Hakata ma-ge mono
"Bent Object" from Hakata
Magemono refers to boxes and objects made by bending thin ply of cedar or cypress, with sakura bark stitching at the joint.
It carries 300 years of history, as utensils used in shrine rituals, and eventually evolved to become humble utilitarian wares for the commoners during the Edo and Meiji periods (16th to 19th century).
Shibata-Toku is the only remaining magemono shops in the old district of Maidashi. Few centuries ago, the bustling main street of Maidashi was lined with magemono bent-wood shops ran by 20 some families.
Currently, Shibata-Toku is run by 6th generation Yoshiko Shibata at its original location. As they no longer can use a big storefront, they split the facade into half and rented out one side to a small restaurant. The days where you can see and hear artisans working at the shop-front is long gone. Shibata's craft work is being done at the wood-shop behind the house.
Shibata used to have many artisans working at the back making magemono, One after another, artisans retired and left. The young generation have little interest in learning the craft. Currently, ShibataToku has no successor. Ms. Shibata has to asked a retired artisan (Mr. Morita) to stay working for her so she can keep the production going. Now, there are only 2 artisans and herself, the team of 3 produces all types of containers to keep the business going.
Utilitarian ware From Edo to Reiwa period (from 15th century to modern day 21st century)
Apart from being used in Shrines, Magemono ware was at its peak in late Edo period where people on long journeys would use them to carry food. During the same time, audience attending Kabuki shows (the main entertainment of Edo period) would also bring packed food in boxes for consumption during intermission. For those who experienced Kabuki shows in Tokyo or Kyoto, you may remember during intermission, people still whip out bento boxes and the whole theatre would smell of food! The tradition carries on.
The annual cherry blossom viewing in Spring, the Firework shows by the beach in Summer, and Fall Foliage picnic are all occasions where people would use these magemono boxes for their outings.
Japanese confectioners uses them for their Japanese sweets, sushi chefs uses the big shallow tubs to cool and season the rice. The natural cedar wood helps maintain the right temperature and moisture for dedicate rice and hand-made sweets.
Kyushu island is one of the biggest producer of quality cedar timber in Japan.
High quality cedar is needed to make magemono. One of the most important skill as magemono artisan is to have the trained eye to procure best quality logs. Knots and grains will affect not only the aesthetics, but the properties of the material during production.
Bento boxes may have existed for 300-400 years, yet it is still very common for both children and grownups to bring packed lunch boxes to school and to work.
During lunch breaks, everyone sits down in the lunchroom and unwrap their boxes. It is the ritualistic moment when you unveil what your loved ones have prepared for you. Japanese also use the bento box as "sticky notes" to pass messages to family members through presentation of food: "I love you", "Thank you for your hard work today", "Good Luck with today's exam", "Keep it up", or any word of encouragements. There is even a movie made about bento messaging called "Bento Harassment". Look it up on Netflix.
As colorful plastic bento boxes took over the market, fewer people use traditional mage-mono wood boxes. However, the properties and tactility of wood bento box can never be replaced by plastic products. Wood naturally maintains the right moisture level for rice, which is essential in making rice delicious.
Wood bento boxes recently is making a come back, high-end restaurants also use them for playful plating. They have come a long way since few centuries ago, from being picnic boxes for outdoor cherry blossom viewing, to Ekiben (Train station lunch boxes), to daily use for children and office workers.
Join the movement, be creative, have fun utilizing bent-wood boxes inspired by your home culture and lifestyle.
Revisit the Forgotten Normal
The sustainable Bent-wood Boxes