indispensable part of the Japanese dining table. Can you tell us about the unique shapes and patterns of Japanese ceramics?

Yoshiko: Yes, each bowl has its own meaning and history in terms of shape and design. When you start the Kintsugi experience, you are asked to choose one of the bowls with a chipped rim that you like. They range from colorful ones to indigo-colored ones, from the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) to the Meiji period (1868-1912), and even the Taisho period (1912-1926). There are bowls with patterns on the inside, which are often used for "Muko-zuke" (the first dish served at a tea ceremony). When you eat the contents of these bowls, the picture appears on the bottom. Most of them have a picture of pine, bamboo, and plum.

In addition, there are "Kumi-dashi" (often served at a tea ceremony at a waiting area until the guests are all present, where tea or hot water is served.) For example, if there is a cherry blossom design on the outside of the piece you can imagine its use; "perhaps it was used in the spring season".
The peony flower has the meaning of "beauty that lasts forever". Another example is the combination of a never-ending pattern (inside) and a picture of a flower looking out of a window (outside), which means that people can relax and look at the flowers outside the window, and hope that such a peaceful culture will last forever.
Some dishes have lines and patterns not only on the visible surface, but also on the inside of the bottom (Koudai). This is a craftsman's obsession. It's a way of saying, "I'm a skilled craftsman who designs even on the underside of the bowl, where people don't usually see".

- So each of Japan's unique plants, flowers and designs has its own meaning. Isn't that interesting to people from overseas?

Yoshiko: People from overseas are often interested in the "story" of the ceramic pieces.

Yoshiichiro: People from countries with a short history, such as the United States, are mostly interested just because it is old. Just the fact that a ceramic teacup has been around for hundreds of years and is still here today is impressive.

Yoshiko: In addition to the never-ending pattern, pine, bamboo, and plum stories I mentioned earlier, people are also interested in lucky items. For example, the crane is a symbol of marital bliss because it symbolizes a couple staying together for life, and the turtle is a symbol of longevity, which is very auspicious. Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms are always very popular as they remind them of Japan at a glance.

They are very interested not only in the design itself, but also in the piece after it has been reworked. Not only ceramics, but also clear glass bowls and bottles (even olive oil and perfume bottles!) can be decorated with Kintsugi designs. If you put one's name on it, it would make a great gift. You can also draw a moon on the outside of a teacup, a small star on the inside and a path of light for a star, or a human face would be funny.

Another technique for repairing ceramics is called "Yobitsugi". In this technique, pieces of other ceramics, marbles or chips are embedded to reconstruct the ceramics. You can also use colorful glass balls in austere colored ceramics. I was impressed that one of our participants said "It is like Antonio Gaudi's architecture."

Kintsugi as a Way of Healing the Mind

"It is natural for us to at times break down when we live our lives to the fullest. What is important is how you handle the situation and not be afraid to ask for help."

- It is still fresh in our memories that at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021, President Parsons compared the athletes participating in the games to the Kintsugi culture, saying, "In Japan there is a beautiful ancient philosophy called Kintsugi. It means embracing imperfections that we all have. To not hide them away, but to celebrate them." This seems to imply a kind of spirituality or life lesson that transcends the mere "technique of fixing broken ceramics."

Yoshiichiro: It really is. For example, in Japanese language, I don't think there is an adequate expression for the state of "being broken". However, in Europe and the United States, many schools and companies have counselors on staff, and there is an environment where people can easily go for help. There is no sense that it is good to never fail or that people who break down are weak. What's important is how to fix it.
There are many people from overseas who study Kintsugi in order to learn how to repair their broken hearts. There are so many participants who are counselors, psychologists, surgeons, lawyers and school teachers who are in the business of touching hearts.

Yoshiko: During the Kintsugi experience, they take pictures enthusiastically so that they can explain them to patients and students. It's a metaphor to show that even such a broken heart can be fixed.

