Contemporising heritage and culture: Tsubame-Sanjo

Tsubame-Sanjo factory festival will be Oct 1–4 in 2020.

As you push the door open, the sound of metal work greets you. A hanging sea of living Metal Crafters of Tsubame-Sanjo hold fort.

Entry into ROOTS OF METALCRAFT | 33s

As I walked past the NAFA Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries s on my way to a Saturday afternoon talk, I took note to come back to this exhibition. Who wouldn’t with clean design like this? As my friend says, good design and packaging gives customers cues that it’ll be a good experience.

That’s what I wish to orchestrate — where stellar design infuse and energises user experiences. Why does it matter?

For something seemingly mundane as metalworks, the exhibition however makes it very curious — it sets up an exhibition that is interest to explore. A great exhibition, like a great teacher, can enliven a any topic. Here — through a combination of exhibition design, story-telling, and candid documentary.

The two cities TSUBAME and SANJO join forces promoting craft and history.

Old Towns — New Angles

The Japanese have another oft-cited exemplar of — Benesse Art Site Naoshima — transformed by design, art and programs, Benesse breathed a new life to an area that used to struggled to acknowledge its charm.

Shortly after visiting the metal crafter portraits, a staff invited me over to view a demo.

Magic | 38s

How in the world is the seam invisible? The seam is less than half the width of hair I was told.

A great “magic trick”-like demo that enticed me to look explore the exhibition further.

Illustrating history through objects

A large running display in the central hall displays two running lines — Tsubame and Sanjo — their histories in crafting from metals.

Tsubame (燕)and Sanjo (三条) are situated in Niigata (新潟), famous for rice-production as well as Sake production. However, as they were affected by floods of the three rivers, the citizens had to look for new ways to make a living.

Tsubame harvested iron, a harder metal for farming tools like ploughs;

From left: Farming tools from the early Edo Period (1600–1700) | Before Bodum: double-walled titanium tumblers from Sanjo area | Nail manufacturers have moved from making nails for buildings to long camping nails.

Sanjo harvested and crafted from softer metals like steel, copper, and titanium for making tumblers, kettles. The twin cities began developing their new crafts concurrently.

Sanjo farming materials. Different ‘heads’ for ploughing different soils. The harder soils in the North, and the softer in the South.

To offer a deeper understanding of the craft of the makers, a documentary-style video at the end of the gallery captures cutlery makers, the hand-made kettle crafters, the nail manufacturers at work. Behind the utensils and tools we use every day, there is a face, a person.

Did you know — 90% of “Made in Japan” cutlery comes from Tsubame-Sanjo?

Bridging into the NOW

Another part of the exhibition showcases a hodgepodge of objects: from Miso, to wooden trays, utility sinks, to cast iron pots. Every item has a number and visitors curious can look the number up in the Kouba catalog (Kouba 工場 is Japanese for Workshop).

Explore the contemporary counterparts of METALCRAFTING history and heritage | 28s

This exhibition serves as a preview to the actual Kouba Main Festival in October. Since 2013, factories in Tsubame-Sanjo have opened their doors during the Factory festival, welcoming both local and international visitors to explore, exchange and learn of their living heritage. Who’s in?

Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival
October 1–4, 2020

Inside page of KOUBA catalog for the Tsubame Sanjo festival on METALCRAFT. Celebrating 400 years of history and development.
TSUBAME and SANJO join forces to promote their shared heritage and development in METALCRAFT at the annual KOUBA festival.

Originally published at on March 5, 2020.



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Karen Tsui

Karen Tsui

Writer + Host: Filmaholic/ Orchestrii Orchestrator-in-Chief / Design-lover /World explorer. Written for Zolima City Mag, Culture Trip.