Yosegi, geometry in wood

Marie Ebersolt

13th June, 2023

Yosegi, literally wood assembly, is a marquetry craft that originated in Hakone, a place famous for its hot springs. In the heart of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the natural environment has provided a diversity of wood species that have contributed to the development of this craft.

The region surrounding the town of Odawara in Kanagawa prefecture, an hour's drive from the capital, is characterised by its lush natural surroundings. It has long been an important resource for woodworkers, so much so that many turners from Kyoto settled here during the Heian period in the 16th century. As wood became scarcer the more it was used, the makers moved again, settling permanently in Hakone. It was here that Nihei Ishikawa created the specific yosegi technique.

Secret boxes

The manufacturing process involves several stages. A table saw is used to cut rods of various shapes from the wood. They are essential to the subsequent composition work, as they can be cut to any one of sixty or more geometric profiles, depending on the angle and the shape designed. They are then assembled into geometric patterns and pressed together to form a block. The infinite possibility of combinations in turn produces several hundred traditional patterns. Known as taneita, this piece forms the basis for two types of work. The zuku comes from the planer, which produces 0.2 millimetre strips, and the muku is the result of a wood lathe. Zuku are glued to everyday objects, particularly secret boxes. The latter appeared at the end of the 19th century and are the result of a specific know-how. Small pieces of wood form a container that can only be opened after the facets of the box have been manipulated several times, like a puzzle. This is the emblematic work of the yosegi. As for muku, the block of wood is carved to be transformed into crockery.

Hakone-zaiku, literally Hakone shaping, is best known for its yosegi, but also for its marquetry. Pieces of wood are made using a scroll saw and interlocked to create a relatively thick picture. Like zuku, this taneita is then planed into a thin sheet of wood, flattened with a hot iron and glued together.

The variety of species used makes it possible to create highly colourful designs: white is obtained from Japanese charcoal, black from the caramel tree, yellow from the mulberry tree, brown from the camphor tree, purple from the walnut tree, blue from the pickle tree and black from the Chinese cedar. Although local trees have long been selected for this craft, the region has been protected since 1936 and the wood can no longer be exploited. Today, the workshops carefully select species according to texture and colour, and manage to source seventy per cent of the wood from other parts of Japan. 

I invite you to admire the yosegi patterns and watch the videos, which do not require a command of Japanese, to see how the different types of Hakone-zaiku are made: https://www.hakone.or.jp/yosegizaiku/about/index.html

Marie Ebersolt