The Artisans Trail

A trek through Hokuriku, the home of Japan’s ‘shokunin’

Featured | By Lucy Dayman  - 14 min read

Running along the northwestern side of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s islands, Hokuriku is a region that may not be as tourist trodden as its eastern neighbors but is a land filled with cultural charm. Excellent food, untouched natural landscapes, plenty of snow in winter, and a fascinatingly rich and diverse artisan (‘shokunin’ in Japanese) culture are just some of the area’s highlights.

For those wanting to explore a more authentic area of Japan, one deeply rooted in art and in the nation’s history but with a passion for keeping traditions relevant in the modern-day, then Hokuriku is your next destination. This western side of Japan is home to the Echizen-Ecchu-Echigo Takumi Kaido (also just known as the Takumi Kaido). This route travels through the areas Niigata-Tsubame Sanjo, Toyama-Takaoka, and Fukui-Echizen, an artisan-rich pocket of the nation.

Starting north in Niigata and trekking down the coast to some of the lesser-known prefectures of Toyama and Fukui, follow this journey through the locations and highlights that make up the unofficial crafts capital of Japan.

Regional overview

Niigata-Tsubame Sanjo

Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum

A wonderful place to begin your foray into the world of Niigata's shokunin culture is with a visit to the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum. The museum showcases a variety of metalworks across its three buildings; the Main Building is dedicated to the evolution of Japanese crafts over 400 years, beginning in the Edo era, the second building—the New Building—is home to western-style tableware, and the final room boasts a massive selection of portable writing sets called "yatate" and Japanese smoking pipes known as "kiseru." If you want to get hands-on, there's also an on-site workshop where guests can try making their own piece of Tsubame metalwork.

Address: 4330-1 Omagari, Tsubame, Niigata 959-1263

Website

Gyokusendo

When it comes to icons of the area's metalwork, there are none quite as famous or renowned as Gyokusendo. Established in 1816, this brand produces some of the most beautiful and impressive pieces of copperware in Japan. Copper is an incredibly malleable material, but by being struck it becomes harder. Their copperware is produced by repeatedly hammering and annealing to slowly create the desired shape. Stepping through the doors of Gyokusendo's workshop-store, you'll hear a cacophony of clangs; that's the workshop's talented and dedicated artisans bending and crafting pieces of sheet copper into the stunning, glittering items on display. By using traditional techniques that have remained unchanged for the past 200 years, including colorization by oxidation, Gyokusendo is a lesson in how to respect history and stay true to the area's craftsman legacy.

Address: 2-2-21 Chuo-dori, Tsubame, Niigata 959-1244

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Tojiro Open Factory

There's no other nation in the world with a knife-making legacy as revered as Japan's, and there aren't many brands out there as respected as Tojiro. Tojiro came to popularity in 1955 when the brand launched a stainless steel fruit knife that was crafted and sharpened to an inch of its life. What's most exciting about visiting Tojiro is the brand's open factory. In celebration of their 50th anniversary, Tojiro redesigned the interior of their manufacturing space so members of the public can stroll inside and watch the area's best knife makers in action. It's amazing to witness just how much of these knives — which are now considered mass-produced mainstream products — are still carefully and meticulously made by hand.

Address: 9-5 Yoshidahigashisakaecho, Tsubame, Niigata 959-0232

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Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store

To get a broad overview of the depth of culture and skill of the artisans that populate this corner of the country, a stop at Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store is in order. The history of metalwork in Tsubame and Sanjo dates back 400 years, but here on display and in the store you can witness the craft's future and understand just why Tsubame Sanjo is recognized as Japan's No.1 metalware production area. The area open to the public is split into two key areas of interest, the display floor and the store, the latter of which is home to a huge selection of 10,000 Tsubame Sanjo products both homewares and metal goods. Once you're done admiring the unique and masterfully crafted pieces on display, pick up a special piece of Tsubame Sanjo from the store to take home. Travellers will also be happy to know there’s a duty-free option too.

Address: 1-17 Sugoro, Sanjo, Niigata 955-0092

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Tsubamesanjo Italian BIT

For a lunch or dinner experience like no other, then make your way to Tsubamesanjo Italian BIT (燕三条 イタリアンBit) for an immersive education in metal production and culinary excellence. From the outside, this looks like a regular, stylish restaurant, but it has one little secret, its multimedia dining room. Here a 360-degree projection mapping show runs through the area's metalwork history, offering insight into the production processes and cultural evolution of the region's key export. You'll never look at cutlery the same way again.

Address: Tsubamesanjo Regional Industries Promotion Center Messepia 1F, 1−17 Sugoro, Sanjo, Niigata 955-0092

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Sanjo Kaji dojo

For a more old-school and hands-on approach to metalwork, then visit the Sanjo Blacksmith Training Hall. Founded as an avenue through which skilled local craftspeople could teach the ways of blacksmithing to the public, this training hall launched workshops back in 1993 and relaunched the current incarnation of the classes in 2005. Today, guests can sign up to make a range of products, the most common and easiest being paper knives and Japanese nails. Perfect for small groups, it's a fun family-friendly way to appreciate this traditional skill.

