Review of Handmade in Japan: The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts 日本の手仕事

Published by Gestalten

Photos and Essays by Irwin Wong

Famous architect Kengo Kuma provides a thought-provoking introduction but Irwin Wong is the true orchestrator of this beautiful photobook. As you turn each page, it’s Wong’s stunning photos and fascinating essays that introduce you to the exquisite handicrafts and the artisans who make them throughout Japan. The perfectionism and dedication of these people, who are practising skills passed down to them for hundreds of years from one generation to the next, deserves the upmost respect and praise.

Wong goes above and beyond in all of his essays to provide not only a background on each craft, but also meaningful insight into the Japanese culture and its traditions. His explanation on the importance of Noh masks and the way they’re made is one example. Wong explains the masks are made from Japanese cypress for the Noh theatre and each mask is painted differently to depict the character, gender, and age of the player. The expression on the mask also tells us whether they’re human or divine, and even the slant of the eyes can express a different emotion entirely. Wong goes on to explain the Noh actor wearing the mask is able to channel the mask’s character in a way that it becomes an “esoteric ritual”.

There is something in this book for everyone, male or female, young or old. Those interested in samurai swords will enjoy reading about the Seki tradition of sword making, north of Gifu. They have the honour of making swords for the Imperial Family and the current fully fledged artisan is a twenty-sixth-generation master. Equally, the samurai armour restored by Satoshi Tachibana for the Soma Nomaoi Festival is noteworthy. The pictures of the horsemen in full samurai regalia on parade and procession on these pages are magnificent.

Those who enjoy recreational fishing might consider switching from a carbon rod to a bamboo rod after reading about those made in Wakayama Prefecture by Mamoru Yoneda. He says the flex, the response, and the feeling of pulling the fish out of the water is a lot more pleasurable with one of his bamboo rods.

Women with an appreciation of kimono will love reading about the kaga yuzen method of dyeing silk and the fact these kimonos are 100-percent hand-painted (no stencils or printers are used). The work is painstaking but the kimonos can cost up to three million yen. The tea whisks made by Tango Tanimura in Nara Prefecture which are used in sado, or Japanese tea ceremony, look like works of art and are of the highest quality. This family has been making tea whisks for over 500 years. The Kyonui or Kyoto embroidery is so intricate with its Buddhist iconography, this would also be a sight to behold. Wealthy circles and aristocrats from years gone by have always valued this embroidery and prized it as a status symbol.

Wong’s photo of the copper artisans at a 200-year-old company in Niigata is my favourite. For me, it’s an authentic representation of traditional Japanese craftsman. They’re sitting on the tatami mats hammering the copper vessels independently, “smoothing, texturing, curving and compressing” the copper, completely absorbed in concentration. But many readers would say Wong’s portrait photos are his best. The photo on the cover of Tango Tanimura holding one of his tea whisks as well as the pictures of Noh mask craftsman, Kohkun Otsuki, on pages 213 and 214 are fine examples.

It was great to see handicrafts created by the Ainu people in Hokkaido continue to this day. Mamoru Kaizawa is a quarter descended from Ainu blood. He creates Nibutani Ita, large trays for food carved out of wood with intricate Ainu motifs. Another Ainu artisan is Yukiko Kaizawa. She creates Nibutani Attoushi. She harvests tree bark from the Manchurian Elm tree and turns it into a fashionable textile.

Readers who appreciate a trip to a bathhouse in Japan will admire the wooden oke or buckets, created by Shuji Nakagawa in Shiga Prefecture using 700-year-old ki-oke techniques.

Potters will be enthralled by the chapters on pottery and ceramics. The kutani yakimono Japanese pottery is dazzling and the way Reiko Arise is able to hand paint the lines on this beautiful red porcelain with gold accents is remarkable. Koide’s Bizen Yakimono pottery uses a method which is characterized by energetic, muscular lines and a matte finish. It “is counter to the high-tech, highly choreographed image of modern Japan” (pg. 254).

You can see in this book just how much modernization has had a negative impact on traditional crafts. In the 1950s, 600 workshops in Gifu were making 15 million bamboo and washi paper umbrellas per year. Now, only three workshops make 5,000 per year. Japanese people don’t see a need for them. I was pleased to read that foreign visitors are prepared to buy them, even at a cost of USD250 as souvenirs and fashion accessories.

