Kintsugi: Appreciate the Imperfect Beauty of Mended Objects Through This Traditional Japanese Craft

Kintsugi is a traditional Japanese craft where broken or chipped bowls, plates, and other utensils are repaired using lacquer and metal powder. However, it is not just about restoring an object's functionality, but giving it new life by adding value to it. Lately, the world has been paying more attention to sustainable practices, with kintsugi coming to the forefront as it promotes finding joy and beauty in imperfections. So, for this special installment of our "Culture of Japan" series, we visited a workshop in Minami Aoyama, Tokyo, to learn about the origin of kintsugi and experience the craft for ourselves under the guidance of a professional craftsperson. We even got to take our finished pieces back home with us!

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What Is Kintsugi?

Kintsugi, which used to be known as “kin-tsukuroi” in the olden days, is a unique, centuries-old restoration technique that may vary from craftsperson to craftsperson, but generally looks like this: First, the damaged parts of a vessel are polished and fixed in place using paper tape. Next, they’re joined together with lacquer, a natural adhesive made from the sap of the lacquer tree, and left to dry. Once dry, the surface of the mended area is polished again to ensure it's free from any lumps or bumps. Lastly, gold or other metal powder is applied to the mended area, polished, and allowed to dry. Kintsugi is an arduous process that requires time and patience. It is not unusual for the restoration of one piece to take over three months, depending on the amount of damage.

The History of Kintsugi

When we first learned about kintsugi, we assumed it was a technique used to repair or reinforce broken vessels with melted-down gold or other metals. After participating in this workshop, we realized that it’s actually lacquer that holds the broken pieces together, with gold powder being applied at the end for ornamental purposes.

In Japan, using lacquer to repair broken objects can be traced back to the Jomon Period (around 8,000 –2,000 BC). Many artifacts from that era prove this, such as ancient earthenware repaired with lacquer and stone spears with their tips reinforced by hardened sap. However, it was not yet customary during the Jomon Period to decorate mended objects with gold or metal.

The practice of decorating mended vessels started around the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1568), back when tea culture was flourishing in Japan. At the time, tea utensils used by samurai families and aristocrats were expensive and primarily imported from China. Because of this, throwing one out when it broke was not an easy decision. Restoring tea utensils with lacquer and decorating them with luxurious gold powder was developed as a means of extending the life of these precious objects. Eventually, people started to call the marks where damaged parts had been repaired by kintsugi "scenery" and found beauty in what were once considered imperfections.

Experiencing Kintsugi Firsthand at Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE in Minami Aoyama

To better understand this traditional Japanese craft, we decided to sign up for a kintsugi workshop through WABUNKA, a website that organizes various Japanese cultural experiences for locals and tourists.

The class was hosted by Utsuwa Omusubi, a pottery store located on Kotto Street in Minami Aoyama, one of Tokyo's most fashionable areas, that exhibits and sells works from all over Japan, including Arita and Imari wares. They're operated by Kyobashi Shiroki, a pottery wholesaler established over 120 years ago. In 2022, in order to better promote Japanese tableware, they opened the Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE facility nearby with its own art gallery where visitors can experience kintsugi firsthand. Participants in the kintsugi experience will be able to dive deep into traditional Japanese culture through a variety of activities, including listening to lectures by veteran craftspeople and taking part in kintsugi repair experiences and tea ceremony tastings.

WABUNKA Website (Japanese):
WABUNKA Website (English):

Kintsugi for Beginners

One weekday afternoon, we visited Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE to experience kintsugi for the first time, all while surrounded by beautiful Japanese pottery. This workshop was led by Toshiyuki Hagiwara, a kintsugi master. Hagiwara has been working with tableware for more than 25 years and studied under Yohei Nakata, a prominent lacquerware craftsman and traditional artisan in Kagawa. He’s not only certified by the Japan Kintsugi Association, he’s also a crafts expert familiar with pottery and tableware styles from all over Japan.

The Deep Connection Between Kintsugi and the Tea Ceremony

As mentioned before, the development of kintsugi is closely linked with Japan’s tea culture. It’s said that a turning point for kintsugi was made by Oribe Furuta, a general and tea master during the Sengoku Period (1467 – 1615). Oribe Furuta was a disciple of Sen no Rikyu, famous for his outstanding skill in the art of the tea ceremony and his passion for tea utensils. While ordinary tea masters handled tea utensils with great care, he once deliberately broke a valuable tea bowl, carved it up, and then restored it with gold. The bowl became famous and is now known far and wide as the “Oido Tea Bowl, Name: Shumi.”

Kintsugi also has a very close relationship with lacquer. Because lacquer is moisture-proof, waterproof, insect-proof, and mildew-proof, it’s still used today for repairing certain structures such as shrine gates and national treasure statues. Lacquer was also utilized to repair tableware used for New Year dishes and wooden shelves back during the craft’s heyday. According to Hagiwara, the lacquer used in typical kintsugi can be broadly divided into natural lacquer and synthetic lacquer, the former of which there are many different varieties. In the past, wheat flour was mixed into the lacquer to make use of the adhesive properties of gluten. When natural lacquer is used, the initial application is followed by three hours to three weeks of drying, whereas synthetic lacquer dries in about 30 minutes.

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What to Expect from the Kintsugi Class at Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE

After listening to Hagiwara’s lecture and gaining a basic understanding of kintsugi, we were ready to try the real thing. Kintsugi requires a lot of time and patience and cannot be completed in one day, so the workshop staff did a lot of the preparations for us in advance like applying barley lacquer to cracked surfaces, filling in cracks with lacquer paste, and smoothing the joined surfaces with black lacquer.

