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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #036 Yamatani Works.Ltd.

#036 Yamatani Works.Ltd.2015/07/30

katsuobushi kezuriki (dried bonito shavers): Repackaging Japanese tradition to suit modern lifestyles

Bringing katsuobushi kezuriki back to the family table

Just as people are rediscovering an appreciation for fresh-brewed coffee and just-sliced cheese, more people are finding delight in having freshly shaved dried bonito at the table.

The message above comes from the official website of Daiya, a traditional workshop that has been concentrating their efforts on crafting stylish katsuobushi kezuriki.

It sounds so simple, but piling some freshly shaved bonito on a bowl of steaming rice and topping it off with few drops of soy sauce is pure delight and the pinnacle of luxury. What Daiya is offering with its handcrafted dried bonito shavers is the kind of sophisticated, warmhearted way of living that so many Japanese are searching for these days.

The katsuobushi kezuriki crafted by Daiya have a dignified look that is far from gimmicky. Shaped from the walnut and beech woods used in high-end furniture, they are designed to blend seamlessly the décor of a Japanese home.

Seventy years of kannadai craftsmanship

Yamatani Works is the company that runs Daiya. It is located in Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture renowned for its Japanese craftsmanship. Yamatani Works was established in 1946, and for nearly seven decades has been producing kannadai, the wooden body used in Japanese woodworking planes.

Sanjo was a bustling bladesmithing area during the Edo period, and was also home to numerous other kannadai manufacturers at the time Yamatani Works was established and through Japan’s economic boom period following World War II. At one point, there were some seventy different companies making kannadai in the city. Times changed, however, and demand for woodworking planes fell sharply. Today, there are just ten companies left—run by artisans who continue to advance further into old age.

Toshio Yamatani is the second-generation president of Yamatani Works. “Our company was also one that focused solely on kannadai,” he told us, “but we realized that we were going to have to take on a new challenge if we were going to survive. Coming up with creative solutions is something that we love to do—we’re always finding ways to make our professional, educational, and general-use planes easier for people to use. We made the most of the skills we had accumulated over the years and started by developing a carpentry tool that fit into the modern era.”

Yamatani explains the origins of his brand name. “A Japanese woodworking plane has a blade and a wooden body, each made by different specialists. Those who craft the blade portion are called kanna-kaji, or plane smiths, while those like us, who make the plane bodies, are called daiya—which literally translates to ‘body shops ’.”

In the year 2000, Daiya developed a board planer for plasterboard under the brand name Rokube. They followed this in 2004 with a circular saw ruler . They were confident in the quality of both of these tools, as they had been designed through a trial and error process that relied heavily on feedback from carpenters working in the field. Both products were a hit not only with professionals, but with the DIY crowd at home improvement stores and other outlets as well.

Bringing planing techniques to the dinner table

Toshio Yamatani, the consummate craftsman, is backed by his right-hand man Shunsuke—third-generation Yamatani and managing director of the company. Shunsuke Yamatani had no desire to carry on the family business when he was in school, but fifteen years ago he had a change of heart and ended up returning to the company after working in a different industry.

Managing director Shunsuke Yamatani, responsible for the day-to-day operations of Daiya. His customer-focused ideas and willingness to take action have driven several new Daiya projects, including setting up an online shop, testing every shaver prior to shipment (an industry first), developing wooden mallets for tool maintenance, and more.

“The handcrafted blades we get from the plane smiths are different thicknesses, and each tends to have its own peculiarities,” Shunsuke explained. “The skills needed to fit the blade on the body can’t just be picked up in a day or so—they’ve got to be handed down from generation to generation. That said, we can’t expand demand for woodworking planes to go up anytime soon. I really wracked my brains over this one. What were we going to do? I wondered. What else could we make?”

“I wondered if we might expand our vision and start creating other products—move beyond carpentry tools—if only to pass on our skills to the next generation. It was just then that UNESCO officially recognized Japanese cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, and it was all over the news. December of 2013.”

“This is it! I thought. After all, a dried bonito shaver is essentially a planing tool.”

“Actually, Yamatani Works was already making planes for katsuobushi kezuriki tools as an original equipment manufacturer. But for some reason, even though we had the woodworking skills, we had never made the box portion of the shavers. Even if we did make them, we had nobody to sell them too—which kept us stuck.”

