Explore: Takaoka – City of Metalworking and Prewar Buildings

“I’d like to visit a city famed for its manufacturing.” That very thought was what made the name Takaoka pop up in my head.

I wonder how many of you have heard of so-called craft tourism. In recent years, this type of travel, which involves visiting sites of industry and craftsmanship in order to get a feel for both their history and present, has been gaining traction. More and more people are realising how there’s so much that cannot be understood merely by looking at things brought over from some faraway place. I am one of those people; one of those who wanted to see these sites of manufacturing with my own eyes.

In Japan, a country proud of its longstanding passion for making things and famed for its many (*) venerable manufacturers, the term “city of manufacturing” hides a remarkable diversity. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are home to companies representing a wide range of manufacturing fields, from the traditional to the cutting-edge, while historic centres such as Kyoto and Kanazawa also exhibit a never-ending fervour for fabrication. Furthermore, Japan is full of small towns noted for their traditions in crafts as diverse as pottery, lacquerware and washi paper.

*In 2008, a worldwide survey by the Bank of Korea found 5,586 companies in 41 countries still in business at least 200 years after their founding. 3,146 (56%) of these companies were Japanese.

A medium-sized municipality in the Hokuriku region, Takaoka has prospered as a metalworking centre for four centuries, making it one of Japan’s most historically significant manufacturing hubs. However, my rather vague impression of the city used to be that of a place producing austere metalcrafts like Buddhist altar fittings, best known for its giant Buddha statue. But the past ten years have turned that notion on its head: after initiating my studies in design, I heard about the Takaoka Craft Competition (which has been going on since 1986), and in recent years had more and more opportunities to learn about the city’s new and modern metalcrafts, which make use of the region’s esteemed technological know-how. Fresh initiatives such as the Takaoka Craft Tour, a factory tour festival held since 2012, also caught my eye.

Having set up Tahito, one significant reason behind my desire to visit the city was the existence of two longstanding manufacturing companies, both of which have breathed fresh air into the realm of Japanese industry. The first one is Nousaku, which has been very successful both in Japan and overseas since starting production of modern tinware and brass items in 2001. The other is Futagami, popular for brassware created together with product designer Masanori Oji. When I contacted Nousaku with an interview request, the company, renowned for its openness, readily consented. So it was with hope in my heart that I set out and took the train to Takaoka.

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As the first entry in my writings on Takaoka, which will also include an in-depth piece on Nousaku, this article presents the city’s charms from my own perspective and through three distinct themes. I hope it will be useful for both those interested in Takaoka-made products and those planning a trip to the region.

The history and present of a metalcraft town

Located in between the cities of Kanazawa and Toyama and blessed with a rich natural environment, Takaoka is a commercial and industrial centre with a population of around 180,000. North of the city lies Toyama Bay, famed for its plentiful seafood, while the beautiful Tateyama mountains can be seen in the east on clear days. Thanks to the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train, which began operation in 2015, it’s now quite conveniently accessible even from Tokyo.

In the early Edo period, Takaoka’s feudal lord took the brave decision of promoting local industry with various policies – a move that helped the city prosper and forged the foundations of its enduring reputation as a metalworking capital. A whopping 90 percent of the metal castings sold in Japan are still made in Takaoka, so both the Buddha statues and bells found at temples and shrines all across the country, and the bronze statues you see decorating its streets and plazas, practically all come from this area.

Nevertheless, Japan’s period of rapid economic growth in the postwar era and the subsequent collapse of the “bubble economy” brought with them significant challenges for the country’s industry – and Takaoka has felt the effects as well. Changing demand patterns, an aging workforce and the lack of successors to take companies into a new era have all become pressing issues. Unless the preservation of tradition can be combined with innovation, the future looks bleak. A visit to the city brings home how strongly its residents feel the acuteness of their situation.

The above-mentioned Takaoka Craft Competition, which seeks to unearth new opportunities in the field of industrial crafts, and the Takaoka Craft Tour, a project that aims to open up the spaces of manufacturing to outsiders, are both representative of the winds of change that have blown through Japanese industry in the post-bubble era. In addition, companies that previously relied solely on the ethos of craftsmanship in making things have begun to promote their activities and opened up their factories; more and more manufacturers are also taking up initiatives like collaborative projects.

