Echizen Traditional Tansu Craft

The small Echizen city holds some big treasure chests

By Jerome Lee    - 3 min read

First recorded in the Genroku era of the Edo period, tansu is the traditional mobile storage cabinetry that is indigenous to Japan. Tansuyas (tansu craftsmen) would utilise both hard and softwoods to fashion these amazing cabinets. Antique tansus are highly prized by collectors, and can be worth an astronomical price. Due to that, many tansu workshops produce imitation pieces of antiques, using the same kind of wood and metallic fittings, giving it that aged look, and the only way to be able to tell them apart is through careful documentation and and personal physical examination by scholars.

Echizen city is famous for its tansu history, and I got the opportunity to visit an expert in the preservation and refurbishment of antique tansus, Mr Naito Yoshio. A collector of many tansu pieces around Echizen city and in Japan, Mr Yoshio's shop houses a huge collection of these cabinets, ranging from pieces which are used as a wardrobe, one for storing kimonos and even one particular piece which was both a climbing apparatus and a storage unit at the same time! Mr Yoshio also explained that one of the ways to tell whether a tansu was made in Echizen city was to look at its metallic fittings, and Echizen city's signature has two hearts facing sideways on it. His impressive collection of many antique cabinets all had it, and due to its long history, most of his collection are now worth a fortune. 

The next stop was a small cosy cafe a block away from Mr Yoshio's shop, run by his daughter. This place is a blend of old and new, with antique tansu pieces belonging to Mr Yoshio and white walls with rustic benches for customers to feel at home in. For visitors new to Echizen tansu, this cafe is a good starting point where Mr Yoshio's daughter is able to whip up a fresh batch of coffee, and slowly explain to them Echizen's tansu history.

The last stop of the day was visiting a tansu factory, where a tansuya was making a Kuruma Choba-dansu (chest on wheels), once a status symbol of merchant families during the Meiji period, for a customer. The tansuya explained that a person in his occupation must have at least 10 years of experience in crafting a tansu for a customer to have confidence in his abilities. This only goes to show the dedication of the Japanese to their craft, and it'll be a long time before I can afford to own a piece of Echizen's cultural craftsmanship.

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Jerome Lee

Jerome Lee @jerome.lee

Singaporean who lived in Melbourne, Australia for 3 years, and undertook a journalism degree. A lover of soul, funk music (Motown especially), and many other forms of music. Love meeting new people, and creative things (art, fashion, photography, design, films...). Currently working at JapanTravel in Tokyo as Operations Manager for the Travel Agency department, and chasing spelling mistakes/grammatical errors in Tokyo

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Justin Velgus 5 years ago
Fun read and I want to go to Fukui now! Tansu have an interesting history in Japan.

The staircase tansu are thin and a use of storage that led to a second floor or loft for storage. Long ago in the Edo period rent of property was dtermined how wide your place was along main street. So these tansu squeezed right in and were mulit-functional.

And the wheel tansu were once even banned! During a great fire, everyone tried to escape, wheeling their valuables down the narrow streets. It was a traffic jam, some people left their tansu blocking others, and firemen had an obstacle course of cabinets to climb over or move to reach the fire!