Broken things don’t have to stay broken. This is not a groundbreaking philosophy I’m just revealing to you, as we all own a stick of superglue, or a thread and a needle. Broken things can be mended. However, you don’t need to hide the evidence of the fractures. This is exactly where kintsugi stands out as a repair method.
The old Japanese technique that uses gold to accentuate and show off the lines where a broken piece has been glued together is the most poetic craft I have ever encountered. And I’m not alone here, as I am yet to meet someone who learned what kintsugi was and hadn’t gotten all starry-eyed.
When Tokyo Survival Channel team wanted to know whether I’ve wanted to learn new skills during these months of staying at home, of course I said yes, and of course it was kintsugi. So, they challenged me to master the skill as much as I could, and apply the kintsugi knowledge to everything and anything in life. Like a real-life King Midas gilding everything around him.
OK, not exactly the same, but a King Midas if he could unleash his powers at will. Got it. My only condition – I also get to throw in as many puns with gold as I want. Because this will be a goldmine for puns. Pun intended.
PHASE 1: Learning Kintsugi from the Pros
No matter how many YouTube videos I watch it will never be enough, as kintsugi is a craft. I just had to stick my fingers in the gold powder jar. That jar was in the cozy Teshitoya Kuge workshop in Suginami ward, where the couple Yoshiichiro and Yoshiko Kuge have taught countless students and repaired priceless family heirlooms.
The day I visited, I was greeted by the pair and their artist son Shu. Yoshiko had broken her arm the day before, but nothing was going to keep her away from the workshop. Doctors and her own body made sure her bone was on the mend, so she could go back to mending pottery and ceramics.
She taught me about the history of kintsugi, the symbolism of the patterns, Meiji era pottery glazing and decoration techniques, while the more tight-lipped Yoshiichiro sensei made sure to show me the tactile part of the craft.
We were not going to follow the traditional method to the dot, though. That one uses toxic lacquer and needs months to dry. Instead, the kintsugi process has been updated by artisans with faster drying non-toxic materials like epoxy and cashew base lacquer. However, gold is a constant.
My chipped Meiji-era cup patterned with arrows and cherry blossoms was an appropriate start for a beginner. I shouldn’t have naively thought that I can assemble a shattered piece on day one. Lesson number 1 is that learning is a slow process. Was your first homemade bread an inedible rock? Did your first and second pot of basil die a yellow death? That’s OK. Try again and start small.
The second thing I learned from the Kuge family was that things get worse before they get better. When filling in the cracked part, there’s going to be a bulging excess of grey putty. No hint of gold yet. I had to learn how to apply the putty and then file it down before applying the gold lacquer and gold dust. So, embrace the mess in whatever you’re making or creating.
Gold is not glue, it’s a deliberate choice to highlight the fractures. Lesson 3 I learned was about creativity. The fixed cup is not trying to go back to how it was, it will be forever transformed, becoming more beautiful in the process.
Since you are changing it anyway, you can think outside of the fractured box. You can draw little designs in gold or different colours, carve patterns in the putty before it hardens, or add stained glass shards. Remembering my first lesson to start small, I touched the sakura blossoms’ centre with a speck of gold.
A week later, I was back at Teshigotoya Kuge, ready to take on level 2 and possibly 3 in kintsugi mastery. To tell you the truth, my lovely teachers are spoiling me, letting me progress faster than usual, instead of making me repair 100 chipped cups before I can try something new.
I’ve definitely struck gold when choosing my kintsugi class. We’re sipping coffee, eating cream puffs, listening to music, and chatting as we work. These people are not only building up my skill, they are covering this whole experience in gold.
This time, I was to put back together a cup broken in half. First, the pieces had to be glued together tight. You think you know how to glue but think again. I learned how to spread the glue well and how to knock out the excess with a silicone hammer.
Of course, I employed the techniques I had learned on the other cup – putty filling, filing and sanding, lacquer-work, and dusting with gold. With this process, it’s not just the cup becoming more beautiful, but also stronger so it doesn’t break again easily. I guess it’s true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even if you break at some point.
Finally, Yoshiko suggested I sign the piece in romaji as part of the decoration. Et voila!
The cup I was repairing is what most customers bring to Kuge Crafts – not a valuable relic, but a priceless personal piece. Just like the gold making the piece more beautiful and valuable, the fact that you’re repairing it enriches its story.
My simple cheap white cup shattered a year ago, and I’ve kept it ever since to remind me to sign up for a kintsugi class. Before breaking, it was just a cup, but now it’s a symbol of perseverance and patience, holding all my memories from Kuge Crafts.
Website: Teshigotoya Kuge homepage
(Anyone can email and book a workshop. English is OK.)
