The next day we drove back up the western coast of Shikoku to the prefecture of Ehime, where I first started my journey. On the way back up we stopped at the town of Seiyo, where we visited a gentleman called Okuno-san who is a Japanese cooper. Being a cooper in Japan is an essential job even today, and involves making a variety of large and small buckets and barrels for pickling or making rice for sushi. Unfortunately most buckets these days are dirt cheap plastic ones made in China, so fewer and fewer artisans are able to stay in work.
If making a perfectly round seamless bucket out of wooden slats sounds hard, that’s because it is. Large blocks of wood have to be chopped down to smaller blocks of wood, which then have to be painstakingly shaved down to whatever dimensions your bucket will have. After that, they need to be further shaved to have a convex and and concave surface so as to fit with the twenty or so other pieces that will make up the finished product. To this end, a bucket artisan has a dizzying array of chisels, saws and kanna (Japanese wood planes) in order to achieve delicate rounded shapes needed to form a perfect circle.
Once your slats are ready you then fit them together, and if you’ve done your job well the bucket will be watertight, hopefully. Lastly, the rough edges are shaved and polished away so it resembles a single piece of wood.
Okuno-san is a retired businessman whose wife’s father was a traditional cooper – he says he learned about the craft from him, as well as inherited all of the tools, which are especially hard to come by these days. He’s the last such craftsman in the area, and the buckets he makes are beautiful in form and function.