Kintsugi: the Japanese Art of Mending Broken Pottery with Gold

When you think of Japan, what comes to mind is perhaps the technological prowess of its gadgets and automobiles. Maybe it’s the fascinating pop culture with its unique fashion and music. Or maybe it’s the centuries-old traditions that still play an important role in daily life. Japan is all of these things and more, and one thing that you’ll quickly notice during your time here is the country’s focus on aesthetic beauty. This is some of the most evident in the art form of kintsugi.

If you’ve ever broken a beloved plate or mug, you know the feeling of sadness (or anger) that comes with having to throw it away. In Japan, kintsugi can help mend your broken heart and your broken dish. It’s a rather profound aspect of Japanese culture. But what is kintsugi, really? Where does it come from, and what is its significance? Let’s take a closer look.

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What is Kintsugi?

The word kintsugi is made up of two Japanese words: kin, meaning “gold”, and tsugi meaning “to join”. Kintsugi is sometimes also known as “golden repair” or “golden joinery”. It’s the art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. The aesthetic philosophy behind kintsugi is based on the concept of wabisabi, which values the imperfections in life and sees them as adding to the beauty of an object. It’s also about accepting the transient nature of life and recognizing that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.

Although kintsugi and wabisabi are often used interchangeably, they are two distinct things. Wabisabi is an aesthetic sensibility while kinstugi is an art form. But I digress. This philosophy is what sets kintsugi apart from other methods of repair — rather than trying to hide repairs, kintsugi treats them as an opportunity to recognize the history of an object and its inherent value.

You can read about wabisabi and other hard-to-translate Japanese words here.

A Brief History of Kintsugi

The origins of kintsugi are somewhat murky, but one likely history is that it was developed in the 15th century during the Muromachi period. At this time, Chinese porcelain was highly prized by the Japanese aristocracy, and many households kept collections of imported pieces. These pieces were delicate and expensive, so when they broke, they were often sent back to China to be repaired by master craftsmen.

However, at one point, Japan cut off all trade with China due to political tensions between the two countries. This left the Japanese aristocracy without a way to repair their broken porcelain, so they turned to Japanese craftsmen who had been trained in traditional lacquerware techniques. These craftsmen experimented with different ways to repair broken pottery using lacquer resin before settling on a method that involved dusting gold powder on the repairs. Thus, kintsugi was born.

Another story is that a Japanese shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a cracked tea bowl back to China to be repaired. When the bowl returned, it had been mended with ugly, metal staples. Yoshimasa was so dismayed by the repair job that he ordered his artisans to find a better way to fix the bowl. They came up with a way to repair the pottery using lacquer mixed with gold dust. Thus…kintsugi was born.

round brown and white ceramic plate kintsugi

According to my research, the history that could be most factually accurate (but the least entertaining) is a short one from this Smithsonian blurb. It says kintsugi became widespread in Japan in the late 16th century due to tea ceremonies. But it didn’t mention when kintsugi could have begun, so you can still have your pick of one of the two aforementioned histories.

Kintsugi went out of fashion for a while after the Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868. During that time, Japan opened its borders to the West and embraced Western culture. As a result, a popular sentiment among Japanese people was that their own culture was old-fashioned and unstylish. Westerners liked their dishes whole and unadorned, so kintsugi was replaced by Western-style pottery. However, kinstugi has resurged in recent years thanks to Japanese potters who refused to let that aspect of their culture die.

Is Kintsugi Still Practiced Today?

Yes! Kintsugi remains a technique practiced by expert artisans. In recent years, kintsugi has experienced a renaissance both inside and outside of Japan. It’s now practiced by people of all ages and backgrounds and appreciated by many for its aesthetics.

One thing to keep in mind if you’re thinking about trying your hand at kintsugi is that it takes a great deal of patience and practice to master this craft. It can take years for a journeyman practitioner to reach the level of a master craftsman who can create intricate patterns using gold dust. So don’t be discouraged if your first attempts don’t look quite like works of art—in time, they will!

How is Kintsugi Done?

The process of kintsugi begins with repairing the broken piece using lacquer resin mixed with nikawa (鈎), a type of liquid adhesive made from rice bran paste and lime water. Once the piece is repaired, finely ground gold dust (sometimes silver or platinum) is applied to the cracks using a brush. The piece is then put in a kiln to harden the lacquer. Once cooled, the surface is polished until smooth. The entire process can take weeks or even months to complete, depending on the complexity of the breakage.