Washi paper makers are also looking at new ways to entice customers. They’re making lampshades, bags, wallets and even earrings because washi paper is so durable. Lanterns made from natural bamboo and washi paper are also being used as furnishings in designer hotel lobbies and boutiques in Japan and around the world.

It’s good to know a school dedicated to learning bamboo crafts in the hot spring town of Oita was established in 1938. The craft flourished thanks to this and it’s still a full-time vocational school. The artisans are now using bamboo to make luxury bags and sculptures for interior spaces as well as traditional musical instruments like the shakuhachi and tea ceremony utensils. This has been pivotal to the continuation of the craft. Early histories of Japan reveal bamboo was considered a magical material. People come from all over the world to learn this craft at the school and there’s a waiting list to get in.

Wong’s essay on the floats for the Nebuta Festival in Aomori is uplifting. This festival which runs for six days of the year is the biggest festival in Japan. It attracts three million visitors every year and this means the creation of the floats is still in full production. It’s ingrained in the hearts and minds of everyone who lives in Aomori because both the young and old as well as carpenters, painters and electricians get involved with the creation and the activities. The hand-painted wood and paper floats, based on folklore or historical battles, can reach up to five metres high. Every year they are made anew.

Readers will be pleased to know the Japanese government has stepped in to preserve certain traditions. We are told that most lacquerware is now made in China or Korea but thanks to an ordinance by the Japanese government that all important Japanese Cultural Property must use the lacquer from Iwate Prefecture, the craftsmen in Iwate have a reason to keep working. But it’s also the hard work of the people of Jojobi in Iwate, the artisans who apply the lacquer, the tappers who cut and extract the sap from the urushi tree, and the volunteer tree planters who are keeping the lacquerware industry going, even though Japanese production only makes up three percent of the market share.

However, readers will be disappointed to learn many handicrafts could easily die out in the not so distant future. One example is the way computers have replaced the abacus, a traditional calculating tool and counting frame. Although there has been some interest from international customers, fifty years from now it might be rare for anyone to hear the hypnotic click of abacus beads made in Shimane.

German publisher Gestalten has produced a beautiful book but the small print under the photos and the pages coloured blue are difficult to read. I also thought it was strange the publisher didn’t add Irwin Wong’s name to the cover or spine of the book.

Overall, this is a lovely photobook. You can tell a lot of time and effort has been taken to deliver such fantastic images and essays. The result is a book so masterfully produced, it provides a deeply personal and captivating celebration of handicrafts and artisans in Japan.

A shorter version of this review has been posted on Amazon.

Welcome to the #SignForOurBookshops Campaign

I’m so excited to collaborate with renowned British author Holly Bourne and more than 200 other writers in a national campaign to support bookshops throughout lockdown – #SignForOurBookshops. During the last lockdown, bookshops had to work so hard just to remain operational – taking orders online, or over the phone. They now face a second lockdown in the build-up to Christmas, their busiest sales period. 

#SignForOurBookshops is a national show of support from UK authors, urging people to keep buying through bookshops by offering exclusive signed postcards/bookplates to stores and customers. Over 200 authors are taking part so far, including Matt Haig, Dolly Alderton, Malorie Blackman, Michael Rosen, David Nicholls and so many more. 

What am I pledging?

If you want a signed Renae Lucas-Hall book, here’s what I’m currently pledging as part of this campaign:

I will send out signed, personalised postcards with an image of one of my books, Tokyo Hearts or Tokyo Tales, to 50 people who buy one of my books through a bookshop in the UK during lockdown.

I will send out signed postcards to 10 bookshops in the UK.

I’m offering this on a first-come-first-serve basis.

If you are interested in the above, please email me on [email protected] 

Customers, please do not buy the book first! Send me an email first to reserve one, so I don’t overcommit to numbers. I will then email back to let you know if you’ve got a spot, then you can buy and send me proof-of-purchase, and I can make up your personalised postcard/bookplate and pop it in the post for you.

How can I buy exclusive #SignForOurBookshops Books by other authors?

