The third largest city in the Shimane prefecture, Hamada, sits in a perfect place. Tucked in between the Sea of Japan on one side, and forest mountains on the other, the scenery can’t really get much more idyllic than that. I’m not here for the scenery, though. In fact as I am arriving, my car turns away from the seashore into a residential neighborhood where most buildings pretty much look the same. On the outside maybe, but on the inside there is one house that is special: the Kakita family Iwami Kagura mask workshop.
Mister Kenji Kakita welcomes me, as I arrive. Just like it happens on most traditional Japanese craft workshops, first I meet the son who is an artisan following in the family tradition and shows visitors around, and later on I get to meet the father and master artisan.
The mask of a princess, white with small clay stains on it, greets us when we enter the workshop. Clay is, in fact the first material used in the process of creation of an Iwami Kagura mask. Historically these masks were made of wood, but this material proved to too cumbersome for the actors who needed something lighter for the fast-paced dances they perform on stage.
So the artisans came up with an ingenious solution for the problem: they started to make masks out of paper. The Iwami region, historically also known as Sekishu, is famous for its light, but very strong washi paper, which made it the raw material of choice for the masks. But to shape the paper into the form of a demon or a hero, the artisans needed a mold, and that’s where clay comes in.
Kenji Kakita takes me through the process of shaping a mold for one of the masks out of clay. He meticulously carves each detail of each mask with small utensils, making a smile or a frown more or less pronounced. After the clay molds are heated and hardened the next step begins: several layers of Sekishu washi paper are glued to the inside of the mold using a special adhesive made with persimmon tannin. It has insect-repelling, and waterproof properties, which makes it ideal for this process.
After all the layers have been applied, the mold is then smashed with a small hammer leaving the paper mask with its shape. Now begins the third step of the process: making the holes for eyes, nose, and for the spots where hairs will be applied. This cannot be done with a drill because it would get entangled in the paper layers, so the artisans had to come up with another brilliant idea. They use heated pokers of different diameters to burn the holes through the paper.
After this step is finished the mask is then polished into a smooth surface to make it ready for the last step of the process. It is now that I have the pleasure of meeting the master artisan, Mr. Katsuro Kakita, Kenji’s father. He brings the final touches to the mask, which go from applying hair and other decorative materials like gold-leaf and charcoal, to painting in the subtle nuances of each character.
An Iwami Kagura mask can take around one month to finish, but the Kakita family does not feel that any mask they make is complete at this stage. “That only happens when the mask is worn by the Kagura actors as they perform on stage. That’s when the mask comes to life and our work really feels complete”.