Akita Oke, Wooden utensil | Traditional Japanese crafts in Akita

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 What is Akita Oke and Taru?

Now, let us introduce you to the simple yet beautiful traditional crafts of Akita Oke. “Oke” means a pail, a bucket, and a large one is a tub. Today, plastic is the most common material, but this bucket is made of wood. Akita-sugi oke-taru are barrels and casks that have been made around Odate and Noshiro cities in Akita Prefecture since the late Heian period. Akita cedar is used as the material, and each barrel is made by hand by craftsmen. Oke barrels are made of straight grain material called “Masame,” and are finished with a bamboo or copper hoop.

The characteristics of Akita cedar barrels are the scent of Akita cedar and its excellent water absorbency. Akita cedar has a distinctive good smell, which is said to enhance the taste of sake. Another feature is that it is resistant to moisture and shrinkage, making it possible to produce products with minimal deviation. It also has the unique advantage of regulating salt concentration, making it suitable for pickling pickles. Akita cedar has a beautiful grain and has been passed down to the present day through the careful handiwork of craftsmen.

Akita cedar mug
Source: Akita prefecure

History of Akita Oke

The origin of Akita cedar barrels is long-established, and fragments of barrels and other items excavated at the Akita Castle ruins are estimated to be the oldest, dating from the late Heian period (794-1192). During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Akita feudal lord of the time encouraged the production of cedar barrels, and the industry took root and production began to grow on a large scale. The “Umezu Masakage Nikki (Diary of Masakage Umezu),” written by a retainer of the Akita domain, mentions that sake barrels made of Akita cedar were being used under the castle in 1612. Thus, Akita cedar barrels have been used by the general public since around the Edo period, and the shape of these barrels has remained unchanged from that time to the present day.

During the Meiji and Taisho periods (1868-1912), the demand for barrels and casks increased, and the sturdy Akita cedar barrels and casks were favored by the general public. They were used for various purposes such as washing tubs, rice storage tubs, and soy sauce barrels, but they gradually disappeared around the 1960s due to the rise of plastic products. In recent years, the high quality and warmth of wood have been reevaluated.

Akita cedar cup
Source: Akita prefecure

General Production Process

1. Kidori (wood cutting)

First, a “sunpo-wari” process is performed to split a fan-shaped piece of wood from a log of Akita cedar, the material used for the product, to fit the size of the product. This piece of wood is the “kure. The “tsuki” is split from the center of the log with a machete to match the size of the product, and allowed to dry naturally for 90 to 100 days, after which it is artificially dried for 30 days. The pieces are then split into “masame-gure” and “itame-gure,” depending on the purpose of the product.

2. Pig ironing

Pig iron is the name of a special blade that is held with both hands. Using this pig iron, the craftsman straddles a workbench called an “uma” to shave the cut piece of wood to the desired size.

3. Shojiki Poke

Shojiki is a large plane. Seventeen to eighteen pieces are needed to complete one vat. After shaving more pieces of wood using the shoujiki, the shape and angle of the wooden pieces are then set using a “kagata,” which is like a ruler, and the pieces are shaved to the exact size and angle.

4. Making the wooden part

In this process, the buckets are joined together using bamboo nails to form the shape of the bucket. The grain and color of the adjacent pieces are matched to ensure that the finished product is visually pleasing. It is important to assemble the outer frame so that it forms a beautiful circular shape. At this point, a temporary brace is used to hold the frame in place to prevent it from losing its shape.

5. Planing

This is the process of finishing the surface by applying the plane inside and outside using a plane with rounded teeth, called an outer round plane or an inner round plane. When shaving the inner surface, the outer circular planer is used while turning the temporarily fixed product with both feet. In addition, a groove is needed on the inside to accommodate the bottom plate. The tool used to dig these grooves is the ruled plane. The groove dug with the ruled line is called “dovetail cut.

6. Covering and bottoming

After fitting the bamboo taga and inserting the bottom board, the taga is tightened using a wooden hammer and hands and feet. Bamboo called madake is said to be the most suitable for making the tagashi. The surface of the bamboo must be carefully sharpened so that it is smooth. Finally, the bamboo hoop is tightened from the outside to complete the process.

Summary

Akita Oke barrels made of Akita cedar have a long history, with barrels estimated to date back to the late Heian period found in Akita Castle.During the Edo period (1603-1867), under the protection of the Satake clan, a production area was formed and large quantities were produced. Oke is a vessel made of vertical grain material, fastened with bamboo or copper plates, and fitted with a wooden bottom, and has no fixed lid, such as Ohitsu. Natural Akita cedar wood is especially beautiful with its fine grain and beautiful annual rings, and has a pleasant aroma and is resistant to distortion due to minimal shrinkage.

 

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