More than words: “We’re never going down!!”
Behind-the-scenes interview with Renew 2020

Now in it’s sixth year, the crafts production festival, Renew, began in 2015.

After reporting locally, I interviewed those working behind the scenes as part of the change to our online content due to the pandemic. For this interview, I reported on the state of operations under such a difficult situation.

  • Renew’s information center is hosted in the Echizen Lacquerware Traditional Industry Hall (Urushi no Sato Kaikan) in Sabae City’s Kawada district. Once each year, this facility is covered in the iconic red circles of the festival.

Through product design, establishment, and online communities,
Renew conveys the revitalizing power of the region

 

Beginning in the Kawada district of Sabae City, a production center for Echizen lacquerware, Renew now has seventy-six establishments participating within seven such production areas, including for Echizen lacquerware, Echizen washi (Japanese paper), Echizen knives, Echizen chests, Echizen pottery, eyeglasses, and textiles, and the festival continues to expand and update.

Renew is a spirited festival connecting the concentrated kogei production areas of the Tannan area in Fukui to create a steady flow of people. It has become an indispensable part of Fukui Prefecture.
In this year, 2020, despite the pandemic, the event was held on site for three days, from October 9th to 11th, with the slogan, “Kutabatte Tamaru ka!” [“We’re never going down!!”], along with online content. The total number of visitors was about 32,000. Workshops, studio tours, talk events, and the like were held at each venue, with conversations held in real time.
Our interview team visited three sites that have continued to update their activities under the pandemic, including working on product design, establishing new bases of operation, and online communities.

The unique look of Rokurosha

  • Its proximity to the venue allowed for a constant stream of participants. Three of the staff worked as guides.

My first stop was Rokurosha, about a five minute walk from the lacquerware hall that functioned as Renew’s information center. Rokurosha is a woodworking shop, centered on the work of Yoshio Sakai.

 

  • The workshop and gallery are combined, and you can take your time selecting your own unique bowl.

However, Rokuroshi isn’t simply a woodworking shop. Of course there are the wooden bowls, but there are other items of various themes and uses appropriately offered from such an innovated studio; such as the “Timber Pot” line, whose shape changes over time and use; “Sou” line accessories, made from recycled waste materials generated from creating other pieces; “Only Wan” [wan means “bowl” in Japanese], with which you can customize the mold and finish to your liking; and so on. The artisans of Rokuroshi were among the first to launch crowdfunding for remote workshops in response to the restrictions caused by the pandemic.
I found myself most drawn to the individual bowls, which each had unique expressions and personality. It was the first time I ever uttered “Cool!” about a bowl. I decided to pick out a favorite and asked that it be reserved for me.
Sakai says, “I could have stopped participating on account of the coronavirus, but I hated the idea.” He strikes me as someone who isn’t afraid to sail against the wind, even were it not for the pandemic.

  • Sakai always appears laid back. The air about him is so welcoming, I found myself eagerly calling him by his first name.

The Fusion of Knife Design and Maki-e Art: “E to E”

  • “E to E” [pronounced “eh toe eh”], which opened at the end of September in 2020, is a gallery with a calm atmosphere and a rich Bengala red color, and is operated primarily by Mr. and Mrs. Yamamoto. The building was designed by Hyakka, an architectural company in Fukui.

  • A line up of handcrafted Japanese kitchen knives with handles by Yamazen Woodworking. You can test the weight of each in your hand.

I next headed to Echizen Uchihamono no Sato, located in the southern part of Echizen City. It was a 30 minute drive from the general information center in Kawawada. Here in Uchihamono no Sato were many workshops producing knives, sickles and other cutlery for daily use.
Among them was Yamaken Woodworks, who specializes in kitchen knife design, and had opened a gallery for their newest line, “E to E” [pronounced “eh toe eh”] with a tour to coincide with Renew 2020.

  • The quality handles made by the combination of machinery and handcrafting are also highly regarded by
    the craftsmen of uchihamono [forged knives].

At first glance, the design of the knife handle [called “e” in Japanese] may seem insignificant. However, without a proper handle, a knife cannot properly cut, and if the handle is poor in quality or performance, delicate dishes become impossible to make.

The second “e” in “E to E” [is for an old Chinese character for “painting” or “drawing,” and] marks the collaboration with Yuma Yamamoto, a maki-e lacquerware artisan who has joined the Yamaken family. I expect to see her skills at work in the near future.

