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New Directions in Stone

The Japanese tradition of stonemasonry dates back to ancient times. But demand for high-quality domestic stone is plunging amid an influx of cheaper goods from overseas. So a group of artisans in western Japan has launched a project aimed at expanding the market.

The group is made up of 10 stonemasons and chamber of commerce members in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture. Three years ago, they began an initiative called the Aji Project.

The goal is to promote a type of local granite called aji-ishi. The team is producing new products -- including vases, trays and bookends -- to try to expand demand for the stone.

Aji-ishi has long been quarried in the suburbs of Takamatsu. Due to its fine pattern and remarkable hardness, it's been used primarily for gravestones.

One of the most famous items made of aji-ishi was the cauldron used for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But aji-ishi has been losing ground to cheaper stone from China and other countries. The area once had about 400 masonry businesses; now, the number has dropped to half that.

Eiji Ota is a master stonemason and one of the leaders of the project. His specialty is carving gravestones, but recently he applied his skills to create something very different: a table.

"I'm excited," he says. "A stonemason like me rarely has the chance to do something new."

Because Ota had never produced furniture before, he teamed up with a pair of industrial designers from Tokyo.

"We wanted the table to look good when it's displayed next to ones made of other materials," says Kenji Ito of design firm Mute.

The designers suggested a simple table that would suit any room. But executing it required great skill.

To keep the table light, its top couldn't be thicker than 2 centimeters. But stone cut that thin is easy to break during tooling.

Another issue was the surface treatment. Ota's gravestones are highly polished, but he wanted the table to have a different finish. He adjusted the usual process to create a less shiny surface.

After six months of trial and error, he was finally able to deliver a suitable product.

Ito was impressed. "It's really beautiful," he said.

"The possibilities for aja-ishi are expanding," says Ota. "And that's what we stonemasons had hoped for."

By pursuing new directions in stone, master craftsmen are bringing a fresh shine to a traditional industry.

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