Artisan Spirit: Treasures of Japanese Intangible Cultural Heritage Showcased in Hong Kong

History molds the present and shapes the future. In the process of art creation, traditions and Inheritance always come as an important source of inspiration. It is especially true in Japanese works of art. Japanese traditional culture has long been inherited in various art forms and continued to influence the creation of artwork even in the modern world. To promote the significance of cultural heritage, an exhibition currently held in Hong Kong showcases over 100 beautiful art pieces by the hands of Japanese artisans, including ceramics, metalwork, lacquer work, paperwork, woodwork and textiles.

Benkei at Sea | In 1185, Minamoto no Yoshitsune sailed west to escape prosecution, but was attacked by the tortured souls of the Taira Clan destroyed in their war against the Minamoto Clan. This is a depiction of Yoshitsune’s retainer, Benkei, trying his utmost to calm the restless spirits.

Ishikawa Goemon | In 1590, Ishikawa Goemon sneaked into Fushimi Castle to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This is a depiction of his capture by Hideyoshi’s retainers after the attempt failed.

Inami wood carvings

Inami was designated as the “Japan Heritage” in May 2018, gaining in recognition as the“Museum of Woodcarving”, originated with just a chisel of temple carpenter. “Inami” is the former name of the current Nanto City in Toyama Prefecture and the origins of Inami Woodcarving can be traced back to the mid Edo period (around 1750s). The area already had a number of highly skilled carpenters, but woodcarving proper only began when during the rebuilding of the main worship hall at Zuisen ji Temple in Inami, Maekawa Sanshiro, an official patronage woodcarver of Kyoto Hongan ji Temple arrived to take up work.

Inami wood carvings are usually made of Japanese camphor, paulownia, or zelkova wood, and carved with landscapes, flowers and birds, human figures, animals or dragons. Inami Woodcarvings are distinguished by the exceptional woodcarving skills producing three-dimensional works filled with life and movement. Highly-skilled artisans use over 200 different chisels and knives to carve both sides of a work, a technique known as sukashi-fukabori, which amply demonstrates their superb craftsmanship.

Maekawa Masaji. Rising Dragon | 2010. Nanmu

Maekawa Masaji. Lion’s Head | 2000s. Nanmu

Nanbu Hakuun III. Toad Hermit | 1993. Hill Cherry

Hong Kong wood carving

The show also features artworks that embody Hong Kong cultural heritage, including Guangcai porcelain, paper art and wood carving. Hong Kong woodcarving technique includes woodcuts and religious figure carving. The woodcarving statues are mostly made of camphorwood or sandalwood. The figures are mainly Buddhist and Taoist deities, such as Buddha, Guanyin Bodhisattva and Tin Hau.

Siu Ping-keung. Bhurkumkuta | 2000s. Camphor wood.

Siu Ping-keung. Four Heavenly Kings - Virupaksa | 1990s. Camphor wood

Siu Ping-keung. Chair of the Three Pure Ones | 2000s. Camphor wood


During the Tenpō era (1830-1844) of the late Edō period, the regional deputy in charge of the imperial crown lands which consisted of Hida Province (current day northern Gifu Prefecture) wished to develop local industries within the region, and towards that end potters from Owari (western half of Aichi Prefecture) and Kutani (now part of Kaga, Ishikawa) were invited into the region.

In 1841, the first Shibukusa Ryuzō came to Hida from Owari, and built a kiln in Shibukusa, to the west of Takayama, where pottery clay of good quality could be found. Porcelain stone resources were later found in northern Hida, and thus was born a kiln where both porcelain and earthenware are produced hard to find anywhere in the world.

The half government run, half privately run kiln received support from the shogunate government, where anything from common household items to tributes to the emperor were produced. They also collaborated with craftsmen from different fields for projects such as tea room construction; using today’s terminology, their work spanned over art pieces, products, production, project directing, and many others. Works from the kiln were also among the earliest Japanese exhibits at the Paris Exhibition. Even now the kiln preserves the methods, materials and the spirit from when it began more than a century ago, and the seventh successor of the trade name Shibukusa Ryuzō works diligently both within Japan and abroad, in many diverse genres.