Yoshiichiro: After it's broken, you can fix it and decorate it to make it even more beautiful and rather stronger. There is no direct tool to repair the heart, but they seemed to be trying to get a clue from Kintsugi.

Yoshiko: This is a little off topic, but many people in the Western countries have tattoos on their bodies. In Japan, tattoos have a scary and negative impression and people with tattoos are not even allowed to go into hot springs.

For example, one of our participants who was a psychological counselor had a tattoo of a lighthouse on his arm. He told us that before interacting with his patient, he looks at it and asks himself, "Am I guiding this patient correctly?"
Another person said that he had been addicted to drugs in the past and as a part of his rehabilitation, had a tattoo of the chemical formula of the drug he used to use. Whenever he sees it, he reaffirms, "I can endure anything in the future if I think about the suffering I went through in the past!"

While experiencing Kintsugi, we are also able to hear about their personal and professional pasts, and we learn a lot from those who experience these seemingly negative emotions such as "broken," "failed," and "scary" as a positive life experience. There is an old saying that "teaching is learning," and I really felt that this is very true.

What Makes Kintsugi so Attractive?

"Kintsugi is a process that is done in silence. However, there is a way of communicating with the precious memories and lives of individuals. It is a feeling of being connected to all of these people through the craft."

- We talked a lot about the technique of Kintsugi and its effect on the mind. In general, please tell us about the appeal of Kintsugi.

Yoshiko: Year after year, I feel that being able to pass on and connect to people's feelings is very wonderful. When I mend a customer's memento, I feel like I am connecting the memories and love of that person and their loved ones together. To others, the piece may look like "just another pot", but to that person, it is "the only pot of its kind".

Yoshiichiro: Yoshiko was surrounded by pottery, ceramics, and Kintsugi from a very young age, but the family I grew up in was not particularly familiar with such culture. It was only after I met Yoshiko that I began to study pottery and Kintsugi. My take away is that it is never too late to learn, and I discovered a lot from scratch. The most attractive aspect of Kintsugi and pottery is that you can create something from nothing. Pottery is especially interesting because you can create a shape from a lump of clay and make something that can be used in daily life.

Yoshiko: I'm better at the "ingenuity" part, but for the rest, my husband is much better. He is exemplary with the potter's wheel, just like an expert. Also, there are now 16 people who have studied under us and are now teaching classes overseas or working as instructors. They are carrying on the Kintsugi culture in their own places, and that is what I am most proud of.

Yoshiichiro: We are just "connecting the dots", I think.

The Message Conveyed through Kintsugi

Yoshiko: I want this to be a chance for people to "connect with the feelings of their loved ones" and "reevaluate their broken hearts". It's very simple but complicated at the same time. Take care of , respect and properly understand yourself and your loved ones. I would like to convey this to everyone as I share with them my craft.

Also, in general, it is best to think that "there is nothing that can not be fixed". Whether it is the mind or life, I believe that we can look at it again and repair it.

Yoshiichiro: I also believe that the basis of life is "whether you love it or not". It's not about making money, living a luxury life, or building a gorgeous house, but if you can do what you love every day and make a living even if it's simple, that is all you need. That is why, for example, when you choose a ceramic, I want you to choose it based on whether or not you like its design and shape. It doesn't matter if it's old or new, and it doesn't matter if it's from a famous potter. Don't worry about the era in which it was made or its popularity.

Post-interview Notes

While carefully explaining the tools and procedures, the couple at Kuge Crafts talked about themselves and their passion for Kintsugi. At the same time, they remembered the detailed stories of each previous participant, which indicated that they had not only held a Kintsugi workshop, but had also sincerely faced each participant as "one person" and opened their hearts to each other.

In addition, when they showed me, the interviewer, various works of art. Actually, I slipped up and almost broke a piece and I apologized. I was impressed by Yoshiko's kind and gentle words, "Don't worry about it at all. If it breaks, let's just fix it".


Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.