KYOTO - They look like jewels with perfectly smooth curves and shining bodies, reflecting light from the ceiling.
On display at the Kaikado shop in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, are handmade chazutsu tea canisters made of tin, cooper and brass. Their caps slide smoothly down, leaving no gap-the beauty of a perfection achieved through a production process with as many as 130 steps.
Recently, Takahiro Yagi, the sixth-generation owner of the shop, which dates back to 1875, had a visitor from France. The 39-year-old owner explained about his caddies in English, saying the products will gradually change colour and develop a deeper texture as customers use them over time.
The French woman admired the Kaikado products, saying that while they look like jewels, they are very functional.
Currently, overseas sales account for 20 per cent of Kaikado's earnings. Its products can be found at tea shops in London, Paris and Los Angeles. Hollywood stars and executives of world-class fashion brands often buy Kaikado's products in bulk, and customers have to wait three to four months to get items priced at about 10,000 yen (S$122) to 15,000 yen.
In an attempt to promote Kyoto craftsmanship worldwide, Yagi established a group in 2012 named "GO ON," which consists of six men in their 30s and 40s-including himself-who have inherited local traditional craft businesses making items such as Nishijin brocade and ceramics.
As a next step, Yagi now is working on a project to organise a three-day tour that targets wealthy customers from overseas. Priced at ¥1.2 million per person, the tour offers participants access to the members' workshops.
"We aim to increase the number of patrons who will appreciate our craftsmanship by allowing it to be seen first-hand," Yagi said.
Yagi and his fellow craftsmen have good reason to turn their gaze overseas.
For many years, Yagi's father, Seiji, now 66, told him: "Selling tea canisters is not profitable any more. You shouldn't take over the business."
After the burst of the asset-inflated, bubble economy, Kaikado's sales plummeted one-third as it lost major clients and as sales of green tea for gift purposes became sluggish.
After graduating from university, Yagi joined a local company that sells souvenirs to foreign tourists. He decided to take over his family business when he discovered the potential for promoting Kaikado's products overseas.
While working at the souvenir company, Yagi found an American tourist buying a Kaikado canister that happened to be on the shelf. The tourist said the product was good for use at home as it was airtight.