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The Truth About Kintsugi

I first heard about the kintsugi about 10 years ago, on an episode of “The Man in the High Castle.” This was ironic, of course, given that I had already been to Japan several times by that point. But I digress.

Since then, I’ve noticed that the topic has been incredibly resonant with Americans and Westerners more broadly, second perhaps only to wabi sabi. The idea of using gold mend something that’s broken, if not literally than figuratively, is something whose power I think we can all understand. 

At any rate, when an opportunity to learn kintsugi in Japan came up, I quickly jumped on it. I hope you’ll continue reading, whether or not you eventually follow in my footsteps.

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Kintsugi is Different Than I Thought

When I decided to learn kintsugi in Kyoto, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it would entail. Although I was aware I wouldn’t be melting pure gold to suture broken pieces of pottery together, I imagined gold would play a much greater role than it does. As I’ll explain in greater detail later on in this post, gold dust is more of a finisher than anything.

Indeed, I ended up leaving the workshop surprised that “classes” were even being offered at all. Kintsugi is an art form that arguably takes a lifetime to master, as a skill. Individual projects involving it (and the natural lacquer urushi, its primary component) can take years if not decades. Needless to say, this is not your typical arts and crafts activity! 

How Kintsugi Works

Use urushi to mend the crack


One of the first thing I learned upon sitting down at the Shikata Urushi workshop, located in the heart of Kyoto not far from Shijo Station? Gold itself isn’t what mends pottery (and other broken things) that kintsugi will eventually fix. Rather, it’s urushi, a naturally-occurring lacquer that has applications from home furnishings to ornate temple decorations.

(Or, more likely, resin)


While Shikata-san did let me work with some real urushi during my kintsugi class in Japan, it was mostly just to paint on top of what I actually used to fuse the broken pieces together, which was ordinary, synthetic resin. The reasons for this are two-fold: Firstly, that urushi is expensive; and secondly, that it causes allergic reactions on most people’s skin. Amateurs like me have to wear gloves when working with it!

Cut or sand it down


Kintsugi is meant to make a visual impact, not a textural one. As a result, once the process of putting the pieces back together is complete, you need to smooth out the new joint. While masters (and even me, momentarily) use an X-ACTO knife to do most of the work, a more traditional (albeit slower) finishing technique is to use a wet piece of bamboo as a sander. Shikata-san said I had good technique here!

Dust it with gold (or silver)


The highlight of my kintsugi class in Kyoto was to dust gold (I had the option to use silver) onto the urushi coating I painted on top of my lacquer, just before it dried. This was not only a beautiful process but a fun one, which involves a lot of powdered gold, a cotton ball and a very particular way of flicking one’s wrist. Shikata-san was impressed by my technique!

Wait—a long time!


After I finished the “active” work on my kintsugi pieces, I was surprised when Shikata-san handed me a wooden box. “You need to leave it in the bag until June 27,” he told me, noting that it would take exactly two weeks for the urushi to fully set (assuming I followed the short list of other instructions he gave me). As it turns out, even the “quick kintsugi” method we used is actually not that quick!

Why Kintsugi is Such a Resonant Concept

I’ll be honest: I forget exactly what the underlying plot of the TV episode I referenced in the intro to this piece was. But I’m sure it used the physical process of kintsugi (albeit a highly embellished version of it) to explain some emotional point. To me, the ability to apply this concept to so many issues in every day life are why so many people find it relevant to them.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t expect warm fuzzies during your kintsugi experience in Japan. It’s an art form, yes, but it’s also a business. The master who instructs you will be focused more on the technical aspects at hand than any metaphors or motifs. Although you’ll be able to engage him (though a translator, if necessary), he will probably want to talk much more about the art itself than any meaning behind it.


Other FAQ About Kintsugi in Japan

Where can I learn Kintsugi in Japan?

Although limited in number compared to other experiences, kintsugi workshops open to foreigners do exist in Japan. Do note that because kintsugi is expensive to purchase, a workshop where you make it also doesn’t come cheap.

Can you learn Kintsugi?

You can study kintsugi on your trip to Japan, of course. However, unless you’re living in Japan long-term (and are thus able to spend a lot of time perfecting your craft with a master), you will need a great deal of dedication and practice (and materials, which don’t come cheap!) to practice in your home country.

Is real gold used in Kintsugi?

Depending on the quality of kintsugi, the gold you see on a given piece may be authentic. However, keep in mind that even if this is the case, it’s a powdered gold that is merely sprinkled on the urushi as it dries. No one uses pure, molten gold to mend ceramic, not even the most important pieces.

The Bottom Line

Want to learn kintsugi in Japan? I highly recommend that you sign up for a class with Shikata Urushi, which is located in the heart of Kyoto and has been one of the city’s most reputable kintsugi workshops for more than a century. Although the reality of kintsugi is different from what pop culture has led us to believe, I personally find the process extremely satisfying (and not just because the master said I was good at it!). I encourage you to check out Wabunka’s marketplace for a whole host of other authentic, traditional experience in Japan, even if this one isn’t your cup of tea.


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