Shibukusa Ryuzo VII. Unidentified Fragrance Object/ Celadon | 2014. Porcelain

Shibukusa Ryuzo VII. Un & a | 2019. Porcelain, wood

Shibukusa Ryuzo VII. Haruko | 2014. Porcelain, wood

Asahiyaki XVI Hosai Matsubayashi

Asahiyaki Pottery Studio has a history of some four hundred years and sixteen generations. Their art developed along the vibrant tea culture of Uji, Kyoto, the oldest tea growing region in Japan. Asahiyaki’s works are created using clay hand-picked by the craftsmen themselves, and then the clay must be stored for at least five decades, sometimes for as long as a century before they could be used to make ceramics. Their climbing kiln uses chopped pine for its fire, since having the perfect flame to bring out all the charming characteristics of the fine soil of Uji is one of the most important aspects of the studio’s creations.

The first master of Asahiyaki learnt from the famous tea master Enshū Kobori, and it was Kobori’s teachings of ‘kireisabi’, or ‘elegant simplicity’, where the fundamental principles of Asahiyaki’s aesthetics developed. The sixteenth successor of the trade name Asahiyaki redefines elegant simplicity for our age, with tea ceremony ware being the core of a variety of products including flower vases and more. The most distinctive characteristic of pottery clay from Uji is the ‘deer back’ dotted pattern, of which there are variations such as ‘kase (deer back)’, and benikase (red deer back)’. Asahiyaki illuminates this by using the modernistic blue tinged ‘moon white glaze’, adorned with ‘kohiki (lit.: powder draw)’ covering the clay with white porcelain before glazing and letting the subtle play of the climbing kiln work its magic into the earthenware, resulting in the works of art known as Asahiyaki.

Asahiyaki XVI Hosai Matsubayashi|porcelain

Asahiyaki XVI Hosai Matsubayashi|porcelain

Guangcai Porcelain

Guangcai’s craftsmanship originated from Guangzhou where the China trade porcelain was exported in the middle of the Qing dynasty. The most distinctive feature is the chinoiserie decoration porcelain and heraldic porcelain. Guangcai is an on-glaze decoration and the making process involves drawing lines, painting with colours and glost firing. Painters paint traditional Guangcai patterns on white porcelain. After firing, porcelain will become colourful. Heraldic porcelain is often made according to logo pattern required by customers.

The oldest existing Guangcai porcelain factory in Hong Kong was established in the 1920s. Yuet Tung China Works is the only porcelain factory left in Hong Kong. Formerly known as Kam Wah Loong Guangcai Porcelain, it was founded by Tso Liui Chung in Kowloon City in 1928. It was later renamed as Yuet Yung China Works. It is now located at an industrial building in Kowloon Bay and is managed by the third-generation proprietor, who still insists on local production.

Yuet Tung China Works/ Tan Chi-hung. Large gold embellished Guangcai bowl decorated with ancient figures in a continuous scene | 2000s. Guangcai porcelain

Yuet Tung China Works. Plate with a fisherman in chinoiserie style | 1990s. Guangcai porcelain

Echizen Washi

Legend has it that some 1500 years ago, when Emperor Keitai lived in Echizen as Prince Ohta, a beautiful princess descended upon a village on the Okamoto River and taught the people there how to make paper. This princess, Kawakami-gozen, turned out to be the goddess of paper, and with her visit she founded Echizen’s washi industry, people built Okamoto shrine to dedicate her and have been carrying on the tradition of paper making.

The name of Echizen Washi is found in Shosoin’s (a treasure repository built in 8th century) documents of the Nara Period when Chinese paper-making was introduced to Japan. When paper began to be used in large quantities by the warrior class, some very high quality papers such as Echizen Hosho were produced in large amounts and using improved techniques. The Shogunate and feudal lords gave paper producing area their patronage and further developments were made. During the Meiji period Dajyokan Kinsatsu, Japan’s first nationally used currency notes were manufactured in Imadatge, Fukui prefecture. In more recent times many artists including the famous painter, Taikan Yokoyama, have favoured Echizen papers, which are well known throughout the country.

Echizen Washi

An array of other amazing works of art is showcased in the exhibition, which is currently running in Hong Kong City Hall until 3 November.

Inheritance – The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Japan Exhibition|Hong Kong Exhibition
Period: Now - 3 November 2019
Monday to Friday | 11am - 7pm
Saturday, Sunday | 10am - 7pm
Venue: Exhibition Hall, 1/F, Low Block, Hong Kong City Hall
Address: 5 Edinburgh Place, Central, Hong Kong

Presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department
Co-organised by the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office and WADO PROJECT
Supported by the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong