See it, use it or eat it. The fascinating world of gold leaf

Gold leaf, colorfully decorating the beauty of Japan

Gold leaf

Gold has long since captured the hearts and mind of people all over the world and symbolizes eternity and prosperity. Gold leaf is made by mixing a small amount of silver and copper with pure gold to make it into an alloy, then putting it in between two pieces of paper and hammering it with a special machine to make it into an extremely thin sheet. This sheet is used for decoration by pasting it onto the surface of a building or an art work.

Amida Nyorai Zazo (seated statue of Amida Nyorai)
National treasure “Amida Nyorai Zazo” in Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) of Byodoin Temple (Kyoto) (created in 11th century)
Fujin Raijin-zu Byobu (the folding screen of the Wind God and Thunder God)
“Fujin Raijin-zu Byobu” replica by Tawaraya Sotatsu (created in 17th century, owned by Kenninji Temple)

It is unclear when gold leaf was first made in Japan, but its technique is said to have originated in China and introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism. Gold leaf was valued because only a small amount of pure gold was needed to decorate a large area, and it has been used in shrines and temples as well as on sculptures and statues of Buddha. It has subsequently been used for craft incuding furniture, equipment, lacquerware and pictures.

Furthermore, as gold leaf was believed to contribute to perpetual youth and longevity in China, it has also been used to decorate plated food in Japan. It is usually used by tearing a gold sheet into small thin pieces. There is an edible gold leaf that is put into sake or used to decorate sweets, as well as a gold leaf that is used for bath powder and cosmetics. The culture of gold leaf has been passed down many generations.

Touch and feel the beauty of gold!

Let’s take a look at some beautiful ‘gold leaf’ structures to better understand the interconnectedness of gold and Japan.

Chuson-ji Temple “Konjiki-do”

Konjiki-do (Golden Hall)

The Golden Hall of Chuson-ji Temple in Hiraizumi Town, Iwate Prefecture has gold leaf pasted on all the interior and exterior surfaces of the walls, floors, ceilings and doors, as well as under the eaves and on the porch. This expresses Gokuraku Jodo, meaning the world of comfort where Buddha is said to reside. All of the Buddha statues in the hall are sparkling with gold, creating a magnificent atmosphere.

Reconstruction of “Golden Tea Room” (MOA Museum of Art)

Golden Tea Room

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a military commander in the 16th century, loved gold and frequently used gold leaf for interior decoration, roofing tiles and furniture to symbolise his power. The “Golden Tea Room”, a gorgeous room commissioned by Hideyoshi, has gold on the walls, ceiling, pillars and the edge of shoji screens and uses red silk fabric instead of shoji paper for the screen. You can see the tea room reconstructed in actual size at “MOA Museum of Art” in Atami City in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Most gold leaves in Japan are made in Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture. At the beginning of the 19th century, a large amount of gold leaves were needed to restore the palace of Kanazawa Castle after it had burnt down. Kanazawa’s gold leaf production thrived because of this, which has continued to this day. If you want to know about gold leaf in more detail, you should consider visiting Kanazawa. You can reach it in about 2 and a half hours from Tokyo by Hokuriku Shinkansen.

Rakuchu Rakugai-zu Byobu (a painting depicting scenes in and around Kyoto)
Rakuchu Rakugai-zu Byobu, said to have been created by Iwasa Katsushige (created around 17th century, owned by Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum)

Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum has an exhibition of arts and crafts that use gold leaf or gold as well as tools that were used to produce gold leaf.

Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum

Address: 1-3-10 Higashiyama, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture

Directions: Take Hokuriku Tetsudo Bus, JR bus from JR Kanazawa Station to “Hashiba-cho” bus stop. Walk for 3 min.

Phone: 076-251-8950

Open: 9:30 am – 5:00 pm (last admission 4:30 pm), closed during end-of-year and new-year holidays

Gold leaf pasting
“Hakuhari Taiken” (Gold leaf pasting workshop)

Some shops offer a gold leaf pasting workshop, where you can make your original craftwork by pasting gold leaf. You make your own design first, then put a tape on places where you don’t want to paste gold leaf, apply liquid glue and then start pasting gold leaf. Simple ones can be finished in about an hour, so you should give it a go.

“Hakukoukan”

Address: 2-1-1 Morito, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture

Directions: 20 min by car from JR Kanazawa Station

Phone: 076-240-8911

Workshop hours: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm, closed on Jan 1

Fee: Gold leaf pasting workshop from 500 yen (register at the reception of Hakukoukan)

Easy-to-use gold leaf goods, great for souvenirs

There are a variety of products that use gold leaf nowadays from decorations to ones you can eat. Beautiful gold leaf sweets and cosmetics make great souvenirs too.

Gold leaf topping
Kasutera sponge cake
Gold leaf topped Kasutera sponge cake
Coffee
Gold leaf coffee (Hakuichi)

Edible gold leaf has traditionally been used to decorate plated food and sake. Gold leaf is now sold as a topping, as well as in cakes and chocolates. There are also drinks that contain gold leaf such as sake, green tea and coffee.

Cosmetics
(Left) Gold leaf contained lip gloss (Hakuza), (Right) gold leaf face pack (Hakuichi)

There is a variety of cosmetics that use gold leaf. It is said that gold makes the skin supple and radiant. It is amazing to see how wide the selection is, ranging from face lotion and lip gloss to bath powder, UV cream and high-class face packs!

Blotting paper
Gold leaf contained blotting paper (Hakuichi)

On of the by-products of gold leaf production is blotting paper which reduces facial oil. The special Washi, or Japanese paper, between which gold is placed to hammer it in to a thin sheet, is perfect for absorbing facial oil. You can also buy blotting paper that contains gold leaf.

Cell phone cover
Smartphone cover (Hakuichi)
USB memory
USB memory (Hakuichi)

A smartphone cover and USB memory finished with gold leaf and gold and silver powder are also popular. There is a collection of traditional Japanese designs ranging from Mt. Fuji to cherry blossoms.

Gold leaf has many practical uses, or can simply be enjoyed for its beauty. Once you see it you will probably fall in love with gold leaf. It makes a great souvenir.