Chris Peacock visits a hands-on workshop in Kanazawa to experience the centuries-old art of gold leaf
“You can decorate anything in gold,” says Kazunori Sakuda, whose family-owned business has been specializing in the art of kinpaku (gold leaf) for nearly 100 years, embellishing everything from traditional Japanese pottery and lacquerware to chopsticks, picture frames and more recently iPhone covers and golf balls. “We even once had a request to cover a set of animals bones in it.”
Kazunori’s gilded store and workshop sits in Kanazawa, Japan’s undisputed city of gold, which for over 400 years has made a name for itself as the country’s premier center for gold leaf and today accounts for more than 99% of its production in Japan.
According to Kazunori, Kanazawa in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture has become synonymous with gold leaf not only for the city’s superior craftsmanship and techniques honed over centuries but also its distinct climate and water quality. With a thickness of a mere 10,000th of a millimeter (0.0001mm), a single sheet of gold is extremely fragile but Kanazawa’s high humidity levels and soft water are seen as ideal for thinning and handling the material.
Visitors to Kazunori’s Gold Leaf Sakuda center near the Higashi Chaya District can browse its shelves of finely decorated golf-leaf art, ornaments and souvenirs — even its toilets are covered in gold leaf — before trying their hand at kinpaku with a tour and master class in its gilding workshop.
It’s here that Kazunori explains how a single gold leaf is the result of a long and arduous process of melting and stretching gold alloy before being sandwiched between paper sheets, bound in leather and beaten until it reaches a uniform thinness. To demonstrate just how thin gold foil really gets he holds a sheet up to the light where it becomes virtually transparent. In fact, gold leaf is so delicate it’s impossible to touch — it simply disintegrates — so craftsman use only bamboo scissors and chopsticks when gilding.
To gets to grips with the complex art of kinpaku I decide to start small, decorating a pair of chopsticks with a simple stripped pattern under the guidance of a gold leaf artisan. First I cut out thin strips of masking tape to pattern the chopsticks before applying glue, rolling in a sheet of golden foil, brushing away the excess and blotting over any gaps. Even a job this small requires a controlled, steady hand and an awareness of breathing — one puff and a whole leaf can vanish.
Once the gold is evenly applied I carefully remove the tape to reveal my very own pimped up chopsticks. As a first attempt I’m quietly pleased but they’re a long way from the elaborate plates, flashy jewelry boxes and striking screen art presented throughout Sakuda’s store and showroom, which goes through a staggering 10 million gold leaf sheets a year (around a ton) and today receives over 30,000 visitors — the gold leaf bathrooms have almost become a tourist attraction in their own right, says Kazunori.
After gaining a hands-on insight into the intricate kinpaku process Kazunori invites me upstairs for a well-earned cup of tea, containing what else but generous flecks of gold leaf. According to Kazunori it’s reputedly good for rheumatism and improving blood circulation though the science to prove this is a tad sketchy. Given the choice though, who wouldn’t want to have gold in their tea?