Takaoka City in Toyama Prefecture is known for its traditional Takaoka Copperware, which began in 1611, with the invitation of seven casting craftsmen to the area by Toshinaga Maeda, lord of the Kaga domain. Nousaku was founded in this region in 1916.
In the casting process, shapes are formed by melting metal and pouring it into a mold to cool. We arrived at the Nousaku casting foundry just as molten brass was being poured into a mold. The correct moment to pour the brass is determined by carefully observing the color of the flames. The various members involved in the work, from the pourer and the person who moves the mold into place, to the person who climbs on top of the mold to hold it down, must all act in sync. It takes a craftsman’s skill to pour the molten metal into the mold in such a way that it reaches all crevices evenly. For that reason, the process of making the mold is also very important. A prototype with the same shape as the product is created, placed in a frame, and buried in sand. The prototype is then removed to create the mold. This is a task performed by hand, and requires both physical strength and concentration, as any mistake made could lead to failure of the entire casting process. This method of mold production allows for rapid casting work and low costs, and is key to supporting the high-mix, low-volume production approach used at Nousaku.
The policy at Nousaku for high-mix production also leads directly to advances in technique. Almost no customer request is turned down. Customer feedback is used in the development of original products to expand the potential of the technology of casting while gaining new knowledge. For example, the products made of 100% tin, begun about 10 years ago, came about as a result of a request for cast metal tableware from a staff member at a shop selling Nousaku products. While other metals are normally mixed with tin to provide hardness, Nousaku leverages the softness and easy bending of tin in its products, qualities that are normally considered to be demerits of the material when used unmixed.
Katsuji Nousaku, representing the fourth generation, explains,“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that casting work is like melting the Earth. We take material from the Earth and melt it to create form. I honestly believe that this is a magnificent endeavor, which is exactly why I believe there is still untapped potential to do much more.”The technology of casting is continuously updated even as the long tradition is carried on.
Brass melts at 1,100 degrees Celsius. Impurities contained in the metal are removed as it is melted, much as one removes unwanted froth from the surface of a boiling pot of soup. The work is extremely taxing, with summer temperatures at the workshop reaching 40 degrees Celsius.
When Nousaku was originally founded, products primarily included Buddhist ritual articles, teaware, and flower vases. However, in recent years, the appeal of Takaoka Copperware as a traditional art form is communicated to the present through such products as interior accessories, tableware, lighting fixtures, and objet d’art. The company looks at their inherited tradition through the eyes of the modern day to focus on the material, technology, and product development that should be passed on to later generations.
The cast items are finished either by machine or by hand depending on the material used. As for tin, it is hard to grind as the metal is soft and flexible. For that reason, the degree of perfection of the casting process itself is quite important.
As a rule, molds are kept forever. The collection of molds here includes such things as ship emblems. There are also many molds that were collected from other manufacturers that went out of business. This means that there are an immense number of molds stored in the warehouse.