Yosegi-zaiku, Parquet Work That Demonstrates the Infinite Beauty of Wood

   Yosegi-zaiku (literally “parquet work”) is the name of a traditional Japanese craft that uses many different kinds of wood in combination to produce beautiful and intricate patterns by utilizing the differences in color between each type of wood. In recent years, this craft has gained publicity in Japan as well as overseas, with people drawn to its appealing looks and the sense of warmth that only wood can bring. This article looks at the history and methods for Yosegi-zaiku, as well as the hopes and ambitions of young artisans that will build the future for this craft.

What is the Traditional Japanese Handicraft of Yosegi-zaiku?

   Yosegi-zaiku is a type of woodworking technique for creating attractive patterns by combining many different types of wood together. This traditional handicraft is famous as a specialty from Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture—a well-known tourist hotspot within Japan—and it is said to have over 200 years of history.

   The greatest feature of this craft is without a doubt the unique geometrical patterns created by combining the different colors and styles present in each type of wood. While the patterns themselves are bold and unusual, the unique tones in the wood create a sense of softness and warmth, producing a very relaxing impression. These colors are not painted on; they come from the differences in species, location, age, and other aspects of the wood itself.

Yosegi-zaiku is a traditional Japanese handicraft with uniquely beautiful geometrical patterns

   Yosegi-zaiku is a popular souvenir, and many people who visit Hakone buy containers for small items or jewelry boxes featuring this style of craft. You can also find Yosegi-zaiku styled drawers, photo frames, teapots, and other items used in daily life. You can even find more unusual examples like guitars featuring Yosegi-zaiku. This goes to show the wide range of variation present with Yosegi-zaiku.

Apart from souvenirs, Yosegi-zaiku also features in items that are used on a daily basis. (Images provided by Hakone Maruyama Bussan)

There are also teapots and guitars made with Yosegi-zaiku. (Images provided by Hakone Maruyama Bussan (left) / Yosegi Music (right))

   Another strange example is the Himitsu-bako or “puzzle box” where you can only open the lid by performing specific steps in order. Some boxes are simple and can be opened in just a few steps, but others are more complicated and need dozens of steps.
   Old legends say that Himitsu-bako were created for travelers to hide their money and valuables. It is also said that some people put their money inside a Himitsu-bako and then used the box as a pillow.
   In the present day, Himitsu-bako are enjoyed on their own as a kind of puzzle, or people give the boxes to someone else with a special present inside. Himitsu-bako bring people joy by being used in freeform ways.

You can only open the lid of a Himitsu-bako by performing specific steps in order, just like when solving a puzzle. (Images provided by Hakone Maruyama Bussan)

Methods Used for Yosegi-zaiku

   Yosegi-zaiku is made by hand step by step through the work of trained artisans using techniques that are just as intricate as the appearance of the patterns on the finished article. There are two methods in Yosegi-zaiku: Zuku and Muku.

   The Zuku method involves chopping wood into many pieces, putting them into a frame and polishing them, then sticking the pieces together with an adhesive. This produces a block, and several blocks can be combined together to make a complex pattern. Finally, the finished pattern is sliced into thin strips to make sheets that clearly display the original pattern. These sheets can be pasted onto small boxes or other items to ultimately create a Yosegi-zaiku product.

The wood used to make Yosegi-zaiku patterns is cut up and then smoothed with a plane.

The wood used for the patterns is stuck together with an adhesive while keeping them together with a cotton cord, and then the bundle is chopped with a saw.

Complex patterns are produced by creating blocks combining multiple types of wood in patterns, and then joining these blocks together. Patterned slabs created by bringing many blocks together in this way are called Taneita or “seed plates.”

The completed Taneita is sliced into thin strips with a plane to make sheets that display the original pattern.

The sheets made by slicing the Taneita are called Zuku and they are pasted onto small boxes or other items to create a Yosegi-zaiku product. (Images provided by Hakone Maruyama Bussan)

A small box made with Zuku. The intricate Yosegi-zaiku patterns spread across all the surfaces of the box.

   The Muku method involves carving a Taneita to create products. This method is relatively recent, as it originates from the Showa period (1926–1989). The method can be used to make cups and other curved objects, and its strong point is that it lets you enjoy the patterns from the Taneita all the way through to the inner surface. One Taneita is used to make a single article with this method, so it is generally priced higher than Zuku products. Muku features simple geometrical patterns, giving a different impression than Zuku.

A cup made using the Muku method. The strong point of this method is that it lets you see the Yosegi-zaiku patterns on the inner surface of the cup as well, giving a different impression than Zuku. (Images provided by Hakone Maruyama Bussan)

This method is also used to make objects with complex curves, like these vases that hold a single flower each. (Images provided by the Honma Parquet Museum of Art)

   The patterns are all made from wood, and they only use natural colors. For this reason, no two products ever look the same. Also, in order to create a beautiful pattern, it is crucial that none of the pieces differ even slightly in terms of length or angles. Behind the beauty of Yosegi-zaiku are the skills developed over a long time by artisans, along with their dedicated efforts.

The World of Modern Yosegi-zaiku

   Young creators are also working actively to pass on the tradition of Yosegi-zaiku and to express its appeal to the younger generation in Japan and others around the world. The Yosegi-zaiku artisan Ken Ota developed an interest in this craft when he was 24, and he started training at a Yosegi-zaiku workshop in 2003.

   “When I first saw Yosegi-zaiku, I was surprised that wood was used to express complex and intricate patterns. I was also interested to know how they are made, so I decided to aim toward becoming a Yosegi-zaiku artisan. Yosegi-zaiku utilizes nothing but the natural colors of the wood, and different workshops use different types of wood, so there are individual characteristics in tones and patterns at each workshop.”

   It is common to incorporate traditional patterns in products with Yosegi-zaiku, but Ota continues to take on challenges to identify new possibilities for Yosegi-zaiku.

   “Since I went independent in 2012, I created new patterns every year, and I strive to make new products. Also, I utilize types of wood that no other workshop uses, letting me produce colors and patterns that are full of originality. People generally view Yosegi-zaiku as a type of souvenir, but I make ballpoint pens, buttons, containers for small items, and other familiar items so that people can use them more regularly and grow attached to them. I want more people abroad to know about Yosegi-zaiku, and make it into a souvenir that is iconic of Japan.”

Containers for small items, ballpoint pens, and buttons made by Ken Ota, a Yosegi-zaiku artisan and the representative of OTA MOKKO. The image at the bottom right shows an original pattern of Ota’s creation based on traditional Yosegi-zaiku designs. It utilizes curves to give a modern feel. (Images provided by OTA MOKKO)

   Yosegi-zaiku is a traditional Japanese craft that enhances the beauty of wood to the maximum degree. The techniques created by artisans have been passed down to the present day, and there are many items for sale that fit well into our daily lives. With its complex wood grain giving a beautiful appearance, Yosegi-zaiku is sure to continue captivating people’s minds and hearts in the future.