Check out the hashtag on Twitter and see which other authors are involved, and how you can buy their signed copies. Some authors are sending out personalised notes to any customer who gives them proof-of-purchase from a bookshop, where others have nominated their favourite bookshops and will be sending them signed postcards and bookplates. There are so many exciting books up for grabs by amazing authors – including bestselling crime writers, children’s authors, romance authors, and non-fiction.

Please do get online, and start supporting bookshops. They’re amazing pillars of our community and I’m sure you’ll agree we want them to still be open when this pandemic has passed.

Is this UK only?

I’m afraid this is currently only a UK campaign. Although Irish authors are pledging for Irish customers too, so check out the hashtag to see who’s involved. 

Exclusive Interview with Celebrity Donna Burke in Tokyo

This month, it’s a great privilege to share with you my exclusive interview with Donna Burke in Japan.

But before we get to the Q&A, let me give you a quick rundown of Donna’s achievements . . .

Donna Burke is a famous Australian singer, songwriter, voice actress, freelance broadcaster for NHK, and businesswoman, living the dream in Tokyo. She also owns a talent agency in Roppongi called Dagmusic that produces music for AAA games.

Donna won over millions of fans in 2004 when her song “Heaven’s Divide” from the video game “Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker” was released worldwide.  Her hits “Sins of the Father”, “Snake Eater”, and “Glassy Sky” (from the anime “Tokyo Ghoul”) have over 70 million plays on YouTube.

In 2016, Donna formed the quintet Ganime Jazz and since 2017 she has been regularly performing with symphony orchestras around the world in “Metal Gear in Concert”. Check out her behind-the-scenes video below.

In August 2020, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered was released, with Donna narrating each chapter and singing the opening and ending songs.

You may also recognise Donna’s voice if you’ve travelled on the shinkansen bullet train in Japan. Donna’s clear and crisp voice has been used for announcements on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu bullet train system since 2005.

Wowee! That’s a lot of achievements for one classy chick from Western Australia. Donna is an inspiration to us all. She carries herself with dignity, poise and grace and her singing voice is sublime but she also has a wicked Aussie sense of humour. Head on over to Donna’s YouTube channel to check out her performances and her lol comedy sketch videos.

To further appreciate Donna’s incredible vocals scroll down to listen to her performance of “Glassy Sky” at the end of the Q&A.

You can also catch up with Donna on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her official website.


You have a beautiful voice and your performances on YouTube are fabulous. Where is your favourite place to perform in Japan and why is this such a special place for you?

Hmm, this is a difficult question to answer. But answer it I must! I love performing Metal Gear in Concert with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra as they are just a phenomenal sounding unit. However, Osaka has a very special place in my heart because it was the place where I first performed Metal Gear in Concert in the whole world. Fans came from many parts of Japan to attend this historic event and I was able to meet many of them at a fan event that night. It was really special.

You are now part of a band called Ganime Jazz. You performed at Nakameguro Rakuya as part of Tokyo Meets New York in February. Japan is preparing to open Tokyo up again for the Olympics in 2021 so are you planning to do more performances in the future and where will they take place?

Due to Covid-19 I’m not sure when I will feel safe performing in a cozy jazz bar again. Once a vaccine is found or more time has passed, but for now I have no plans.

You now have millions of fans who all adore your songs “Heavens Divide”, “Snake Eater”, “Sins of the Father” and “Glassy Sky”. Has this success changed you in any way?

Haha, yes! It’s wonderful to be recognised worldwide, a dream come true. Success has made me want to keep creating and bringing joy. It’s made me even clearer about why I am on Earth. However, I still have to fold my laundry, clean up cat vomit and brush my own teeth…so on that level nothing has changed!

Haha! I told everyone you have a great sense of humour and you’ve proved me right!

You sing the opening and ending songs for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered and you narrated each chapter. Do you play this game and did you play video games before you did this?

At this moment, I’m not a game player. I prefer books and the occasional tv show or movie. Games are too stimulating and exciting for my nerves!

Do you still do announcements for the shinkansen bullet trains in Japan?


You have been living in Tokyo for about 20 years. Do you love the city? What is your favourite area in Tokyo and why is this your favourite area?