Our kintsugi experience started with the fundamental “nakanuri” stage of applying an intermediate coat of lacquer. Even though the workshop was just an introduction to the world of kintsugi, the materials that we used and the entire repair process were all authentic and in accordance with tradition. The broken vessels that we worked on were the size of sake cups or teacups, and were chosen from the workshop’s inventory available on the day of the class. Needless to say, they were of excellent quality.

We worked on a small, intricately patterned sake cup with cracks at the top made by a special machine, which were already coated with black lacquer that was allowed to dry and was ready for the next step in the kintsugi process.

First, Moisten the Tip of Your Brush with Oil

Pine oil, which is turpentine derived from the Japanese red pine, is often used for paintings. When pine oil is applied to the tip of a brush, it softens the bristles and allows for softer, more precise strokes.

The “Nakanuri” Intermediate Coating

After black lacquer, a second coat of natural red varnish called "e-urushi" or bengara urushi is applied to the vessel to bring out the color and shine of the gold powder, which will come next. You must apply a thin layer of this varnish evenly over the cracks. According to Hagiwara, this step will determine the beauty of the finished product, so it is of the utmost importance to do it carefully, patiently, and slowly. After the painting is done, the mended vessel is left to dry for about 10 minutes.

Clean the Tip of the Brush with Oil

After applying the red lacquer, moisten the brush tip with oil and gently clean it with a spatula or a tissue. This is an important step as any remaining lacquer will harden, possibly ruining the brush.

Apply the Gold Powder

Take a wad of "mawata" silk floss and break it into smaller pieces by hand, loosening the fibers to make them as fluffy as possible. Then, take the shredded pieces and form them into small balls. Next comes the gold powder. Using a brush, apply it generously to the joined areas of the mended vessel, then use the cotton balls to spread it evenly.

Allow to Dry

And with this, your work is done! You will receive a wooden box to place your kintsugi piece in so that you can take it back home with you. Before you can use it, it needs to completely dry and set, which cannot be done without some humidity, so you should place a wrung wet towel or newspaper in a corner of the box after returning home. The wet material should be about 70% damp but not dripping. Leave it to set for two weeks, checking and wetting the towel periodically. Remove any excess gold dust from the vessel with a soft sponge at the end of the two weeks to complete the process.

While waiting for the lacquer to dry, Hagiwara shared his expertise with us, explaining that, generally, before using a new piece of earthenware, it’s a good idea to boil it in the water left over from washing rice for about 20 minutes. This will get the starch in the rice to stick to the tiny air bubbles on the surface of the vessel, increasing its density and waterproofing it.

He also taught us a simple way to tell pottery and porcelain apart. Pottery is made of clay, so the outside is glazed, but the bottom is always an earthen color and makes a dull sound when you run your finger over it. Conversely, porcelain is made with a large amount of glass, so it makes a high, distinct sound when handled. Second, although both pottery and porcelain use glazes, the bottom of pottery utensils (the part that touches the table, called "kodai" in Japanese) is usually unglazed and as a result has a relatively rough surface. Porcelain is glazed all over and feels smooth to the touch. In addition, Hagiwara showed us different shapes of vessels and which foods best pair with them.

The Joys and Proper Handling of Kintsugi

Items that have undergone kintsugi treatment acquire what is called a “scenery” (new look) that makes them appear one of a kind. The process transforms ordinary objects into works of art while extending their life, making them perfect for displaying around the house while still being able to carry out their original function. One thing to note, however, is that the kintsugi joints are sensitive to heat, so tableware that have undergone kintsugi aren’t safe to use in the microwave or regular ovens, on stoves, in dishwashers or dryers, or other places with high temperatures.

Kintsugi utensils can be cleaned using detergent, but try to avoid using hard sponges or wire brushes when washing them. It’s also advisable to avoid soaking the dishes for prolonged periods of time. When storing them, it’s best to avoid keeping them together with other dishes, regular or kintsugi, so that the gold dust doesn’t come off if they rub up against anything.

Which Items Are Suitable for Kintsugi?

Kintsugi can be used to mend ceramics and even glass or wooden dishes. However, glass may be too difficult for the average person because the material is relatively hard, making the initial process of shaving off damaged parts quite difficult and requiring special tools. Kintsugi is not suitable for utensils or vessels that will come into contact with heat or have prolonged exposure to water, such as earthenware "donabe" cooking pots or flower vases.

Extend the Lifespan of Your Favorite Dish Through Kintsugi

Kintsugi is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. In fact, in addition to gold kintsugi, there are also restoration methods using silver or copper powder. Personally, we'd recommend attending a kintsugi workshop and experiencing kintsugi firsthand with the aid of an instructor rather than doing it on your own. It’s a great experience because you acquire knowledge about a fascinating Japanese craft and then have the chance to practice it, and if you have any questions, you can just ask the teacher. Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE also sells simple kintsugi DIY kits, so if you’re not satisfied with your kintsugi skills after the workshop, you can purchase a kit and practice it at home.

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Utsuwa Omusubi HANARE Kintsugi Workshop Information

About Wabunka

We booked this class through the Wabunka website, which offers many Japanese cultural experiences for foreign visitors to Japan such as Japanese tea ceremonies, flower arrangement classes, workshops where you get to eat or make classic foods such as sushi or Japanese sweets, and kintsugi workshops. Many of the courses are available in English, so if you want to experience real Japanese culture, book an experience today through Wabunka!

Website (Japanese):
Website (English):


*The experience introduced in this article was provided for free by Wabunka, but all opinions expressed in the article are the writer's own.

Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Fuchi Pan
Born in Taiwan, currently living in Tokyo. Yearning for a life surrounded by handmade goods and things she loves.
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