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Japanese Artisans – The Magic Mirror Craftsman

Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. Since the beginning of 2017, Zeiss has partnered with me to produce a series of videos, photos and text for their newly updated Lenspire blog. Now with this year coming to a close, I’ve decided to post the start of the series on my blog to show you folks where it all started. Please visit the original piece here where there are many more links to nearly a whole year’s worth of master artisans. Anyway, here’s the article below, enjoy!

The Magic Mirror Artisan from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

There are a myriad reasons why I visit Kyoto. For those tossing up whether to book tickets, just do it – it’s a no-brainer. The city is comprised of so many elements that make it endlessly enchanting; crystal clear canals crisscrossed with stone bridges, ancient paved roads aglimmer with soft lantern light, the terraced banks of the Kamo river at dusk…there is no combination of words to fully describe the renewed sense of wonder I get everytime I stroll around the city. For the casual wanderer, Kyoto is a treasure trove of textures and facades, of modern sensibilities artfully mingled with traditional design. The effortless charm this city has is enough to keep me coming back dozens of times, with or without a camera. Boy, do I love Kyoto.

Dig a little deeper than the surface charm however, and there you’ll find vestiges of the city Kyoto used to be: not as a tourism hotspot, but as the former imperial capital and center of religion of Japan for over a millenia. Craftsmen and artisans of all manner flourished in ancient Kyoto, honing their profession year after year, generation after generation, century after century. Carpenters, fletchers, weavers, dyers, metalworkers; hundreds upon thousands of narrow specialties each contributing to their particular cultural ecosystem. Nowadays, there aren’t so many craftsmen or women left. Entire ecosystems have collapsed, no longer needed anymore. In other cases, masters of their craft, unable to find an apprentice, have died without passing their flame onto a successor. Each time this happens, sadly, an untold amount of knowhow and skill built up over generations winks out of existence. As younger generations see less reward in devoting their life to a singular craft the passage of time will surely see more and more of these crafts disappear permanently. For now at least, in the 21st century, there are still traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, plying their trade as it has been plied for centuries on end.

Yamamoto Fujio and his son Akihisa make Magic Mirrors. They work out of a modest atelier on a quiet street, fifteen minute’s walking distance to Kyoto Station. It’s so modest in fact, that you would be forgiven for walking right past it in search of flashier cultural attractions. The sign over their door is also laughably banal – ‘Yamamoto Metalworks’ – a stunningly humble designation given that they are the only people left in all of Japan – and possibly the world – that know how to make Magic Mirrors anymore.

While you may be thinking of those mirrors at amusement parks that make you look fat or skinny, these ones are nothing of the sort. Magic Mirrors (makyo 魔境) are primarily religious items placed in shrines, private residences or even graves, or used as ceremonial tools. No glass is used in their production, in fact the mirrors are milled out of solid discs of bronze – polished, filed and sanded on one side to create a reflective surface of dazzling clarity. The magic part however, comes when you reflect a beam of light off the mirror onto another surface; inexplicably, an image appears. There’s no immediate explanation for why they do this – the mirror is solid bronze and the surface is completely flat. In an effort to understand better, I looked up some sources and came up with this: ‘stresses caused by scraping and polishing cause ‘preferential buckling’ into convexities of a scale too small to be seen by the human eye, but matching the design on the back of the mirror’. Well ok then.

However baffling the scientific explanation for this phenomenon is, the fact is Magic Mirrors have been made for hundreds of years. Fujio is the 4th generation maker in his family; his son Akihisa is the 5th. The workshop itself is bare of ornamentation, but brimming with tools and implements involved in making the mirrors, all bearing the patina of constant use but lovingly maintained in peak condition. A craftsman is nothing without his tools.

The process of making the mirrors isn’t overly complicated – it’s just enormously difficult. Firstly Fujio shows me how he makes the mold for the molten bronze to be poured into. Magic mirrors all have a design on their back, often religious iconography or a Japanese motif, and these are hand pressed into a block of clay using dozens of subtly different carving implements.

After a visit to a local foundry in which the bronze is cast into the mold, the resulting solid block of bronze goes back to the workshop where the laborious process of polishing begins. Once again a large arsenal of tools comes into play – this time in the form of curved blades and a variety of what looks like enormous metal nail files. Alternating implements of varying degrees of coarseness, Yamamoto-san begins scraping and smoothing down the grain of the metal with precise and rhythmical strokes. I ask Yamamoto-san who makes the files and he says that to his knowledge there is but one specialized file craftsman left in Kyoto who makes them, and he’s in his nineties. Another profession on the brink, I reply, to which Yamamoto-san just nods. The slow decline of less popular traditional crafts has been something he has witnessed in his city over the years.

The bronze is then washed and further buffed with special charcoal to further erase the grain of the metal and smooth out the surface. The resulting mirror is startlingly clear; a completely different experience to looking into a regular glass mirror. The show stealer however is undoubtedly seeing the hidden image in the reflected light for the first time. The mind knows that the mirror is solid metal; I saw the thing being made right in front of me so I know there are no hidden tricks built into it. The image of Buddha that the mirror is producing is solely due to whatever magic lies in the hands of a master craftsman carrying knowledge that has been passed down for generations.

As my photoshoot wraps up and I prepare to leave, Yamamoto Fujio begins smoothing away at a steel lantern as part of another commission. His son Akihisa attends to the foundry where two new mirrors have been cast, as well as several other ornaments. As I watch them go about their daily business it’s hard to believe that they are the last people alive who can carry on the ancient art of magic mirror making. Akihisa says he doesn’t have children yet but he intends to pass on his knowledge to a 6th generation if he can. Right before I leave, I observe the quiet fortitude and humility with which they work. Backs bent over and bathed in late afternoon sunlight, their legacy as uncertain as morning mist, they toiled on into the twilight, producing one marvel of craftsmanship after another.

Lenses used in this shoot:

My kit consists of my go-to lenses for any assignment recently – my set of Loxia lenses including the 21mm, the 35mm and the 50mm (the 85mm wasn’t out at the time!). I don’t often like to gush but they are absolutely flawless choices for assignments that require both photo and video. Smooth manual focus, smooth aperture ring, amazing image quality in such a tiny package, what more could you want? I also used another recent addition to my bag, the Milvus 100mm Makro Planar f/2, which is absolutely fantastic for getting up close and picking out details that a craftsman may be working on, which is especially great for video. It’s a little heavier but boy is that lens worth it. Do I even need to mention that the image quality is amazing? Probably not, but I will anyway! All of this fits into one small over the shoulder bag which means I can pack more lighting or video gear without feeling overburdened.