Mochi ha Mochi-ya
Every specialist has his own strength
An essay published in the Fukui Shimbun-Newspaper, 25 February 2015
At year's end, I received some New Year's maru-mochi (round rice cake) from an acquaintance. The pure white mochi was beautiful to behold. It was freshly-made mochi from traditional mochi shop in Fukui city. Every year I make my way to my hometown in Mie prefecture. In recent years, homemade mochi freshly pounded by my brother's family has become a staple. This year we had two types of mochi arranged on the table for New Year's Day. The simple and nourishing homemade mochi was just fine, but the masterfully refined taste of the round mochi from Fukui left no doubt in our mouths as to which one had been prepared by a specialist.
Since I was a child, I have always admired and respected the dedication and skill of the craftsman. Perhaps that's why one of my favorite types of artistic expression is the artisanal craft of printmaking.
When I was a student, I wanted to study Europien classic copperplate engraving techniques. It was partially with the intention of scouting out a foreign exchange destination that I took a trip to Italy. On the very same day that I landed in Rome I somehow managed to lose my suitcase. This is how I found myself in need of local clothing. The next day, I ventured into a charming shirt shop. The owner stood behind a counter in front of brilliantly colored shirts arranged neatly on shelves. It wasn't the type of shop where the customer could touch the merchandise, so it was necessary for me to try to communicate with the owner. Since I was in Italy I thought that I would take advantage of the situation and purchase a shirt that I wouldn't be able to find in Japan, so I pointed to a light purple shirt. "A shirt of that color does not match the Asian complexion." said the owner. "For you I recommend reddish-brown or blue!" I was going to take his advice, but in the end he didn't have the right shirt in my size so I couldn't convince him to sell me one.
I was surprised that the owner was able to make a correct visual estimation a customer's shirt size from behind the counter. It was just one small event on my journey, but I learned a great deal from the owner's professionalism.
To return to the subject of engraving, in Western Europe the system they have in place to train the next generation of engravers is small but well-equipped. Children who want to be engravers and printer begin their training in their pre-teen years. The process of making a print is separated into 3 processes: the sketching, the plate making, and the printing. Each of these is a specialty unto itself. This division of labor isn't unique to Western engraving. Japan has a similar system. For example Katsushika Hokusai(1760-1849), known for his famous collection of Ukiyo-e "36 Views of Mount Fuji", certainly didn't do all of the carving and printing by himself.
Prints has a wide range of charms, but the aspect of the process that really summarizes a work is the final print. Even after painters and engravers pass on from this world, their original work lives on and is given new life by the next generation of printers.
In the suburbs of Paris, one can find "La Chalcographie du Louvre."
"Chalcographie" means the engraving and preservation of copper plates. They have a collection of plates in excess of 14000, and that number continues to grow to this day. It isn't open to the public, but I had the opportunity to take a special tour. There are multiple pressed where skilled printers continue to produce new prints.
To be honest, I had the honor of receiving personal instruction from the director, who helped me in my attempt to make a print from a precious original 17th century plate. I learned about the difficulty of expressing the tone and space that the original artist intended, of the preparation of ink and manner of wiping, of the mind-bogglingly delicate placement, and of the amount of trial-and-error involved in the process. Of course I couldn't soak in the accumulated know-how of the ages in the brief time that I had, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the magnificent romance. In a word, it was profound!!
In Japan, family-run businesses and small retail manufacturers are steadily being replaced by supermarkets and big-box stores over the last few decades.
It's an era of convenience in which one can purchase tofu and mochi at the drug store. In light of this, I hope that we don’t lose sight of what's important. The treasures of our shared humanity should be handed down to the next generation, but I fear that they might become more difficult to find.