“But with people developing a newfound appreciation for Japanese cuisine, I figured that we could also do something to support our cultural heritage. I wanted to craft an entirely new kind of katsuobushi kezuriki—one that would offer a new kind of value. People haven’t had dried bonito shavers in their homes for some time now, but this was precisely why the rich flavors and aromas of freshly shaved bonito would seem like such an innovative concept. I saw it as a great opportunity.”

Shunsuke’s younger brother Kohei also joined the family business two years ago. He is currently learning advanced planing techniques (such as tsutsumibori ) from his boss, Toshio Yamatani.

 

There are as few as ten craftsmen in Japan who have mastered the tsutsumibori technique. This incredibly labor-intensive process showcases the beauty of the Japanese spirit.

 

The part that holds the blade in place undergoes initial grinding by machine before being finished by hand so that it fits perfectly into the plane.

A stylish reinterpretation of a traditional design

A typical dried bonito shaver is made with drawer inside a light paulownia wood box, but the katsuobushi kezuriki made at Daiya completely reinvent the old standard with a seamless, compact box design of solid wood. Why?

The new design is a result of our efforts to complement the current feel of a Japanese home and be in tune with the modern lifestyle. The old shavers were bulky and hard to store in an average kitchen—so people told us that if they bought them, they’d have put them in some out-of-the-way location and end up never using them. We wanted people to keep our product handy at all times, so we insisted on a simple, elegant design that’s half as tall as a traditional katsuobushi kezuriki and has the lovely texture of tree bark.

 

Opening the box reveals a classic woodworking plane. Every shaver is tested and adjusted before it is shipped, ensuring that it can be put to use immediately. The shaved bonito flakes used in the testing are enclosed with each product—delighting customers with a reminder of the impeccable level of service Daiya offers.

 

The “slide” portion that contains the shaved bonito flakes is an industry first. Daiya lines up the plane body with the blade using an angled chiseling process that Shunsuke Yamatani added when president Yamatani told him they should consider putting one of their own signature techniques into the product.

The Daiya katsuobushi kezuriki uses a compact, 48-milimeter blade that easily slices through dried bonito. This makes it easy to use even while sitting at the table with your back to a chair. And kids can use it as well. The old bonito shavers looked elegant in a traditional Japanese home where everyone was sitting on the floor, but Daiya has reinvented the old classic with a design that will set the tone for the modern era.

“Chiseling down hardwood to make boxes is a specialty among us plane body artisans,” Toshio Yamatani told us. “We make something that is not only beautiful, but also sturdy and resistant to breakage. The slide that contains the shaved bonito flakes also makes use of our plane body manufacturing techniques.” The harmony of craftsmanship and design that we offer has been well received, earning us the judges’ committee award during the Niigata 2015 IDS Design Competition.”

“We’re currently working to expand our sales channels, but the customers who bought through our online shop keep telling us how delighted they are to have finally found the kind of katsuobushi kezuriki they’d been looking for. There’s a great demand for our shavers as gifts, and our reputation is growing thanks to word-of-mouth.”

“In the spring of this year we participated in the Tokyo International Gift Show Spring 2015 for the first time, and we had a woman tell us that she regretted having run out and bought a bonito shaver when she could have waited and had a Daiya product. With more people returning to tradition and looking to make authentic dashi broth with shaved bonito, we’re expecting our stylish katsuobushi kezuriki to keep catching on.”

 

The aogami steel blades are smithed using the same process used to manufacture the high-end planing tools used by professional carpenters. Daiya also offers products that use a sharp, yet more affordable, SK steel.

 

Japanese white oak is used to make the boxes used in Daiya planes. The wood is first dried for several years to further bleach the color and ensure that the finished tools resist deformation.

Japanese food is popular in France, and there are even plans to construct a bonito shaving manufacturing plant there in the near future. With developments like these on the horizon, it’s becoming likely that people outside of Japan will also want their own tools for shaving fresh bonito flakes in the home.

“We’re hoping, naturally, that Rin crossing will help us open up new sales channels. While it is our mission to provide quality products to our customers, we are also committed to passing our sophisticated techniques and skills on to the next generation. We want Japanese craftsmanship to spread far and wide—for people to understand true artisanship and to fall in love with our products as they use them in their daily lives. We are certainly eager to meet new buyers who share these same convictions.”

Yamatani Works.Ltd.

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