Japan has several centuries of history in the use of decorative glassware, with a particular flowering of the craft in the 18th and 19th century. Among the glass arts practiced in Japan that tourists can also try their hands at are glass blowing, cut glass (known as “Edo Kiriko”), and sand blasting.
The Tokyo Glass Art Institute in Tokyo’s Ota Ward is dedicated to teaching glass arts, offering weeks-long courses as well as one-off experiences.
Visitors can choose glass blowing, Edo Kiriko, or sand blasting. For at least the glass blowing experience, even children as young as 10 can be accommodated. On my recent visit, I chose to try out Edo Kiriko. This form of glass cutting was first practiced in Japan in 1834, using an emery grinder. These days Edo Kiriko is a popular form of decorated glass, with various patterns cut into glass dishes and other objects.
The workroom contained a number of electrically-powered grinders at individual work stations.
To being the experience, my main instructor, Aoi-san, had me practice cutting on a piece of flat glass to give me a feel for the machine and the grinding/cutting operation. A line had been drawn on the glass for me to follow, but it still took concentration to set the glass on the spinning grinder wheel and follow the straight line without inadvertently “jumping” off course.
Next I looked over various sample designs in order to select the design I would attempt to produce.
Although the most popular Edo Kiriko pieces are often cut through layers of colored glass, this introductory lesson involves using clear glass dishes. After all, you have to walk before you run.
To begin, the dish I chose had to be marked out with lines so that I would know where to cut to achieve the starburst pattern I had selected.
Once the lines were marked out, it was time to begin to cut. One of Aoi-san’s key tips was to start each intersecting line from the intersection point, to ensure that the lines intersect properly. Her next tip was that the longer you hold the dish in contact with grinder, the wider the line becomes. Nonetheless, I quickly discovered that the glass dish was made of much harder glass that the small piece I had earlier been practicing on. Even just a basic straight line took me a more than a minute. Making the line wider, of course, took much longer. A couple of times I accidentally guided the wheel to the wrong place, creating cuts where I had not intended. The droning of the machine and the steady sound of the grinding wheel against the glass was vaguely reminiscent of the sounds of a sewing machine.
After about 40 minutes of working on my dish, my starburst pattern had emerged. I could have worked longer to widen some of the lines, but decided that I was satisfied with my work at this stage. If you look closely you can see a couple of my mistakes–don’t bother looking that closely!
My dish was quickly packed in bubble wrap so that I could take it home with me.
Just outside the Edo Kiriko workroom is a display of works produced by students who have done longer courses of glass cutting and glass design. Doubtless they serve as an inspiration to novices.
Every visitor to the Tokyo Glass Art Institute passes through the glass blowing workshop on the ground floor, no matter which experience course they select. There is a large oven where molten glass is stored at 1,200C (over 2,000F) and several smaller ovens where blobs of glass at the end of a blowing tube are heated and re-heated as objects are shaped.
Although the Glass Art Institute is predominately a training site, they do produce objects on special order and during my visit one of the advanced students is working on such an item, giving me a chance to observe glass blowing and shaping.
I can also see samples of colors and designs that visitors who choose to try glass blowing can try to produce. One difference between the Edo Kiriko experience and glass blowing is that the blown glass needs time to cure, so rather than carrying it home you have to arrange to have it sent to you later, usually as early as the following day.
To have a glass art experience, it is important to make a booking, rather than just showing up. For those who read Japanese, it may be best to sign up directly via the Tokyo Glass Art Institute’s website, which shows available times and has an easy reservation system. But it’s also possible to sign up via one of several English language websites that offer tours and tourist activities in Japan, like this one.
The Tokyo Glass Art Institute is in a handy location, about a 5 minute walk from Zoshiki station on the Keikyu train line (Zoshiki is 15 minutes from Shinagawa or 20 minutes from Yokohama). It is so accessible that one of these experiences (they usually take about an hour) could even be done by a very organized traveller transitting Haneda Airport.
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