A Woodcarver Striving to Leave His Mark

Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter
7 min readFeb 27, 2020

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Hi, and welcome back after a short end-of-year hiatus! There’s plenty of you who have joined since the last issue, so I thought it was proper for me to do the honours. I’m Gianfranco Chicco, and in The Craftsman Newsletter I pay homage to those making things with their mind and body working together, in close connection to nature, and in service of the communities they belong to.

I was planning to dedicate this issue to pottery, but then I met master woodcarver Kitazawa Hideta a couple of weeks ago, and felt compelled to tell his story. As usual, please send me your thoughts and recommendations by replying to this email or on twitter @gchicco. If you don’t want to receive these monthly-ish emails, you can always simply unsubscribe.

Let’s do this!


Master woodcarver Kitazawa Hideta (Photo: Gianfranco Chicco)

A Woodcarver Striving to Leave His Mark

At first glance, Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines would seem very distant in nature from Noh theatre masks. But look closer and you’ll find that they share the same heart, Hinoki wood (Japanese cypress), and hand, that of master woodcarver Kitazawa Hideta.

Kitazawa first apprenticed with his father, making temples, and o-mikoshi, the portable Shinto shrines seen at Japanese festivals. He later took an interest in Noh mask carving, and today divides his time between both.

Despite having lived in Japan, and my general interest in all things Japanese, I’ve never been to a Noh performance, it felt too distant and inaccessible. That changed after I heard Kitazawa-sensei unpack the different layers of this thespian art, once greatly admired by the samurai, who practiced it when they were not fighting each other.

Before talking about mask-making, Kitazawa — a Noh dilettante himself — explained what Noh is, and how, in the lack of a conductor, the cries and shouts between musicians serve to coordinate the action on stage. Noh is different from classic Western theatre in that it doesn’t try to enact an accurate situation, but to transmit its essence by painting an evocative scene with sounds, colours, lyrics, and dance.

The masks are usually worn just by the main character, and have their own symbolism. Colour represents the origin of the person, darker for a peasant and paler for aristocrats, or white for good and red for evil. Masks offer more flexibility than you might think. Talented actors will tilt them forwards and backwards to cast shadows that change their expression from scary to sorrowful to happy. There’s several classic designs like Hannya (below, left), a demonic woman once betrayed and now tormented by a mix of ire and regret. Or the mosquito (below, right), which is too small for an adult to wear, and is played by their young sons. Noh is, in general, a family business.

(Photos: Gianfranco Chicco)

Kitazawa the craftsman — or shokunin — wanted us to feel his work, not just grasp it intellectually. Sitting cross-legged in an improvised working station surrounded by his tools — a big saw, chisels, hammers — he started chipping away the superfluous from a rough block of solid wood. With wood fragments flying everywhere, and drops of sweat gathering in his forehead, Kitazawa explained each step as the front of a face began to appear.

The Noh mask maker is a craftsman-artisan rather than craftsman-artist. Their work relies on commissions, not on novel creations. Clients ask them to replicate family treasures, create contemporary masks, or do repairs. The latter play a fundamental role in the training of a shokunin, as through them they discover the secrets of long gone masters. Kitazawa compared it to having a conversation beyond the natural constraints of space and time.

For each of the last 27 years, Kitazawa has been making between 15 to 20 masks. It takes about one week to carve, and another week to paint a single Noh mask. Although you’ll find power-tools and a 3D printer in his workshop, he still favours traditional utensils made for him by other shokunin. He believes that making by hand carries the craftsman’s spirit, and hopes that people can tell the difference. A mask is like a mirror, he says, and to create a good mask you have to keep a good mind.

However skilled they might be, the work of a master craftsman like Kitazawa Hideta are at risk of disappearing. It’s not just the dwindling demand for traditional objects. Those who gather raw materials, or make the tools for other shokunin are dying and no-one is taking their place. The master that made Kitazawa’s hammers has passed away, and there’s currently only one blacksmith left in Tokyo that can make the chisels he needs.

(Photo: Gianfranco Chicco)

When I ask Kitazawa about his apprentices, his sunny disposition turns gloomy as he mutters “muzukashii”, it’s difficult. His son is interested in studying Japanese literature, not woodworking, and at the moment he has no professional apprentices, only amateurs. To a shokunin, passing on the knowledge is as important, if not more, than achieving personal success.

Now that I could discern the broader meanings in Noh, I was hooked. I booked the last seat at a special show featuring Kitazawa’s masks the next day. I went back home to familiarise myself with the script of the famous on YouTube, and that of Between the stones, a new English play in the classical Japanese style. After attending my first performance, you can count me in as a Noh enthusiast.

Talk and demonstration with master Kitazawa Hideta held at Japan House London. All photos by Gianfranco Chicco. For more photos of Master Kitazawa and his work visit @TheCraftsmanNewsletter

(Photo: Gianfranco Chicco)

Book: Makers Bible — Human Space

This hefty and well printed book contains a selection of 101 interior design and furniture brands and makers, mainly from Europe, creating objects that allow us to feel more, focusing on quality without compromise. It “provides alternative furniture and environmental concepts to mass-produced and fast-consumed products”.

Throughout the book you’ll see the repeated use of the words craftsman and craftsmanship, and I must say that it’s justified. The featured goods are at least partially, if not completely, handmade.

This directory is perfect for inspiring the creation of your own human spaces, or maybe just daydreaming about them. It’s like having a printed version of the best of Instagram dedicated to interior design, where photography plays the leading role, and is accompanied by a series of essays and interviews with the makers behind each design.

As Oona Horx-Strathern, one of the featured guests says, there’s a “great opportunity for craft to create and aesthetic countertrend to our digital lives and become part of a larger movement towards more mindful living.”

The Makers Bible is accompanied by a website, newsletter, and you can find them on Instagram at @makersbible. Buy your copy of Makers Bible — Human Space here.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of the book from Michael Schmidt, Editor and Project Manager of Makers Bible.





  • Collect, London (UK) 27 February — 1 March, 2020. Organised by the UK’s Crafts Council, the The International Art Fair for Modern Craft and Design starts today at Somerset House. Its focus is more on the artist-craftsman spectrum of craft.
  • London Craft Week, London (UK) 27 April — 3 May, 2020. They haven’t announced the programme yet, but it’s worth penciling in the dates in your diary. There’s always a good mix of workshops, presentations, and a chance to meet up and coming and famous makers.
  • Homo Faber: Crafting a more human future, Venice (Italy) 10 September — 11 October, 2020. After an excellent first edition in 2018, Homo Faber comes back to Venice, this time focusing on living treasures of Japan and Europe. It will feature exhibitions, talks, and demonstrations. This is one I don’t want to miss!

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Originally published at https://www.gchicco.com on February 27, 2020.



Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter

Curator of The Craftsman Newsletter. Conference director for hire, digital-physical experiences, marketing & storytelling. Japanophile. ✌