Address: 11-53 Motomachi, Sanjo, Niigata 955-0072

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SUWADA Open Factory

Before visiting SUWADA Open Factory, you probably thought nail clippers were just disposable objects, made of cheap metal screwed together that you can pick up from your local 100 yen shop. However, spend a little time exploring this stylish open factory; you'll soon see clippers as nothing short of a work of art, well, SUWADA's nail clippers at least. Since 1926, SUWADA has been forging, polishing and sharpening cutting objects – nail clippers being the most notable – to perfection. Although a factory dedicated to nail clippers doesn't sound like a viable tourist attraction, the team behind this establishment's creation has well and truly outdone themselves. The bottom floor is dedicated to the creation of the brand's iconic clippers, and here behind floor-to-ceiling glass panels, visitors can watch the company's craftspeople working tirelessly to create the most perfect clippers known to man. On the main floor sits a store, display area, and Italian-inspired cafe. It's not just a factory; it's a center of artisanal inspiration, local culture, and clippers.

Address: 1332 Koanji, Sanjo, Niigata 959-1114

Website

Teien no Sato Honai

One of the highlights of road-tripping through Japan is stopping by the country's eclectic, quaint, and always interesting road stations (michi no eki). The michi no eki is a highway rest stop, and unlike many of those in the west, is more than just a fast-food outlet. In fact, each michi no eki is almost like a destination in itself. They typically have great, cheap, locally inspired food and souvenirs. Teien no Sato Honai however, has to be one of the best, or at least greenest michi no ekis in Japan. Home to great food, a sprawling outdoor garden, an indoor plant store, and friendly staff running kokedama (plant moss ball) workshops, it's worth a detour if you're traveling through Niigata.

Address: 4035 Shimohonai, Sanjo, Niigata 955-0021

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Toyama-Takaoka

Nousaku Foundry

The craft of Takaoka city has become a key tourist destination for Toyama in large part thanks to Nousaku Foundry's existence. The city itself has a history of metal crafting that goes back four centuries, but the opening of this stylish factory-restaurant-display room-workshop hybrid in 2017 helped this low-key town become a major player on the global art scene. Established in 1916, Nousaku is a name that's long been synonymous with metal casting, initially making tea-ceremony utensils, vases, and Buddhist altar fittings, but in recent times it's moved with the times, creating sleek tin, brass, and bronze homewares and utensils. Carefully designed to showcase everything the company has to offer, the first thing guests notice entering the facility is the floor-to-ceiling glass case holding multi-colored, multi-shaped molds, all of which are still used today. From the second floor, you can watch the metal smelting in action, but the first floor is where the action is, home to a stylish restaurant and a workshop area where guests can create their own metal products using sand molds.

Address: 8-1 Office Park, Takaoka, Toyama 939-1119

Website

Takaoka Design & Craft Center/ Toyama Prefectural Design Center

Just a short stroll from Nousaku sits Takaoka Design & Craft Center and the Toyama Prefectural Design Center, two separate entities located in the same building with the same overarching purpose, which is to highlight and showcase the excellent craftsmanship of the people of this corner of Japan. The Takaoka Design and Craft Center is home to product development and research, in the hopes that the area's traditional crafts can be passed on to the next generation. If you have even just a fleeting interest in crafts, culture and even modern design, this building features some incredible work across a variety of mediums, from digital art to traditional copperware, furniture making and design just for the sake of design.

Address: 5 Office Park, Takaoka, Toyama 939-1119

The Great Buddha Of Takaoka

On a route known for being home to some of the best metalwork in the country, there's no more apt tourist destination to pop by than The Great Buddha Of Takaoka. This impressive feat of metalwork showcases the area's dominance in the industry. The bronze statue was built using the skills of the area's local craftspeople. This striking landmark is one of Japan's three 'Great Buddha' statues, alongside Nara's Todaiji Temple and the Kamakura Daibutsu. The first incarnation of this figure came to be in 1221, but it was made of wood at the time. Around 800 years later, in 1907, the current buddha construction began, and it was completed in 1933. Today the town celebrates this one of the area's most iconic figures with a festival, the Takaoka Daibutsu Matsuri (高岡大仏まつり) each September.

Address: 11-29 Otemachi, Takaoka, Toyama 933-0039

Latticework Brewing

Takaoka City's Latticework Brewing is a cozy, family-run brewery located in the scenic latticed house lined streets of Kanaya-machi, and a destination well worth trying to hunt down. The brewery was opened in 2018 and has become a staple destination in Takaoka City, a place where locals and visitors alike come to enjoy the store’s craft brews. As well as a broad beer menu, Latticework also serves excellent beer snacks like corn chips and salsa, roasted vegetables, and even USA-style ribs.

