The ita (tray) was made without filing or coating, so that the hand-carved wood felt pleasant to the touch.
These tools from olden days have a distinct complexion that comes from exposure to firewood smoke and years of use.
A man carving its with makiri(small knife) is depicted with a mother and two children. A work of Sekkei Sawada in the Meiji period.
Ita was made from the wood of walnut, katsura, or Japanese pagoda tree of the Nibutani and other areas of Hokkaido. A dried wooden board was carved out to make a tray-shape, and various patterns were engraved on the surface of the tray. It was characteristic of Nibutani that traditional Ainu motifs were used as patterns for ita.
It is said that in the old days, the Ainu carved ita using a single knife called makiri. The beautiful engravings on the makiri itself convey how the Ainu cherished each “tool for making tools” by decorating it with patterns.
Contemporary master wood-carvers also have decorative carvings on their chisel handles. The makiri was an important tool that an Ainu man or woman would always carry about. When an Ainu man proposed to a woman, he carved a makiri with all his heart and best of his skills, and gave it to her as a marriage gift.
A characteristic of Nibutani Ita is the intricate scale pattern that is carved to fill the spaces between the larger motifs. There is a certain rule to which way the scales are facing, and the lines need to be carved only a few millimeters apart to create a beautiful pattern, which is a skill that requires expertise.
Carving the Surface of the Tray
Leaving the rims, flatten the roughly carved surface of the tray, using a flat chisel (reukemakiri or leather knife). Using a round chisel that fits the depth of the tray, smooth out the inner sides. Round off the edges with a flat chisel so that it does not feel sharp when touched.
Carving Scale Patterns
Using a v-chisel, carve straight crisscross lines for the scales. To make small diamond shapes, carve parallel diagonal lines a few millimeters apart, then turn the tray 90 degrees to carve the cross lines. Carve each diamond using the back side of the v-chisel to make the scale pattern.
The Ainu handled their tools with great care and affection, personalizing each tool by carving patterns on the handle. The wood-carvers today also have patterns engraved on their tool handles.
These tools are used to carve the edges of the inner surface of the tray. There are chisels of various sizes with various curves to work trays of different thickness and depth.
With thanks to Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum and Toru Kaizawa.
Supervising Editor: Hideki Yoshihara (Ainu Culture Conservation Center, Biratori-cho)
Text by Chisato Kaise
Edited by Masato Sakai (Sakai Editing and Planning)
English translation by Kei Kamoshida
English web page supervised by Kei Kamoshida
Project Director: Shinya Maesaki, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University