Things To Do in Kanazawa, Japan: Gold-Leaf Art

Gold leaf, which is gold hammered down to an extremely thin sheet (sometimes 1/10,000 of a millimetre!) has been used in decorative art for centuries. The process of layering it over a surface is called gilding. One might find examples of these in European art, on statues, mirrors, small objects and jewellery, or as part of a building’s architecture on ceilings and window frames.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

While there is no definite account of when gold leaf first made its appearance in Japan, some say that it came from China together with the influence of Buddhism. In the 16th century, the Maeda clan (who ruled what is now Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures) attempted to turn Kanazawa into a renowned center for gold leaf art – but the Shogunate, in an effort to curb the influence of powerful daimyo families, restricted gold beating to only Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. The art was only revived in the 19th century, and has since flourished into a major industry. Kanazawa now accounts for 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production, and visitors will find numerous craft centres and shops selling items such as gold leaf lacquer boxes, cosmetic masks and even gold leaf ice cream!

Our guide had arranged for a gold leaf art class for us in the city’s artisan district. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the shop, but since its a popular activity here I’m sure there are many places where you can give it a go.

The front of the shop had numerous gold leaf products on display, including cosmetics like masks and creams. Not sure if they have any beneficial properties, but it sure feels luxurious!

At the back of the store were two partitioned ‘classrooms’, where materials had been laid out for our small party of three. These included delicate tweezers, forceps, glue, paper cut outs, glitter and more.

Our (pretty) sensei for the day. Communication was a bit difficult since she didn’t speak English, but we made do with hand signs and gestures lol.

We were each given a lacquered plaque. I picked out three animal shapes for my ‘design’. The first step was to gently lay the thin gold sheet onto the cut out. Easier said than done. I’ve never had the most patience or a steady hand, so I ruined two sheets (!!) before getting it right.

Pressing the cut-out designs onto the plaque. The swifter you pull it off, the more likely it’s going to turn out nice. Definitely requires a lot of dexterity !

Before cleaning off the extras around the sides. I thought of picking an earth-sea-air thingy hence the three animals. Also added some colourful glitter to give it some pop.

Another class in session.

It was really fun trying our hand out at gold leaf art, and I find it more meaningful to make my own rather than simply buying a souvenir off the shelf. If you’re ever in Kanazawa and have the time to spare, consider joining a class in the city’s artisan district. There is also a Gold Museum nearby. 🙂