In the centuries since its inception, kintsugi has gone through several changes. In general, urushi lacquer—a durable type of lacquer made from the native poison ivy tree—is used in traditional techniques. In fact, many artisans still use traditional techniques passed down from generation to generation. Urushi lacquer is hard to work with and takes a long time to cure. Nowadays, you can also find kintsugi kits that use epoxy resin instead of lacquer and real gold flakes instead of gold powder. These kit versions are much easier for amateur crafters to use.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both traditional and modern kintsugi, though. Traditional kintsugi is stronger and more durable, but it is also more expensive. Modern kintsugi is less durable, but it is much cheaper.

Also, in the past, kintsugi was used mainly on ceramics and pottery. However, modern kintsugi artists are using this technique on all sorts of materials, including glass, metal, wood and even plastic.

If you want to try your hand at kintsugi but don’t have any broken pottery lying around, don’t worry. You can find kits that allow you to do kintsugi at home. You can also buy pre-broken pots from shops specializing in kintsugi supplies! These shops will sell you everything you need to do your own repairs, including lacquer, glue, and brushes dusted with gold powder.

The Significance of Kintsugi in Japanese Culture

Over the centuries, kintsugi has been used to repair all kinds of pottery, from everyday dishes to priceless works of art. There are a few reasons why people might choose to do kintsugi on their damaged pottery. For some, it’s simply a way to give new life to an old or sentimental piece. Others appreciate the unique aesthetics of kintsugi-repaired pottery. But still for others, kintsugi much more than just a historical repair method.

Some people celebrate the imperfection and impermanence in kintsugi and see that as a metaphor for life itself. We are all transient, and just like each piece of kintsugi pottery is unique, each person’s life is unique—each life has its own share of cracks and imperfections. However, it’s these cracks and imperfections that make us who we are and give our lives character. We are all broken in some way or another, but we can still be beautiful and whole.  

So next time you see a piece of kintsugi pottery, remember that it’s not just a decoration—it’s a reminder that imperfections can be beautiful and celebrated, too.

If you’re in Japan and have the opportunity to see some kintsugi pottery in person, definitely take advantage. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re wondering where to find it in all its glory, below are four places to help get you started.

Where to Find Kintsugi

The Tokyo National Museum
The Tokyo National Museum is the largest and oldest museum in Japan. It was founded in 1872 and houses over 120,000 artifacts from across Asia. These artifacts include everything from ancient scrolls to samurai armor to frescoes from Buddhist temples. Of course, the Tokyo National Museum also has a wide selection of kintsugi pottery on display. With so many different pieces to choose from, it’s the perfect place to get a crash course in this unique art form. You can find more information here.

The Kyoto National Museum
The Kyoto National Museum is another great place to see kintsugi pottery on display. This museum was founded even earlier than the Tokyo National Museum, in 1894. However, it wasn’t open to the public until 1897, making it one of the youngest museums on this list. The Kyoto National Museum is particularly well-known for its collection of tea ceremony items, which includes a number of beautifully repaired dishes. Click here to learn more.

The Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts
Founded in 1919, the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most important museums in Western Japan. It boasts an impressive collection of over 10,000 paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from all over the world. The museum also has a wide variety of kintsugi pottery on display, ranging from simple dishes to more elaborate vases. Check out the museum’s website to see more about their exhibits.

The Arita Porcelain Park
Located in the town of Arita in Saga Prefecture, the Arita Porcelain Park is dedicated to preserving and promoting Japanese porcelain culture. In addition to housing a number of shops selling traditional porcelain wares, the well-manicured park also has a section devoted to kintsugi pottery. Here you can see how this distinctive art form is created firsthand, as well as purchase your own repaired pottery to take home with you. Learn more by visiting this site.

The Future of Kintsugi

Kintsugi is a unique and intricate art form from which history, imperfection and impermanence can be appreciated. Kintsugi can also evoke a sense of well-being and comfort in us according to this NBC News article. I would also have to agree with a BBC article I read that ended with, “In an age of mass production and quick disposal, learning to accept and celebrate scars and flaws is a powerful lesson in humanity and sustainability.” Turns out that kintsugi could also be good for the environment and is in line with the Japanese idea of mottainai — waste not, want not.

Will this unique art form continue to grow in popularity as more and more people learn about its history and appreciate its beauty? Will it eventually fade into obscurity? No one can really say. However, kintsugi has stood the test of time, and one thing is for sure—kintsugi is one of many reasons why Japan is such a fascinating and unique country.

Can you describe kintsugi in your own words?

Open-ended, but here is a simple example: Kintsugi is the Japanese method of repairing broken pottery with gold and lacquer.

What is the difference between kintsugi and wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy or idea while kintsugi is an art form.

How can kintsugi be a metaphor for life itself?

Open-ended, but here is an answer: Just like kintsugi-repaired pottery, life is imperfect and impermanent. But we can find and celebrate the beauty in that.

What happened to kintsugi during the Meiji period?

It was viewed as old-fashioned and largely replaced with Western-style dishes and pottery.

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