The delay was caused by the pandemic. Even so, this is the only project in Japan where the handle of the knife is the focus. It seems even other craftsmen thought it was a good time to go forward with the project, pushing her to opening saying, “It’s a good idea!”

 

  • Yuma Yamamoto, left, and Takuya Yamamoto, right, of the Yamaken Woodworks “E to E,” a place for artisans to connect and a place to showcase uchihamono production.

A word from Yuma Yamamoto

Because I started this year, I don’t have a sense of what a normal year should be, but I’ve felt such a strong sense of support from everyone who’s come to “E to E,” like, “Let’s bring one of these pieces home with us!” If it’s possible next year, I’d like to plan a workshop to allow people to handle the knives so they can test the sharpness of an Echizen forged blade and the weight and comfort of a Yamaken wood handle.

Generations Old Technique and Philosophy: Osada Washi Company

My last stop was Imadate, a village of Echizen washi [Japanese paper], 20 minutes east of the uchihamono production area. Passing through the large torii gate of the Otaki Shrine, which houses the “God of Paper,” we arrived at the Osada Washi Company, founded in 1909.
Echizen paper mills pepper the area, and artisans are ever hard at work producing washi in the quiet mountainous region.
A team of Echizen washi crafters, including Osada Washi, made the first move to combat the stagnation caused by the pandemic with the opening of the online shop, “Washima” [a
portmanteaux of washi market]. Hoping to address the decrease in received orders, the washi company launched the online shop through the team’s support, and word of the shop spread on social media. The results were better than expected.

  • Kazuya Osada, a traditional craftsman. The washi is formed from a mixture of natural washi materials and silver foil. An arabesque pattern is shown in the photo.

  •  A cloud pattern under low light. It’s impressive to imagine that this kind of paper was lit by candle in the days before electric power.

When we joined, the workshop tour was already in progress. Osada explained the process as deftly produced patterns on the Japanese paper, followed by a chorus of oohs and ahs.

  • A stencil for a yamanami [“mountain range”] pattern, traditionally used for sliding doors. The metal mold is also made in house.

  • Colorful washi envelopes. I’m a fan of Osada Washi’s paper myself and always use their sets when sending letters.

If you have a chance to visit the workshop yourself, be sure to check out the gallery and gift shop as well. Today I snatched a pair of momigami [kneaded, or crinkled paper] earrings I’ve had my eye on for a while! Many of the other participants also found a favorite washi item to take home.

  • Kazuya Osada and his daughter, Izumi. The former was a bit shy, saying, “We haven’t had our picture taken together in years!” With the next generation, the 1500-year-old tradition of washi production continues to be passed on.

A word from Osada

We had more customers than usual this year. Each year, I’m reminded that there are many interested in how washi is made. I hope to keep creating new items as well as continue with my usual work.

Living up to the name “Renew”: Updating the Craft Region

 

More than two weeks have passed now since our on-site interview at Renew 2020. While we wait for the pandemic to pass, please enjoy this behind-the-scenes interview with Naohiro Niiyama and Kazuki Mori, both of whom were involved with Renew’s operation.

 

How did the members of Renew perceive the issues posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and how did you decide to hold the festival this year?

  • Naohiro Niiyama, founder and art director of Renew. He updates the content each year.

  • Kazuki Mori, executive director of the management staff since the event’s start. He plans to leave Fukui in 2021 to study abroad in Finland.

Recruitment focused on eagerness rather than worries of cancellation

 

Firstly, thank you for holding Renew. With this year’s slogan, “We’re never going down!!”, it seems the three-day event was even more enthusiastic than usual. How did you go about handling the event?

 

Niiyama: We started this year’s Renew just as a state of emergency was being declared, but, strange as it may seem, not one person said anything about cancelling. We had decided early on that it would be online, and then in June, wasn’t it, we also announced onsite events?

 

Mori: That’s right. By the time of the first event, we’d already launched “Renew TV” and “Renew Laboratory” online. Everyone was a bit excited, we focused on what we could do in the moment, and everyone in the crafting region could use Zoom.

 

Niiyama: The word “Renew” has such a strong feeling of rebirth, and our area has itself survived many crises in the past. I think with the current pandemic, it’s just another obstacle we can turn into an opportunity. That’s our attitude.

  • Renew 2020’s online content includes “Renew TV.” Topics ranged from the craft production process to business to design, along with a talk from the mayor of Sabae City in Fukui Prefecture.

