With our Japan Wish competition winner Ashley now in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, she now has access to many of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, like Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavillion, that we hope she makes her way to sometime during her stay.
This temple, which gets its name from the gold leaf that covers the upper two stories of the pavilion, was built during the Muromachi period (1337–1573), when much of the traditional Japanese art and culture recognized today began to flourish thanks to beneficial relationships between Japan and China as well as the spread of Zen Buddhism. This extended to architecture as well, where ornate decorations like gold leaf on Buddhist temples acted as a purifier against pollution of the outside world and inside the mind (on top of its structural benefits against weather and decay).
Over time, Kanazawa area of Ishikawa Prefecture, which produced the gold leaf used for Kinkakuji, became Japan’s top producer in gold leaf. Even today, Kanazawa produces 99% of the country’s gold leaf, and recently a wonderful documentary highlighting this traditional art has been garnering praise online both domestically and abroad.
Perhaps it was fate for Kanazawa’s craftsmen to become the masters of this exquisite form of art, as even the city’s name itself means “golden marshes,” based off an old folk tale of a peasant digging for potatoes in the area who came up with gold flakes instead.
Gold leaf produced in Kanazawa is called Kanazawa haku, and in addition to being used to adorn Buddhist temples and other religious items, has also been used to embellish lacquerware, textiles, and personal accessories. Japanese gold leaf artists in this area are famous for being able to stretch small amounts of gold into large, transparent sheets of gold leaf 0.0001 millimeter (0.000004 inch) in thickness.
The process has been captured in the form the documentary below, which has become the topic of much discussion among people in Japan after following the great reception it received abroad.
The documentary is well worth the watch, but here are some of the highlights.
▼ Gold, on top of its luxurious appearance, is a fine metal for ornamentation due to its extreme malleability.
▼ We weren’t kidding when we said a small amount could be stretched into large, transparent sheets. For reference, a tatami mat is generally around 1.65 square meters (17.76 square feet) in size.
▼ The gold is heated and then stretched through rollers until it has been thinned and cut into squares.
▼ Each square is sandwiched between traditional Japanese washi paper and pounded in multiple stages until it reaches minimum thickness.
▼ Check out how thin the final product is!
Although temples are no longer adorned in Kanazawa gold leaf like in the past, shop windows decorated with gold gilding are finding a comeback in trendier parts of Tokyo, seeking to recreate the vintage feel of art deco window glass signs that were popular overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We hope after checking out the documentary, you’ll come away with a new-found appreciation for this ancient form of art when visiting Kinkaku-ji or other places in Japan incorporating gold leaf ornamentation.