Photojournalism, Portrait

Japanese Crafts: Gold Leaf/Kinpaku

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

The incandescent beauty of many Japanese national treasures and temples are due to the application of gold leaf. Kanazawa produces 99% of it. 

The kanji for Kanazawa translates literally to ‘Gold Marsh’, an extremely accurate designation for a city that produces 99% of all domestic gold leaf. It is a staple craft industry in the country, with many other crafts being reliant on it to exist. Kimono, architecture, sculptor, lacquerware amongst some use kinpaku – Japanese hammered gold leaf – on a daily basis. One of the most recognizable Kyoto landmarks, the shimmering Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion, is covered over every square inch with Kanazawa kinpaku, and restoration every few decades relies on its production. 

Kanazawa seems to regard its own status as the premier producer of gold leaf with a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Almost any food or beverage that can be garnished with gold leaf will get the kinpaku treatment, including coffee, ice-cream and sake. Cosmetics and other beauty products such as facial masks will contain gold leaf, and conspicuously, many interiors including restrooms are liberally covered with kinpaku. 

Kanazawa’s history with gold is long and tumultuous. Earliest records of official production start in 1593, when the Lord Maeda of the Kaga clan ordered his territories to begin producing it to decorate the weapons of his soldiers. The era of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to put an end to this production in order to consolidate the wealth of his country in his two power bases of Tokyo (then known as Edo) and Kyoto. Unbeknownst to him, the Kaga clan secretly continued kinpaku production in clandestine workshops, while simultaneously pouring money into the development of other crafts such as Kaga Yuzen and Kutaniyaki. In the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Kaga clan reacquired the license to produce gold leaf in 1864, and the industry has grown to what it is today.

Yamane Tsutomu

‘A one kilogram ingot of gold will make roughly forty-thousand sheets of gold leaf,’ says Yamane Tsutomu, at 38 year veteran of kinpaku production who has achieved Master Artisan status. His company Hakuichi is one of the larger companies involved with kinpaku production, with direct channels for architecture and design, as well as producing many traditional gold-plated items in-house with its own team of artisans. It is a company that is invested in producing gold leaf on an industrial scale, however many of the steps involved still require a hands-on approach by a skilled craftsman such as Yamane-san. 

The process of turning a block of gold into thin slices starts with few surprises – the ingot is first melted into molten gold by placing it in a furnace for roughly twenty minutes at 1300 degrees celsius. The liquid is poured into a mold to harden, and then the gold block is passed through a machine roller several dozens of times to stretch out and thin the metal incrementally. While seeming like a tedious operation from the outside, Yamane-san personally does this by hand, explaining that it is important for the gold strip to be stretched to a width of roughly 6 centimetres for the next step.

After this process, the gold is a long strip resembling cooking foil in texture. This belt is then cut into squares and placed in between sheets of kinpaku uchigami – a very special type of paper that is an essential tool for handling gold leaf. Made from high quality washi in the soft waters of Kanazawa, kinpaku uchigami is dipped in a solution of egg, persimmon tannin and ash before having had its fibres methodically crushed and flattened in order to become extremely flat and dense. These properties are absolutely necessary in order to prevent stray microscopic fibres of the paper from adhering to the thin gold leaf, ripping it apart. In addition, uchigami is also extremely well suited to soaking up excess oil on the gold that would hinder its purity and quality. Interestingly, this paper is popular amongst maiko – apprentice geisha – as a blotting paper to remove oil from their skin, and Hakuichi has recently begun selling them commercially for that exact purpose. 

The squares of gold foil, now ensconced in the uchigami is then subjected to several rounds of beating and stretching via a hydraulic hammer. At each interval, the gold is recut into successively larger squares while getting steadily thinner. The target thinness for Japanese gold leaf is a staggering 0.0001 millimeters, or 100 nanometers. At this level of thinness, the gold leaf is incredibly fragile and liable to stick to anything at the slightest contact. Even the slightest breeze or spark of static electricity is enough to cause a sheet to tear. 

Specialized craftspeople must transfer these gossamer sheets from the uchigami to a new set of paper to be cut into final squares for delivery. Using bamboo chopsticks due to their static-free nature, the craftsperson swiftly pinches a corner of the leaf, and carefully so as not to let the kinpaku fold over and stick to itself, moves it over to the new paper, settling it into place with gentle puffs of air from one’s mouth. It’s a mind-bogglingly delicate task that must be done hundreds of times in a row; no machine or robot arm is even close to being sophisticated enough to perform this task. 

The gold leaf needs to be handled with a commensurate amount of skill by the artisans who use it. At thirty-three years of age, Miyagi Satomi is one of the youngest gold leaf artisans at Hakuichi, but with fifteen years experience under her belt, she is one of the best. ‘At first it was almost impossible to get the kinpaku to do what I wanted,’ she admits. Gilding a wooden box, she snaps her bamboo chopsticks against the corner of the gold leaf paper to curl it up a little, before floating the kinpaku over and letting it settle into place. Excess kinpaku is brushed off and carefully recovered, and the result a shining golden box which will be patterned and decorated by a lacquer artisan. One of the boxes gilded by Miyagi was presented by Prime Minister Abe to the incumbent American President during the 2017 U.S Japan summit. Miyagi is modest about this achievement. ‘I always wanted to be an artisan from a young age,’ she said. ‘I’m from Kanazawa so it’s not surprising that I ended up working with gold I guess.’