  • “Renew Labolatory” [sic] is a four-month project by young designers and production teams. The event was newly created for a post-pandemic world and became a lively event.

What you can do now, do well

 

During my interviews, I often heard participants expressing their enjoyment at having come, even at the on-site venues. What kind of response did you receive at this event?

 

Niiyama: I also feel like we received more positive feedback than in previous years. People had been refraining from so much because of the pandemic, so maybe there was this freeing feeling like, “I finally came to an event!” Maybe it’s a sign of that feeling, but the sales at the booths were very good. Shop owners also said they heard people saying they were glad to get out. When the government also announced the event, it had a positive effect for us.

  • The “TeTeTe All Right Market” is a lineup of nineteen groups of primarily small- and medium-sized creators. Craftwork used in daily life, such as woodworks, textiles, ceramics and dining pieces, are all gathered under one roof. Sales at the market were particularly strong.

  • Self-restraint continued at Renew’s on-site venues, even as participants eagerly awaited the chance to go. The food court continuously served local selections like Yama Uni Ramen and various sweets.

Mori: It seemed like the scale of the event was shrinking, but with new projects launched this year, the work that went into it was almost double from last year. We also tried to be thorough with our infection prevention measures as if we were to be inspected. We did this while also maintaining the level of enjoyability in our content. So, I was happy to hear participants say they felt safe when coming.

 

Niiyama: With the goal of improving Internet literacy in the craft region, we pushed workshops and businesses that didn’t already have one to open online shops with a sense of “Now or never!” We even had an older gentleman who learned how to use Slack software. We have finally launched eight shops, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all work out in the future.

  • The “Akamaru Team,” formed this year, kept Renew in motion, from venue tours and management to social media and public relations. The number of people involved in the project has increased dramatically, and in turn has increased the production in the region.

Non-crafters enhancing the crafting region

 

Mr. Mori, who’s been the executive direction of Renew since its inception, is leaving* next year.How might the structure of the organization change?

 

* Mori plans to leave Fukui in 2021 to study abroad in Finland.

Mori: Forming the Akamaru Team* for this year’s Renew was good. Preparations and cleanup were extremely quick, and I was able to delegate the work I had done myself in previous years. I wish I’d done it earlier. I’m actually looking forward to discovering a new part of myself in the future.

 

* The Akamaru Team is responsible for planning and managing Renew. They playing the driving role for Renew, covering workshops, planning content, operating social media, etc., in lieu of the executive director.

 

Niiyama: Mori represented everyone who wasn’t directly involved with craft production. We call them “non-crafters,” but the level of production can’t be created by the traditional craftsmen alone. I think it’s important to make space for people who aren’t involved in the day-to-day work of craftsmanship to join us. I think, with Renew as a central hub, if people are able to be involved in various ways together, it will become a major asset to the area and enhance it. If we strengthen everything around the crafters, the level of everything will also rise.

 

As I listen to the two men talk, I realize that Renew isn’t simply an event but has become a
movement affecting people, things, ideas, and the region itself. In the long run, the crisis caused by  the pandemic is an opportunity, and how this region has been able to overcome such obstacles many times in the past has become clear to me over the course of the three-day event. Bookending the slogan “We’re never going down!!” is the energy of everyone involved, and I have no doubt it will only continue to grow.

 

 

Renew 2020
Oct. 9th (Fri.) – Oct. 11th (Sun.), 2020
venue: Echizen City, Echizen Town and Sabae City (general information: Echizen Lacquerware
Traditional Industry Hall) in Fukui Prefecture
organized by the Renew Executive Committee
contact: Rewnew Executive Committee
url:
https://renew-fukui.com/

Mikiyo Sato (author of the original Japanese article)(Writer)

Sato was born in Fukui, Japan in 1981 and raised in Hokuriku. She graduated from the
nearby Kanazawa University where she studied French medieval art (primarily the
Romanesque style and the tapestry, “The Lady and the Unicorn”). After working at a
printing company, bookstore and design office, she was able to use her desktop
publishing skills and love of books to set up her own independent bookstore, Hoshido, a
3-minute walk from Fukui Station. In 2019, she published a book about the craftsmen of
wakasa lacquerware [the lacquerware style local to the city of Obama in Fukui], titled
Hashi ha Utau, currently on sale [Japanese only].