Magewappa Traditional Craft in Akita
Odate Kogeisha is a Japanese craft company located in Odate city, in the north of Tohoku area. It has a 400-year-old history specializing in Megawappa, a hand-made product only using Akita prefecture’s cedar wood. A workshop is available upon reservation to experience making one’s own elegant traditional bento box.
Magewappa craft is a specialty of the little Odate city, and it dates back to the Edo period (1603 - 1868). This important era of Japanese history was characterized by the unification of the country and the end of inter-clans’ wars. Samurai warriors therefore had more free time and local lords required them to find an activity. In Akita area, many of them choose the making of Magewappa bent woodware, allowing its use to become widespread.
Thanks to the cedar wood they are made of, the plates and especially the bento 🍱 boxes help to better preserve the taste and quality of the food. For example, rice dishes do not dry up as cedar doesn’t absorb very much humidity. Over time, the wares also give a nice woody fragrance to the ingredients preserved in it.
The techniques to make the wooden plates have little changed since the Edo period. Today’s craftsmen are still using Akita cedar wood, the most common in the area. Originally, only trees older than 250 years old were used, however, nowadays, such trees have become rarer, and the authorities are inclined to protect the remaining ones. Therefore, Odate Kogeisha now only uses cedars of an average age of 100 to 120 years old and participate in a program for plantation of new cedar trees, in notable partnership with the city’s schools.
Beautiful woodwares for the kitchen
Located in a small industrial area, Odate Kogeisha does not stand out and is only noticeable thanks to its name written in kanji 大館工芸社 on its wall. Visitors access directly to the shop, whose friendly layout invites to strolling in its aisles.
Cooking professionals consider Magewappa high-end products as they are entirely hand-made with noble materials. This craftsmanship is represented here by:
- Many bento boxes of various sizes,
- Wooden cups,
- Small and large trays, sometimes painted with beautiful colors,
- Sake 🍶 glasses, and,
- Many other unique creations for house decoration.
Prices may seem quite expensive, but they reflect the time spent working on each piece as well as the skill level required. The complete fabrication process from cutting the wood to the final product can last up to three weeks.
The creation of a Magewappa ware starts with the selection of the best quality wood. Then, it is cut in fine stripes, and goes through another rigorous selection process. The fine cedar sheets are then soaked into boiling water to make them supple enough to be worked by hand and give the desired shape to the object. The last step is the assembling of the various elements, with cherry bark binding, resulting in the finished product. Other techniques such as manual strapping or the use of glue can be used and are taught during demonstration workshops.
Magewappa crafting workshop experience
A pre-requisite to participate in Odate Kogeisha’s Magewappa making workshop is to have at least one person in the group who speaks fluent Japanese. The explanations, technical and very detailed to correctly make the product are indeed only provided in Japanese.
The main goal of the workshop is to learn how to assemble the different parts of a woodware to choose among a selection: a small or large bread board or a bento box. The experience includes bending a piece of wood after its immersion in hot water, and the strapping with cherry bark to assemble the oval parts. The finishing touches, namely the gluing and sanding steps are made with the help of one of the factory’s workers.
Once your Magewappa ware is finished, we recommend ending the tour by the restaurant Akita Hinai-Ya, in downtown Odate, that uses woodwares made at Odate Kogeisha to serve its customers. One of the local specialties is the oyakodon, a savory bowl of rice topped with a runny chicken omelet.