PHASE 2: Everything can be Kintsugi
Am I a kintsugi master yet? Of course, I’m not.
But am I better at kintsugi than most people who have never tried or tried it just once? Of course, I am. Scroll up and look at those photos again. Witness me!
Insatiable for more gold-mending, I started applying the kintsugi method or at least aesthetics to everything around me. Regardless if things were broken or without a scratch, anything could be kintsugi-ed. (Yes, I’m using both ‘gold-mending’ and ‘kintsugi-ed’ as words. I’m starting a thing.) I was about to be that annoyingly obsessed person that likes one thing only and infuses it into everything. Starting from myself.
I didn’t go as far as to break a nail just so I can mend it with gold, but I guess it could work. I went just for the kintsugi aesthetic. What I did was imitate a fracture and trace it with sparkly gold nail polish. (If you want to be extra you can do it with real gold leaf.)
Just remembering how the repaired cups at Kuge Crafts looked like – I made long cracks on some nails, and small chips on others like the first cup I worked on. Just dragging a curvy gold line runs the risk of looking like lightning, so make sure to widen the end of the line in a filled-in little triangle. Lightnings don’t have triangles, but if you’ve been to a kintsugi workshop, you’ll know fractures need to be anchored in a wider base.
I’m no manicure expert, so if I could do this, it’s achievable. I watched zero tutorials and did exactly zero preparation.
Of course, giddy with success, I tried some kintsugi make up next. The closest kintsugi analogy would be gilding scars, but instead, I traced the lines of my palm with gold, highlighting them.
Alas, I was a cocky Icarus flying too close to the golden sun. This was a fail. The golden eye shadow and stick refused to draw sharp lines and almost disappeared against white skin background. I guess finding the right liquid sharp gold liner would be key here. Or ditch makeup all together and use real gold leaf. In the meantime, we can all admire this photo project that applies kintsugi to people’s scars.
Eager for something more permanent than makeup and manicure, I started painting a kintsugi inspired painting with the help of artist Simon Kalajdjiev. Usually, paintings take a long time, but he primed and painted the canvas black for me in advance.
We contemplated slashing the canvas with a knife to have something to fix, but somehow it felt wrong. You don’t smash cups and plates just so you can repair them. You deal with the fractures as they happen, as life happens.
Just like kintsugi, we did paint in layers – first a silvery pink, topped with gold. The end of the painted fractures widening to anchor themselves in the edges of the canvas. It’s an open process and we might add real gold leaf later on, and repair the painting if it scratches or breaks.
Mending ripped clothes is usually done as inconspicuously as possible. To apply the kintsugi method means to make big golden stitches. Not having anything ripped to sew together and deciding to not destroy on purpose, I gave a new task to the needle and thread – embroidery.
After several unwanted knots, sudden needle pricks, and an incoming headache, I became the proud maker and owner of a kintsugi embroidered face mask.
Looking for something that actually needed repairing, I dug into my jewellery box. I found a chipped and faded pendant that I would have normally tried to restore and repaint completely black. But kintsugi means acknowledging all the history of a piece, so I decided to paint the scratches with golden paint.
Broken pieces can be glued and then painted with gold, or covered in gold leaf. However, in kintsugi mending, there are other options like gintsugi (silver-mending) or accentuating with red dye. You can play with colors, depending on the jewelry piece you are repairing.
Finally, I tried kintsugi on food. Yes, probably unnecessary to mend food that we need to tear apart to eat anyway, but why think so pragmatically? We want food to be pretty, especially if we’re taking photos, or serving it to guests.
If something on the plate falls apart, it’s usually thrown away or eaten later in the lonely comfort of the kitchen. But, instead of perfection, we can aim for uniqueness. So, long story short – I glued together a broken ginger biscuit with melted chocolate and perched edible gold leaf on top of the chocolate mend while it was still sticky.
Why stop at gold? You can emphasize the fracture with sprinkles, nuts, edible flowers, and so on. Forget the biscuit – you can mend anything. Omelette didn’t come out perfect? ‘Plant’ some herbs in the cracks. Whatever broke or fell apart, just find the right sauce and toppings to connect the pieces.
Phase 3: Kintsugi Forever
Whatever TSC challenges me to, it becomes part of my life. Now I cannot look at a chipped cup or plate without imagining it with kintsugi on it. My whole attitude towards broken things has changed. Instead of dreading something will break, I’m excited to repair it with gold if it does break.
I’m excited to go back and learn more from the masters, as well as buying a home kintsugi repair set from Tokyu Hands or online (Japanese only).
So, 2020 is a bit broken, won’t you agree? Maybe we can’t fix it just yet, but we can start fixing whatever we can around us and proudly show the mend.