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Nanbu Tekki - Japanese Cast Iron for Eternity

Nanbu Tekki - Japanese Cast Iron for Eternity

What are the most durable traditional Japanese pans, pots, and teapots made of? Correct: Japanese cast iron. Nanbu Tekki means “ironware from Nanbu” and represents handmade, sustainable art. The Japanese cast iron from Iwate Prefecture is unique and world-renowned. But what makes it so special?

Handmade for centuries - cast iron Iwate

The city of Morioka has been the administrative center of Iwate Prefecture since 1633 and was called Nanbu – or, depending on the spelling, Nambu – during the Edo period (1603-1868). The ruins of the castle commemorate the rule of the Nanbu clan in Morioka at that time. In the 17th century, craftsmen from Kyoto were invited to Nanbu, where they first produced the famous black ironware. Originally, they crafted kettles, temple bells, and weapons. Later, they reduced the size of the kettles, added handles and spouts, and the first Nanbu Tetsubin was born. Even today, Japanese cast iron is primarily associated with teaware.

Why Iwate? The prefecture offers a rich supply of raw materials: iron ore, coal, and clay. Nambu Ironware is also produced in Mizusawa, today part of the city of Ōshū. There, the history of iron manufacturing for Buddhist ceremonies and armor began as early as the 12th century. However, it was only in 1960 that the ironware was called Nanbu Tekki, and since 1975, this type of cast iron production has been officially recognized as a traditional craft of Japan. Production is still done by hand and within family businesses. The most famous Japanese cast iron forges in Morioka are called Iwachu, founded in 1902, and OIGEN, founded in 1852.

Manufacture of cast iron in Japanese factory

Japanese cast iron from Iwate - Iwachu manufactory

Japanese cast iron - not just for the kitchen

The Nanbu Tekki Tetsubin (water kettles) (Tetsubin) are the most traditional water purifiers available. Those who boil their tea water in high-quality Tetsubin get softer, mineral-rich, iron-enriched tea water with less chlorine – the ideal foundation for the ultimate tea experience.
When boiling water in traditional Tetsubin, one should not be in a great hurry. Heat the water at a maximum of half power and let it simmer for about 2-3 minutes after it starts boiling. This allows the water to optimally enrich and become nice and soft. The Tetsubin is dried by evaporating the moisture with the lid open and the kettle still hot. To avoid damage, ice-cold water should not be poured into the hot Tetsubin.

Apart from Tetsubin, Japanese rice pots and cast iron grill pans are particularly popular. With the addition of a little oil, hardly anything sticks to the pan, and the dishes gain valuable iron and a wonderful aroma.

Today, in Iwate, not only tableware is produced but also ashtrays, bottle openers, wind chimes, vases, and decorative figures. The well-known bronze-colored bell wind chime made of Japanese cast iron is called Nanbu Fūrin. Traditional landscapes and natural elements serve as motifs. It is especially popular in summer as decoration for gardens and homes in Japan, and its sound is said to be soothing and even healing.

In collaboration with designers in the neighboring Aomori Prefecture, Okiagari-Koboshi are also produced: traditional cylindrical roly-poly dolls that are considered good luck charms for a long life, as they always right themselves up again.

The production of Nambu Cast Iron requires over 60 steps and the collaboration of three craftsmen. Because this art is so complex, it takes 15 years to fully master it. Only after an additional 40 years can one be called a master craftsman.

The long road to the Nanbu-Tekki artwork

Take, for example, the production of a cast iron kettle by Iwachu: Molten iron is poured into a clay mold that is handcrafted. For the Tetsubin Arare, the world's most famous design, small indentations are made using a rod to create the characteristic pattern. The firing of this mold alone requires years of experience and is emblematic of Japanese cast iron art. The correct temperature and texture of the liquid iron are also crucial. For the absolute masterpieces, which are hardly obtainable, sand casting is used. This alternative method involves placing moist sand into a roughly defined shape, which then serves as the mold for the iron.

Manufacture cast iron teapot

Production of a cast iron teapot - the indentations for the pattern are manually pressed in.

After the iron has cooled and been removed from the mold, it is hammered and polished using special tools to create intricate, artistic patterns. Next, a rust protection is applied to the masterpiece: the iron product is heated in a special oven to 900 degrees, which is sealed airtight. A higher concentration of nitrogen is then created in the oven, preventing the iron from oxidizing. At least not until a high temperature is reached – at that point, a very small amount of oxygen is added, forming an oxide layer and thus a reliable protection against red rust. This “black rust” is responsible for the characteristic color of traditional Nanbu Tekki products.

The black layer is only 10 micrometers thick, compared to the conventional 100 micrometers. This provides the best protection against rust: during temperature-induced expansion of the iron, this Nanbu Tekki oxide layer is much more resistant, as it easily adapts to this expansion and does not break.

A unique piece with its own history

The penultimate step in the Nanbu Tekki production is coloring, which gives the ironware its special touch. For this, the kettle is heated to 250 degrees and lacquer is applied with a brush. Only natural mixtures, such as vinegar and green tea, are used to give the Japanese cast iron its color. Finally, a specially trained smith crafts the handle, of which there are two types: the hollow, non-heat-conducting Fukurozuru and the artistic Mukuzuru.

Another special feature of Nanbu Tekki cast iron is its thin walls. The desired shape is achieved using two molds. By leaving as little space as possible between the inner mold, Nakago, and the outer mold, very thin Japanese cast iron is obtained.

Nanbu Tekki follows the Japanese Wabi-Sabi principle, which values the aesthetics of simplicity and sustainability. With dedication and centuries-perfected craftsmanship, a high-quality piece of Japanese philosophy is created. Thus, the subtly yet artfully designed Nanbu ironware fits into any kitchen and lasts a lifetime.

Tetsubin kettle view in the store »
Cast iron pans view in the store »
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