98% of the gold leaf produced in Japan comes from Kanazawa; in fact the Golden Pavilion (in the header image) in Kyoto is decorated with Kanazawa gold leaf. The humid weather here is supposed to be suitable for production, and it has a long historical association with it. It dates back to at least the 16th century when it was commissioned by Toshiie Maeda, first lord of the Kaga clan. In the 18th century gold leaf production was monopolized by the shogunate, but when part of Kanazawa castle was burned down in 1808, the Kaga clan illicitly employed craftsmen to produce gold leaf for the decoration of the the new building. After persistent appeals to the shogunate, license was given to the Kaga clan.
Gold the size of a 10 yen coin (about the size of a 50 cent coin) is beaten down to the size of a tatami mat (roughly 180x90cm) which is 0.0001mm in thickness. It’s so thin that it is translucent and if you were to rub it between your hands it would disappear.* This must make it very cheap as it’s easy to buy inexpensive crafts decorated with gold leaf and they love putting it in sake and on food. I’ve seen it on crackers.
And face masks.
But mainly it’s used to decorate everyday objects like chopsticks or plates (that then might become decorative rather than functional) and for Buddhist altars and folding screens etc.
The Ishikawa JET Association organised a trip to a gold leaf workshop where we could decorate a box. We could choose between a few different styles of lacquer box (I chose square) and to make the design we used stencil stickers of things like rabbits, dolphins, leaves, blossoms and so on, and we covered the design with a light layer of glue which we then wiped off, as only the tiniest amount is needed for the gold leaf to stick.
After that came the tricky part where we had to transfer the gold leaf onto the design. We were each given a large rectangle of foil sandwiched between two sheets of tracing paper. We cut smaller rectangles as required by our design and cut them using a ruler and a Stanley knife. The gold leaf tears at the slightest friction so most of our pieces were ragged around the edges. With bamboo tweezers we had to gently remove the tracing paper from the leaf, hold the leaf along one side with the tweezers, and transfer it to the gluey section of the design. Breaths were held to prevent any vibrations in the air rumple the gold leaf which fluttered precariously in the tweezers.
Inevitably the gold leaf ripped when we placed it on our designs, but luckily we had teachers there to help patch it up. I remembered being in primary school where the teacher would have to help you with the scissors because cutting in a curve was very difficult.
When the design was covered in the leaf, we used a soft cloth ball to smooth out the creases and burnish the gold. We then carefully removed the sticker stencil and decorated the box artistically with glitter. Finally, the ladies in charge took them away to seal the design.
Mine was a traditional design of tsukimi or moon-viewing which is celebrated at the time of the harvest moon. Images related to moon-viewing are autumn leaves, pampas grass and hares, because according to Japanese folklore you can see the shadow of a hare in the dark patches of the moon. Here’s a version of the story with cute illustrations http://www.japanippon.com/fairytales/rabbitinthemoon.htm
It was nice to get a chance to handle gold leaf (albeit not very expertly) and see it being used in this way. I had always associated it with medieval religious icons; in my first year in History of Art, we had a seminar with an art restorer who showed us the tools used to make these icons. The background of the image would be decorated with gold leaf and burnished with a polished stone implement which would create a mysterious atmosphere in a church by reflecting candlelight.