The Tsubame-Sanjo area (Sanjo City and Tsubame City) is located in the central part of Niigata Prefecture, alongside the Shinano River. The two cities span an area of approximately 540km² with the population of 180,000 people. Due to the mineral-rich snow water flowing from the mountains into the Shinano River, the land is fertile, producing excellent rice, vegetables, and fruits. The region is also known for having the largest number of factory owners in Japan, where family-run factories and small workshops are producing various world-renowned products, such as knives, tableware, and other metal products.
The turning point in the history of product-making for both cities was in the Edo period when they started producing Japanese nails to meet the large demand from the Tokugawa Shogunate. At that same time, Sanjo underwent large-scale development, converting its land into vast rice fields. As a result, the production of farming and other metal tools flourished. When the Meiji period arrived, many factories and workshops had shifted their production from nails to both metal cutting and carpentry tools. These products were distributed throughout the country by merchants using the rivers in Shinano. Because the large rivers met at Sanjo, the city was the central location in the Echigo Plain, serving as a hub and gateway for commerce and distribution. As a result, the products made in the region became known throughout the country for their quality and durability. Among these famous products were the knives forged by skilled artisans. Regardless that the knives could be returned for resharpening, they remained quite sharp for many years – sometimes even for decades.
In Tsubame, because of new techniques that were introduced during the Edo period, many of the artisans shifted from nail making to producing metalware, especially copperware in particular. The teapots and vases, which were made by hammering single sheets of copper, possessed a unique sheen that gradually increased with use. By the Taisho period, the artisans’ in-depth knowledge of metal processing enabled them to produce a broader range of metalware, including western tableware. In the later years, they began to produce cooking pots and kettles, making the area one of the largest production regions of metalware in Japan. Even after the introduction of machinery to the industry in the modern era, many artisans have stuck to the traditions of the blacksmith – they are not just stubbornly holding onto the past, but, with scientific knowledge and experiments, have been renewing and adjusting their techniques in order to match contemporary life.
As the result of the organic interaction between agriculture and commerce over centuries, Tsubame-Sanjo has become one of the most concentrated areas of highly skilled artisans and factories in the world. Upon visiting the area, you will be warmly welcomed by their one of a kind craft and skill.