The golden fix

The golden fix

Japanese art

The golden fix

Try holding a leaf with a bamboo tweezer. You think it is a cinch. Wait, you ain’t heard anything about the leaf yet...  This leaf is pure gold, with above 95% purity, hammered so thin that even a strand of human hair would seem obese. Gold nugget beaten to 1/10,000th of a millimetre. That’s 1/10th the width of a human- hair strand. So thin that if you rub it in your hand, it will disappear.

That’s a challenge

In Japan’s Kanazawa city, the home of gold leaf, I was fumbling to hold that gold leaf sandwiched between washi (thin Japanese paper), which is soaked in a mixture of ash lye, persimmon juice and eggs, which lends a soft lustre to the leaf. One tiny breath and the gold leaf fluttered as if it was caught in a tornado. Sitting on a tatami mat in Kanazawa Katani, I looked like an absolutely inept artisan. In a city known for its myriad traditional arts, this was my first lesson in an art that began in 16th century.

The polite Japanese lady in Katani was patient as I tried sticking the gold leaf over a stencilled tree on a black lacquered box. That done, I gingerly wiped off excess leaf with a cotton poultice. The golden tree and butterfly looked stunning on black, sealed permanently with a daub of tree glue. I thought I was done being a master craftsperson until Miwako Kasuga, the guide, walked in with a box full of alloyed gold dust. Blue. Green. Silver. Orange. Magenta.

I could embellish the butterfly’s wings with red, and lend leaves to the tree with green dust. I was still all fingers and thumbs. In Kanazawa, I conceded defeat. I could never be a gold-leaf artisan, but I, as a trinket-keeper, packed the black box in a pink envelope to bring back home.

Kanazawa today accounts for 99% of Japan’s domestic gold leaf production and 100% of silver and platinum leaf production. But that is not its only arty-fame. The prefecture is known for its tea ceremony. Noh theatre, silk kimonos, kutani ware, lacquer ware, Buddhist altars, kaga embroidery, string craft are among other traditional arts.

But in Kanazawa, I was looking for gold. In a shop lay candies with a hint of gold flakes in them; a mask made of gold that would probably turn Medusa into Cleopatra in a jiffy; edible gold flakes packed in tiny boxes that could be sprinkled on cake, or added to a drink. And yes, the famous Kanazawa ice cream cones laden with gold sparkles! Even a storehouse with gold-leaf walls.

In Higashi Chaya, now designated as  Japan’s Cultural Asset, latticed two-storey houses previously served as places of feasts and entertainment, where geishas (traditional female Japanese entertainers) entertained people by performing dances and playing traditional musical instruments. Most of these houses have now metamorphosed into tea rooms or boutique stores, including the one with a golden storehouse. There’s gold everywhere — gold thread turned into coasters, gold dust floating lazily in bottles of saké (Japanese rice brew), gold woven into silk, and gold necklaces.

Temple decorations

For centuries, the Japanese have used gold leaf to embellish Buddhist temples, shrines, altars and statues, even in palace windows as screen paintings on rice paper. Considered one of the finest examples of shoin-sukuri, Japanese traditional architecture, the Hommaru Palace in Nagoya Castle was completed in 1615 as the residence of Yoshinao Tutugawa, the first feudal lord.

However, the palace was completely burned during the air raids of World War II, and restored recently. Based on precious historical records, Kano artists have recreated the screen paintings on gold-leaf background.

In one room, tigers stare menacingly from a golden background, while in another, trees grow out of a golden sky. The metal fittings are inlaid and the gable decorations are decked with gold. The Nagoya Castle is topped with two gigantic gold dolphins that shimmer in the land of the rising sun.

When used as an additive to food, gold has the E number of E175. E numbers are codes for substances used as food additives. In Japan, I completely spurned E numbers. I’d never question Japanese integrity. In Japan, when they say it is 99.95% pure gold, it will not be 99.94% gold.

Packing in my heart that faith in the Japanese word, I walked in the rain in Kanazawa to look for the famed ice-cream with gold sparkles.
In Japan, I turned into a gold eater.

Making of the Kanazawa gold leaf

Gold alloy containing traces of silver and copper is put through a rolling machine several times to thin it into the shape of a belt. Then, the alloy is sandwiched between sheets of paper and repeatedly hammered until it is 2/10,000 or 1/10,000 mm thin. Next, the foil is struck with a mechanical hammer as many as 700 times a minute. The gold foil is kept between another set of paper and hammered again. In the final step known as
‘kaku-utsushi’, the leaf is placed in a special machine where it is cut to the fixed size using a bamboo frame. The cut gold leaf is then tucked between
handmade ‘washi’ (thin Japanese paper).


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