Yes, I adore Tokyo. My favourite area is Omotesando’s tree lined boulevard and Nakano Broadway. Nakano has lots of cute alleys with tiny shops and restaurants.

What type of Japanese food/meal do you like the most and what food/meal do you miss that you can only get in Australia?

I love sashimi and having a beautiful kaiseki meal. I miss Aussie fish and chips. And when I’m in Australia I miss ramen!

Me too! I live in the UK and I can’t find a decent potato cake or dim sim in any of the fish and chip shops over here.

You’ve said in the past, Tokyo was a great place for people like yourself to get work as a singer when you first started performing in Japan in your early thirties. You said at that time there was a high demand for accomplished artists. Do you think singers can still get a lucky break in Japan now or if they move to Tokyo in the next couple of years?

Recently I did some work with a Swedish music producer, singer and YouTuber @EndigoSkyborn who has only been in Japan for one year. He has the right attitude, and professionalism and happy vibe to succeed anywhere and is making a mark on the music scene here because talented people anywhere want to work with Talent + Great Attitude. You can’t succeed without both. So if you have these you will succeed here for sure. I own a talent agency Dagmusic and I can tell you from experience that this is what will make you successful!

Do you plan to live in Tokyo for the next few decades?

Yes for sure…unless I break into making TV shows in LA then I’ll move there.

Are you planning on releasing a solo album (because we would all buy it) and what is your five-year-plan in regards to your singing career?

I have no plans with Ganime Jazz until after Covid-19 is under control as I like to make music in the same room as the rest of the band. I am working on various projects including a concert tour, a TV show and keeping my fans up to date with fun YouTube content. I have big dreams!


I’d like to send out a BIG THANK YOU to Donna Burke for answering all of my questions. You’re an absolute star! I wish you all the very best now and in the future. I’d also like to thank Donna’s Media Coordinator, Vivian Ma, for organising the interview.

Please enjoy below Donna’s performance of her popular hit “Glassy Sky”.

Win a Copy of “Zaido”, a Stunning New Artbook by Yukari Chikura worth £75.00!



It’s competition time again and this prize is one of the best ever! One lucky winner in the UK will receive a hardback copy of “Zaido”, the magnificent new photobook by Yukari Chikura, published by Steidl, worth £75.00! All you need to do to enter is:

  1. Go to my Twitter page.
  2. Like and retweet the competition tweet.
  3. Follow @yukarichikura on Twitter.

The winner will be announced on Monday 07 September, 2020. UK entries only. This prize will be sent in the post and delivered by Royal Mail Signed For® 1st Class in the first full week in September, 2020.

This artbook is not just sleek and luxurious. It’s culturally engaging, a perfect addition to your coffee table that you’ll display for years. The photos inside will intrigue you as they enrich your heart and soul. You can’t help but handle this book with all the care it deserves. It has a lovely two-colour cloth cover. The title is embossed in silver foil. The pages are glossy and thick and a delight to touch, see and feel.

At the beginning, in a transparent sleeve, is a brief six-page booklet containing a charming short story titled “The Tale of Danburi-Chōja” (Dragonfly Millionaire). This explains how the Zaido ritual came to be. A detailed map of where this sacred ritual is performed is also enclosed. You’ll also discover a real hand-made omikuji paper fortune sealed to a photo of discarded fortunes halfway through the book.

Several years ago, Yukari Chikura felt physically and emotionally hollow and severely depressed when her father suddenly passed away. At the time, she was also suffering from serious injuries to her face and legs after a major accident. When this pain was just beginning to melt away, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011 and once again Yukari Chikura felt crushed and overcome with grief. During this desperate time, her deceased father appeared to her in a dream. He told her to visit a village hidden in snow where he used to live. This village, the people who live there, and the Zaido rituals they perform are the subjects of this artbook.

Zaido is an ancient 1300-year-old shrine ritual, dating back to the Nara period. On the second day of every new year, villagers from four communities in the area make their way to sacred sites to perform seven ritual dances which they hope will bring them good fortune in the New Year. The photos in this artbook truly capture the essence of this ritual and Yukari Chikura’s feelings as she looked through the lens.

This artbook is an absolute treasure. You’ll admire and absorb every single page. Make sure you head over to Twitter to enter this competition and good luck!