Address: 3-15 Kanayamachi, Takaoka, Toyama 933-0841

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Fukui-Echizen

Ryusen Hamono Knife Factory

Clocking in an impressive 70 years in business, Ryusen Hamono knows how to make knives quite unlike most others. The factory has been designing, cutting, polishing and selling knives for a variety of purposes since 1948, and as the years go by, they remain as loved and respected by chefs—both professional and amateur—as ever. Ryusen prides itself on producing some of the most beautiful and meticulously crafted blades on the market. Their signature is the unique circular ripple patterns on the blade, which they say are the signature marks of Echizen Uchihamono craftsmen, the area's highlight respected craftsmen. While the knife factory is a little smaller in size than some of the others on the list, the store selection is impressive and the staff are kind enough to allow guests to try the knives (on vegetables, on occasion), so to see how the Echizen artisans do it, be sure to check it out.

Address: 49-1-5 Ikenokamicho, Echizen, Fukui 915-0873

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Yamaken Knife Handle Factory & Etoe Store

Next to Ryusen Hamono Knife Factory, you can find the Yamaken Knife Handle Factory & Etoe Store, another factory and display room offering insight into the world of Echizen's artisans. A knife's handle is one of those objects that's both as invisible and overlooked as it is ultimately important. Here guests can admire and learn about the knife handle making process and admire the art that goes into creating such an integral, ergonomic product.

Address: 46-1-10 Ikenokamicho, Echizen, Fukui 915-0873

Website

SUGIHARA WASHIPAPER, INC.

There are few crafts as iconic, diverse, and versatile as Japanese washi paper, and SUGIHARA WASHIPAPER, INC. is one of the product's most important contemporary names. SUGIHARA WASHIPAPER, INC. is a washi wholesaler, established in 1871 by Sugihara Hanshirou. Today it's spearheaded by Yoshinao Sugihara, a man proud of his company’s history and an excellent spokesman for the product. The Sugihara brand's collaboration with designers, artists, architects, and their connection to local craftspeople works as a bridge between the tradition of washi paper and the possibility of its future. The display rooms showcase some of their projects and products, offering a fresh and exciting look at how traditional Japanese crafts can find an important place in the modern age.

Address: 17-2 Oizu, Echizen, Fukui 915-0235

Website

Naito Tansu Ten

Echizen is a city known for being home to a variety of craftspeople and artisan cultures, but one of their key products is 'tansu.' Known as cupboards, dressers, or even chats of draws in English, tansu embodies the philosophy of traditional Japanese crafts — they're an investment in time, talent, design and are products designed to live with you forever. Naito Tansu Ten is one of the area's most iconic tansu stores; it's packed from wall to wall with large rustic tansu of all styles. One of the most enthralling features of the tansu is its secret system of locks and hidden drawers that slide in and out, following a code of movements the owner of the product can decipher. A visit to Naito Tansu Ten is an education in considered craftsmanship and carpentry.

Address: 2 Honmachi, Echizen, Fukui 915-0823

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Cabinet Maker kicoru Oyanagi Tansu

From traditional tansu to more modern incarnations, Cabinet Maker kicoru Oyanagi Tansu is another Echizen tansu store, just a few minutes walk from Naito Tansu Ten. The store features both traditional style pieces of carpentry as well as more modern takes on the craft. To get a well-rounded perspective on the history and the future of tansu-making, a visit to both locations is highly recommended.

Address: 10-7 Takefuyanagicho, Echizen, Fukui 915-0824

Website

Where to stay

Japanese-style Hotel Minoya, Niigata

A traditional ryokan inn, Minoya is the perfect place to stay for those who want to taste old-world luxury with modern comforts. The sprawling facility features public onsen facilities and classic tatami style rooms and futon bedding, while the rooms are spacious and meticulously cared for. The ryokan also serves delicious, multi-course kaiseki meals and has some of the area's best sake on offer, which is saying a lot in Niigata, Japan’s unofficial home of sake. The ryokan is also conveniently located next to the enthralling Yahiko Shrine grounds.

Address: 2927-1 Yahiko, Nishikambara District, Niigata 959-0323

Website

Bed and Craft, Toyama

An innovative, collaborative project between an architectural firm and local artists, Bed and Craft, Toyama redefines what accommodation can be. Rather than being a hotel, it's a collection of homes (or you could say villas) scattered throughout the town of Inami. Each home was designed in partnership with a different artist from around the area, boasting unique, carefully considered charm. The company also offers meal delivery services and connects guests with workshops that run nearby. It's an intimate and idyllic way to embrace the culture of Hokuriku's arts culture.

Address: 3-41 Honmachi, Nanto, Toyama 932-0217

Website

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Susan Tumanon a month ago
Great introduction for today's event! Looking forward to the virtual tour!
Kim a month ago
I've visited a few places on this list! Definitely a region worth checking out.