The history and craft of Sendai tansu are as old as the city of Sendai itself. Both eye-catching and practical, the lustrous wood and intricate metal fittings of these traditional chests radiate with a deep brilliance that draws one in, creating a lasting impression of strength and timeless beauty. Sendai tansu are said to have been first created by a master carpenter as furniture for the castle of feudal lord Masamune Date, the founder of Sendai City.
The Sendai tansu was designated a Traditional Craft of Japan in 2015. While the roots of Sendai tansu can be traced back to the early 1600s, it wasn’t until after the Meiji era in the early 1900s when the chests gained widespread popularity. Originally, Sendai tansu were 120 centimeters wide and 90 centimeters tall, meaning the chests were spacious enough for samurai to store their swords. Their sumptuous design also made the chests a favorite in which to keep precious ceremonial clothing. With the opening of Japan’s borders following the Meiji Restoration, Sendai tansu became even more popular. Open trade and print media may have introduced Western furniture, but it also helped to spread the appeal of Sendai tansu throughout all of Japan and even as far away as Europe.
While the signature style and crafting methods of each Sendai tansu artisan vary in some respects, true Sendai tansu share some key characteristics. First of all, Sendai tansu are made of two types of wood. The interior is usually made of cedar, a wood often used to make ships due to its resistance against rot. The exterior is aesthetically pleasing chestnut or keyaki, a species of Zelkova. Keyaki is also the official tree of Sendai City, the trees you see lining the iconic Jozenji-dori Avenue. The keyaki timber is not only carefully selected, but also dried for years, if not decades, before the rest of the production process even begins.
Precise joinery of the two woods is a necessity, as these chests are constructed without using nails but still must be able to keep out pests and moisture. After the woodworking steps come the equally labor-intensive lacquering and metalwork processes. Using domestically-produced lacquer made from the sap of urushi trees, the wood is finished with a technique called kijiro-nuri, in which lacquering and polishing is done repeatedly thirty times over in layers. This can take months, as each coat must fully dry before the next can be applied. With hammers, anvils, and chisels, artisans give birth to decorative bas-relief fittings of iron. Flowers, family crests, and fierce lions or dragons are common motifs.
As you may expect, each step of making a Sendai tansu involves an advanced skill that takes years to master. In fact, the labor and skills needed to produce even a single Sendai tansu almost always require a team of master craftsmen working together, each member specializing in a specific process. It is said that from start to finish, the hands of a Sendai tansu build team touch around 1,300 different tools!
Ironically, the high value and durability of Sendai tansu is one factor endangering the survival of this craft. So well-built are these chests, that they are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. With Sendai tansu owners rarely needing to purchase a replacement even once a lifetime, Sendai tansu craftsmen are hard-pressed to find enough first-time buyers to sustain their livelihood.
In an effort to earn additional revenue and preserve elements of their craft, Sendai tansu makers are getting creative. Besides the large traditional-size chests, new medium and small versions allow consumers to save in terms of cost and space. Some of these, roughly the size of two or three shoeboxes stacked together, are small enough to pack in a large suitcase to bring back home overseas. Meanwhile, some members of the Sendai Tansu Cooperative are appealing to modern trends with chests painted in playful pastels. The Monmaya atelier, on the other hand, keeps things strictly traditional with their Sendai tansu, while also partnering with influential Japanese designers to create modern furniture lines incorporating traditional Sendai tansu techniques.
See, shop for, and experience Sendai tansu
Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll likely spot Sendai tansu gracing traditional shops, ryokan, and restaurants during your trip around Miyagi. For those more seriously interested in Sendai tansu, here are a few recommendations:
Monmaya (Monma Tansuten Co. Ltd.) has been manufacturing Sendai tansu in the same location since 1872. The founder was an officially-appointed craftsman of the Date clan. With an advance reservation, you can visit their showroom located in the old family residence. There, you’ll find Sendai tansu for sale and also a corner with a video and graphic panels (mostly in Japanese) about the history of Sendai tansu and the company.
Yunome Co. Ltd. (ユノメ家具百貨店) started off as a merchant in the Meiji era, until eventually coming to specialize in custom furniture they build in-house, including Sendai tansu. Their flagship store houses the small Sendai Tansu Museum of History and Crafts (仙臺箪笥歴史工芸館) on the fourth floor, featuring displays courtesy of the Sendai Tansu Cooperative.
Sendai Tansu Kumanodo (仙台箪笥熊野洞) is one of several charming workshops making up the Akiu Traditional Craft Village. In addition to gorgeous Sendai tansu and crafts for sale, you can try your hand at carving and lacquering chopsticks here.
Lastly, for a fun only-in-Sendai experience, head to the former samurai-family villa turned restaurant Shokeikaku for a feast of Miyagi flavors eaten straight out of diminutive, simplified versions of Sendai tansu!