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Northern Japanese traditions come to life

Northern Japanese traditions come to life

Date published: 31 January 2020

Odate City is in the northernmost part of Akita Prefecture. The city offers visitors the chance to learn more about unique traditional crafts such as magewappa (bent woodware.) You can also get to know the famous Akita dog breed, savor local produce, and experience the warmth of the people who operate the area's facilities.

Magewappa: a unique Japanese craft with strong Odate connections

Magewappa: a unique Japanese craft with strong Odate connections
A magewappa bento box

The craft of magewappa (bent woodware) has a 400-year-long history in Odate. Originally, local woodcutters and artisans used the cedar trees that surround the area to create beautiful and functional items such as trays, lunch boxes, and wooden containers for cooked rice, and the craft still survives today.

Shaping strips of boiled cedarwood

To create magewappa items, craftsmen boil thin strips of straight-grained cedar until they're pliable, then fashion the pieces into different shapes. A bottom and a wood finish are added, and the item is polished. This is, of course, a simplified explanation of an intricate craft that has been passed down through generations. Presently, around eight Odate companies specialize in magewappa.

Tradition, food, and community at the Wappa Building

Tradition, food, and community at the Wappa Building
The Wappa Building in Odate City, Akita Prefecture

If you're interested in magewappa, then the Wappa Building—300 meters south of the JR Odate Station—should top your list of places to visit. True to its name, the building's exterior and interior are inspired by magewappa itself, using white as a base to emphasize the rich colors of the cedar. Inside the building, a craft shop, Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten, sells magewappa pieces; S.witch cafe serves delicious tea, coffee, and assorted desserts; and Maruwwa rents out office space. These facilities respectively embody the building's three concepts of "tradition," "food," and "community."

Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten's shopfront sign

To create your very own bento box, head to Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten (the first shop on the left when approaching from the train station). Upon entering, you'll see myriad magewappa pieces that include bento boxes, trays, cups, and other items. The shop has a light and airy interior and exudes a refreshing cedar fragrance.

An array of magewappa items

Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten is operated by the second-generation owner, Yoshimasa Shibata, who uses his years of experience to teach visitors the secrets of magewappa.

Create your own magewappa pieces

Create your own magewappa pieces
Choose to make either a round bento box or a small plate

Choose to make either a round-shaped bento box (6,050 yen) or a small plate (3,850 yen—prices include both the lesson and the item itself). The whole experience lasts between 90 and 120 minutes, depending on how many people take the class. Lessons take place at comfortable tables and each seat has the tools and materials necessary for your chosen creation.

Tools used to create a magewappa bento box

Yoshimasa explains how to bend straight pieces of wood into a rounded shape. To ensure the wood strip doesn't break, it's soaked in hot water (80 C) then shaped into a circle using a wooden template. After five seconds, the circle is clipped together. Typically, the wooden band needs four weeks before it can be used, but as the lesson only lasts around two hours, Yoshimasa prepares the two main parts of the bento box: a wide strip of wood and a thinner one. These parts are destined to become the container and lid, respectively.

Looping the mountain cherry bark through the slits

The two sides of the piece are joined together with glue and decorated with a thin strip of mountain cherry bark, which is passed through the slits on the side. Yoshimasa explains that simply looping the strip through won't do, so he shows us a method known as kabatoji—literally, "birch-binding." This bit is tricky and requires concentration, so be sure to follow Yoshimasa's instructions carefully. If in doubt, watch the way he does it as he creates his own box.

Gluing the parts together

The next step is to affix the lid and bottom pieces using thinly applied special glue (it's important to ensure the wood grain runs horizontally to the slits in the bark). Yoshimasa will show you how to use a wood scrap when hammering the parts together, thus avoiding damage to your creation. Interestingly, different cloths are used to wipe away the excess glue: a dry cloth for the external surface and a damp cloth for the internal part.

Sawing along the mark

As glue alone isn't enough to hold the parts together, a thinner strip of wood is added to add strength. The strips don't fit exactly, so Yoshimasa measures and marks the area to be cut. Observe Yoshimasa's actions carefully—there's a knack required to using the special saw.

Putting the finishing touches to the lid

With the main bento box finished, it's time to add the polished sheen that makes magewappa pieces so famous. Four different types of sandpaper are used, each with a different level of roughness. Following Yoshimasa's lead, sand the surface using circular motions.

Adding the finishing touches

Four rounds of sanding are required (one for each kind of sandpaper). You'll likely feel a growing sense of pride as the surface becomes increasingly smooth. After sanding, your creation is complete, ready to be washed and used as a bona fide bento box.

A rewarding lesson in patience and concentration

A rewarding lesson in patience and concentration
Yoshimasa Shibata (right) and a student show off their finished articles

Yoshimasa teaches both domestic and international visitors at his shop. Although he doesn't speak English, you can simply copy his example as you work; the process transcends words and language. With plastic containers now being the norm, it's refreshing to return to tradition and use a wooden bento box, especially one that taps into a 400-year-old tradition.

  • Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten, Wappa Building Store
    柴田慶信商店 わっぱビルヂング店
    • Address 1-12-27 Onari-cho, Odate, Akita
    • Program: Magewappa (bent woodware) making
      Fees: 6,050 yen for round bento box; 3,850 yen for small plate (tax included)
      Requirements: Reservations must be made advance (email only)
      Closed: Tuesdays
      Languages available: Japanese
      Organization name: Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten
      Organization address: 2-15-28 Onari-cho, Odate, Akita
      Email: info@wappa-building.com

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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