Several years ago I began cycling regularly throughout east Tokyo, mapping neighbourhood outposts for what would become a guide to the city on two wheels. Cycling connects you to the rhythms of the city and I became drawn to the way that manufacturing, from workshops to small-scale factories, was part of daily life. The local machi-kouba (town workshops) would often have their roller doors open to the street, revealing stacks of timber being cut, casts being poured and lathes whirring at high speed. Although their numbers may have dwindled in recent times, these places for making remain etched into the city’s east side.
It’s a sweltering August morning as I cross the Sumida River en route to a quiet enclave near Higashi-Mukojima. The slender streets were once home to a cluster of machi-kouba but now only a handful remain, scattered among apartments and prefab homes. I’m here to meet Yoichi Negishi, the third-generation owner of Negishi Industry, the only manufacturer in Japan that specialises in watering cans for bonsai. As I arrive at the workshop, Negishi steps away from a large metal press, where he has been preparing a batch of handles, and leads me into the depths of his workshop. Laden with heavy machinery and boxes of stock, the well-worn floorboards creak with each and every step.
Developed in the 1960s with the assistance of bonsai masters, the signature copper can is a picture of functional elegance. There are no embellishments; every part plays a role in delivering water as a gentle, rain-like shower, ensuring the soil isn’t eroded and delicate branches and moss remain intact. It’s a tool that’s made with great attention to detail; an embodiment of the care and diligence that resonates through the practice of bonsai.
At a workstation in the centre of the space, Negishi kneels on a stack of cushions and begins the process of soldering a new can, one joint at a time. His movements are calm and almost meditative, etched into his memory through decades of repetition that date back to his early teens. Now in his mid-40s, he is the company’s sole craftsman and has inherited the traditions and techniques of his father, and his father before him.
Once the soldering process is complete, each watering can is polished and prepared for delivery, yet they leave the workshop bearing no logo or maker’s mark. “The can is incomplete,” explains Negishi, who believes that the only marks on the can should be those of its owner. “It will only get better with time, so I believe that it will never be complete.” Removing a battered, heavily oxidised can from the 1980s that has arrived for repair, he adds, “The fact that our cans are used for decades and passed down through generations, and that people are willing to wait years for orders and repairs, means that they’re truly valued.”
Despite the loyal following the watering cans have attracted among bonsai experts and amateur gardeners alike, Negishi has committed to releasing an updated version every April. Outside of the workshop, he is constantly in search of new insights, whether it be delving into the history of watering, making repairs or speaking with customers — even his daily runs are spent exploring ways to improve his designs. While the resulting changes are often subtle, barely visible to the untrained eye, the updated design must pass a final inspection by bonsai masters and flower experts, long-time users familiar with the rigours of daily use.
As I listen to the stories behind Negishi’s craft, an old-fashioned, back-to-basics approach emerges as key to the manufacturer’s longevity. Doing one thing well means channeling his focus into high quality products designed for repair, while building deep connections with his customers.
As our conversation comes to a close, Negishi takes my empty coffee can and begins turning it into a miniature watering can. The copper spout and handle are soldered with the same calm precision I witnessed earlier — even the joints are polished to a shine. It’s a small gesture, yet in turning an otherwise generic item into a keepsake, he shows how true craftsmanship extends to the finest of details.
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No trip to Ginza would be complete without a visit to the Hermès building. Regardless of the hour, I’ve made a habit of taking a detour past the Renzo Piano-designed tower with the simple aim of inspecting the main window display. Artists and designers provide the space with a regular makeover, with one of the most memorable presentations being the play-inspired work of Shigeki Fujishiro.
Journey to the forest
Japanese craftsmanship is synonymous with rich traditions, attention to detail and a dedication to technical excellence. As I have spent more time watching craftsmen at work in recent years, I’ve become drawn to the philosophy that underpins their craft. In their eyes, the act of making is more than just a profession, it is a way of life.
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