Satou Smio, pipe maker, aged 79, died on July 16th, 2023, following a prolonged illness. While not as prolific as in his earlier years, he continued to make pipes until a few months before his death.
I met him in Tokyo in 2002. It was my first time in Japan and my first serious trip for Smokingpipes. I was 21, but looked even younger, and wouldn't graduate from university for another few months. Satou was in his late 50s — diminutive, charming, with bright, thoughtful eyes — yet we were both near the outset of our independent careers. We sat across the conference table in the office of Barnabas Suzuki — a businessman, pipe enthusiast, and perhaps the world's foremost authority on the early propagation of pipe smoking in Asia — who had connected us. Suzuki saw in Satou a man of tremendous talent and experience who was nonetheless trying to establish himself anew in his craft. In me, perhaps, he saw someone just as enthusiastic about pipes as he was.
Satou took a chance on me, this young — ever so young — American who was interested in Japanese pipes but who had little to offer other than enthusiasm. I had seen his pipes; I wasn't taking a chance on him. I'd already seen everything I needed to trust him, but he had to trust that I would be a responsible steward for his work. It was the beginning of a partnership that would last the rest of his life and help establish Smokingpipes and my career during its first two decades.
Satou was perhaps best known as the only artisan to fully merge the two crafts of pipe making and lacquer working, using urushi to make Japanese lacquerware pipes. He was also widely respected as the most accomplished pipe repairer in Japan, having repaired pipes for famous pipe smokers and serving as the exclusive authorized repair shop for Dunhill for the Japanese market.
Satou's story really begins with that of his father, Satou Tomio. Born in 1912, he worked in a pipe factory before the war, returning to what was left of that factory following the war, but soon moving into a small workshop in the house Satou Smio and his wife lived in until his passing. Like Satou Smio, his father worked in both pipes and lacquer, employing three other craftsmen and two apprentices in the 1950s.
In 1962, having completed high school, Smio apprenticed himself to his father. Satou Tomio was a kind master and father, and one relentlessly dedicated to the refinement of his craft, regularly telling young Smio, "once a craftsman stops learning, that's the end," and emphasizing the physicality of craftsmanship and the importance of understanding tools and machinery. Tragically, Satou Tomio fell ill soon after Smio's apprenticeship began and the business closed shortly before his death in 1963.
From 1964 to 1988, Satou worked for Tsuge, focusing primarily on tooling, machinery maintenance, and pipe repairs. He traveled to Denmark in the 1970s with Fukuda Kazuhiro as part of Tsuge's training program for pipe artisans. But the 1980s were a rough decade for the pipe industry globally, not least of all in Japan. 1988 would mark the beginning of a ten-year sojourn away from pipes for Satou.
In the late 1990s, he returned to pipe making, establishing himself for the first time as an independent pipe maker at 54. From the outset, he repaired pipes, and made pipes coated in urushi.
Beginning in 2002, his pipe-making story became intertwined with Smokingpipes. He experimented both with shaping, which for him was neither inspired by the Danish tradition, nor — like Tokutomi, Gotoh and others — inspired by Buddhist artistic traditions, and with his lacquer work. His pipe making style often feels loosely inspired by some aspects of Shinto art, but more often he simply charted his own aesthetic course, relying neither on the Danish tradition nor on the classic Anglo-French pipe making traditions.
He pushed boundaries with both, and by incorporating technically challenging and complex adornments, ranging from layered urushi lacquerwork known as tsuishu to very long, thin pieces of very high quality Japanese bamboo. I would visit him over the years during regular trips to Japan. Later on, those visits would take place in his very traditional, small Japanese home, built in the 1930s (very little of pre-war Tokyo survives), that incorporated his workshop. Our role — mine, Shane's, Ryota's, Smokingpipes' — has been to encourage him to explore his art and facilitate his work rather than to provide specific guidance.
Reflexively kind and cheerful, he nonetheless brought gravity and seriousness to his craft. Particularly in our digital age, particularly in the United States — a culture that celebrates the generalist and quick mastery — Satou's approach to life and to pipe making is unusual and, in a way, quite foreign. Satou was part of a culture of Japanese craft and craftsmanship that reveled in the details, with a constant striving toward perfection. Yet he would have said that he was still learning. Decades and decades into his career and having demonstrated complete mastery by any objective standard — long after another craftsman would have asserted himself as a master — he asserted that he was still a student.
It was evident both in his work and in seemingly everything he did: The removal of the cap of a tube of urushi was a small, methodical ritual. The gathering and saving of his unused urushi — such a mundane task that could be done with the level of care I take when cleaning the kitchen table after dinner — was a focused, deliberate process, both to ensure none was wasted and that the saved urushi would not be adulterated. Watching him align a block of briar to drill was like watching a dance: meticulous, intentional, and, in a particular way, beautiful. He lived by a lesson shared with him by his father when he was a young man: "You need to learn with your body. You will never forget what you've learned through hard work."
You need to learn with your body. You will never forget what you've learned through hard work.