Tsubame and Sanjo, situated at the heart of Niigata Prefecture, are homes to the finest artisans in processing and fabricating metals with centuries-old history of tradition and techniques. The region became popular in its metal expertise during the Edo period when blacksmiths settled in the area and first specialized in Japanese-style nail production. The production eventually branched out to other metal goods; Tsubame engaged in the production of modern Western tableware and housewares while Sanjo focused on creating tools and items for hairdressers and beauticians. Except for the minor differences in the choice of merchandise, both cities have now merged to become one of the world’s leading technological zones.
“Beautiful” may not be enough to describe Gyokusendo’s Tsuiki Copperwares. How its artisans devote their time and creativity to tedious hours of hammering and heating copper plates–their necks constantly bent down, eyes focused, each individual space occupied–only to bring intricate and alluring designs certainly bring Gyokusendo’s products to the utmost level of magnificence.
You will be welcomed by a modest landscape at the entrance which directly faces the showroom. Beside it is a narrow pathway leading to the workshop where high-pitched sounds of hammering copper plates mix in harmony. The showroom is a simple tatami room with art pieces lined up on the wall. There, you can admire the elegant luster of kettles, sake and wine cups, vases and more. Potential clients may find themselves comfortably drinking house tea as staff cater to their requests and explain in detail the background of each art piece. At the workshop, you will see hardworking staff who do not seem to get tired of hammering copper pieces again and again, almost never looking up and strongly focused on the piece they are forming. You will witness the old ways–techniques and materials, everything in raw form which is the highlight of visiting Gyokusendo.
The place is open for tours by reservation but walk-in guests may also find themselves in luck for a prompt tour if a spot is available.
Tadafusa mainly produces kitchen knives. Before, it had produced different types of blades for different purposes. It has created a special knife for cabbage, for lettuce, for garlic, etc. It is well-known for its knives for sushi and soba. At present, it has been gaining a lot of attention from international chefs as well.
Exploring Tadafusa's workshop is a rare touristic experience. You will be able to witness all the steps–21 steps in particular–of creating knives by the Tadafusa brand. Be amazed at how the workers are very dedicated in creating nothing but perfect quality products worthy of the name. Aside from the creation process, you will also see how used knives are maintained and re-polished.
As for their shop, it seems almost bare, but turns out to be very stylish. As you enter, you will be welcomed by a huge display of knives encased in glass. It may seem fragile and breakable but the glass is only for the convenience of display. Guests can enter the case and check the knives themselves. This removes the distance between the guests and the product. This softens the notion that knives are dangerous and should not be touched. Knives are to be utilized; not only to be admired from afar.
SUWADA OPEN FACTORY
Suwada is one of the many factories in Sanjo City designed to be open for public viewing, hence the name “Suwada Open Factory”. The factory has plenty of interesting details. First, the place features a very interactive structure wherein the factory can be viewed by guests through glass windows. Guests are able to see the workers in action and see the whole process of creating nail clippers. For those who wish to see a clearer and larger view, there are iPads strategically placed on the glass windows which display zoomed in images of the process. This transparency is one-of-a-kind. Second, the place attempts to illustrate the spirit of blacksmiths and therefore has everything colored and designed in black–walls, tapestries, staffs’ uniforms, machines, etc. The dark vibe gives the place an atmosphere of elegance and a historical glimpse of how the blacksmiths of ancient Japan used to work in the dark. And lastly, there are fascinating abstract art pieces found in different parts of the factory, which are made from the spare metal parts of the production process.
The factory also has a shop with a coffee bar. Guests can freely come in to visit the factory but requesting for a tour is also possible if a staff is available.
Perhaps it’s not similar to the usual tourist spots but for those who wish to learn more about the rich history and culture of Japanese people from the Edo period, then Tsubamesanjou is the place. One will see how dedicated Japanese people are when it comes to skills and precision.
Fun fact: People of Tsubame and Sanjou valued fairness greatly and so the train station is called Tsubame-Sanjo while the highway exit is named Sanjo-Tsubame.