On the banks of Japans longest River; the Shinano, are the cities Tsubame and Sanjo. Located in central Niigata; about 2hrs Bullet Train ride from Tokyo, lies this region specialising in tool and metal object production.  

The greater Tsubame-Sanjo history stands inextricably linked with its geographical and geological placement.  From the flooding of the Shinano River in early Edo period, resulting in a need for secondary incomes for the farmers of Sanjo and subsequent move towards nailsmithing, to the close proximity of Mt. Yahiko and its copper mines presenting artisans of Tsubame a logical move into copperware production when those skills came to the region from elsewhere in Japan.

From nailsmithing, blacksmithing formed a foundation in the area which then lead to manufacturing farm implements and later kitchen knives, carpentry tools and other types of bladesmithing. In early C20th the prolific manufacture of western style tableware in the region marked Tsubame-Sanjo out as one of the countries foremost metalworking regions.

‘KOUBA’ The Factory Festival is a fascinating model for generating interest into skilled trades in decline following industrial takeover and a shortage of labour that we are also facing in the UK. Established in 2013, the festival has created great interest and increased understanding into the processes and skills involved in the production of these items which has lead to new markets.

I first heard about the Factory Festival by visiting Biology of Metal exhibition at Japan House in London. One of the areas that interested me with a view to its relevance in the UK are the ideas around regional specialism that the Factory Festival draws from.  This is intrinsic to the nature of Japan and so is seemingly a natural feature. But from an outside point of view there is a lot to learn here. 

Japans regions each have unique natural characteristics; being a long island chain of approx. 146sq Miles north to south temperature ranges from sub arctic in the north to sub tropical in the south which brings a variety in terms of agriculture, flora and fauna.  The extension of this are that jobs, housing and industry are all influenced from these unique factors; availability of materials, local skills borne from related industries or building styles to anticipate dramatic weather patterns.

In my experience the unique qualities of each location in Japan are celebrated, they act as a draw for tourism from overseas but also nationally.  Train stations are filled with delicious regional delicacies for travellers to take to their onward destination, manhole covers bear the marks of a regional point of interest.

From an outsiders point of view, a nation who have a strong appreciation of seasonality, thinking in regards to location seems natural. KOUBA – The Factory Festival in Tsubame-Sanjo is a fantastic example of what happens when a location collectively markets and organises around its unique characteristics.

The Factory Festival gives both national and international visitors a rare opportunity to visit factories and artisans, to see inside their workshops and to witness things being made or even to try themselves.  Such experiences drives some sales and, maybe more importantly, raises awareness of the skill and dedication necessary in making these goods.  Over the course of the long-weekend I travelled around over 20 workshops where I witnessed all kinds of tools being made. From knives, chisels and hammer heads to saws, hoes, and axes. All staff were wearing colour codes t-shirts and had the branded pink tape giving their map reference number.