In the centre of Takaoka, one finds a number of forward-looking crafts shops like Han Bun Ko, which offers “manufacturing experiences” and actively publicises itself, Otera Kohachiro Shoten and Garando. And if you’re interested in seeing what the city’s young craftspeople are up to, I recommend a visit to the Kanayamachi Kanka metalcraft workshop.

A paradise for prewar architecture

Although Takaoka, which offers the opportunity to get close to both the history and present of Japanese industry, is the perfect destination for craft tourism, this isn’t the city’s only strength: another noteworthy aspect is the richness of its old architecture.

Walking through the urban centre, one’s eyes are soon drawn to several buildings that clearly differ from those found in most other Japanese cities. These prewar structures remain thanks to the fact that although marked as a target by the US military, Takaoka was one of the few medium-sized settlements to escape American bombing during World War II.

A stroll through the town resembles a trip back in time. Architecture from the Edo era up to the present blends together and colours the everyday life of its residents, giving it an appearance slightly different from that of cities like Kyoto and Kanazawa, which were also spared from the wartime air raids. Fittingly for a metalworking city, another beautifying feature is the plethora of metal parts visible on the buildings, including the occasional copper sheet roofs.

To see the oldest part of Takaoka, you’ll need to cross the river from the city centre to Kanayamachi. This is where the first page in the city’s history of metal casting was written, as seven masters of the art got together in the early 17th century and established Kanayamachi as their base. Some of the Edo-era townhouses still stand here, while numerous small workshops also remain active in the neighbourhood.

As metal casting always carries with it a risk of fire, Kanayamachi was purposely built across the river from the town centre. Ironically, however, a destructive blaze later broke out and destroyed the inner city, instead leaving Kanayamachi to testify of what Takaoka looked like in Edo times. The quarter is also home to an Industrial Revolution-era cupola furnace, which once helped usher in a period of rapid innovation at the foundries.

On the other hand, the central Yamachosuji district is where to admire prewar architecture from the Meiji era (1868-1912) up to the early Showa era (late ‘20s and ‘30s). As you survey the diverse townhouses, some of them in the traditional dozo-zukuri (earthen-wall storehouse) and shinkabe-zukuri styles, others boasting European-inspired facades, you’ll surely be able to imagine the townspeople of old going about their business on the streets.

A particular highlight among the Western-style structures in the area is the red-brick Toyama Bank (formerly Takaoka Kyoritsu Bank), built in 1914. Its similarity to a certain Tokyo landmark is no coincidence: the construction was overseen by Kingo Tatsuno, designer of Tokyo Station. Imbued with the pride of a city that owes everything to metalworking, the building’s copper sheet roof is a thing of beauty.

The tastes of Takaoka

Finally, there is one more important reason for visiting Takaoka – the food, that is.

First up is sushi. Plenty of gourmands hold that Toyama Bay’s delicious seafood makes Hokuriku sushi the best in Japan. And unlike in Tokyo, you don’t have to worry about emptying your wallet when savouring it here. As do Kanazawa and Toyama, Takaoka offers shiny, absolutely superb sushi at reasonable prices. Recommended restaurants include Hinode Sushi, which is also a hit among the locals, and the popular Sushikin. I can’t help but grin at the mere mention of these delights, which are of course best combined with some local Hokuriku sake.

Another unmissable treat is the local ramen, known as Toyama Black. As the name gives away, this rich soy sauce-flavoured soup is as black as it gets; you might want to compare concoctions at some of the most popular joints in town, such as Jigen, Daicho, Menpachi and Makotoya.

Lastly, and somewhat surprisingly, Takaoka also offers great wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Founded in Yamachosuji in 1838 and run by the same family for nine generations, the venerable Ohnoya is a must for anyone with a sweet tooth. You can sample their creations over some Toyama bocha (twig tea) or coffee at the nearby Yamacho Chaya teahouse – the perfect spot for a relaxing break on your stroll through town.

Next time, I’ll be leaving central Takaoka for a visit to the Nousaku headquarters and factory, located in the Toide Copperware Complex about 7km from the city centre. I hope to introduce you to the work of these pioneering artisans, who stand at the forefront of innovation in Takaoka.

Photographs and text by Jun Harada
Translated by Ili Saarinen

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