Lacquerware is one of the crafts Japan is famous for, especially the lustrous jet black and unique vermillion of sleek tableware. The lacquer itself is the sap of the lacquer tree, and the area in central Kyoto Prefecture known as “Woodland Kyoto” is one of the remaining producers of quality Japanese liquid lacquer. The region is working hard to maintain this traditional craft by nurturing lacquer trees and lacquer craftspeople, and by sharing the beauty and versatility of lacquer with visitors through hands-on workshops. Let’s explore the wonder of these ancient techniques taking place amid the serenity of a region that is 80% covered by forest.
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Japanese Lacquerware 101
Before we get started, let’s learn a little about Japanese lacquerware. The lacquer tree is native to East Asia, and its resin has been used in Japan for thousands of years to coat and decorate items for use in religious rituals and daily life.
Lacquer has a unique luster, smoothness and feel. If you place your hand against the surface of Japanese lacquerware, your skin will gently adhere to it.
Although lacquer can be used on a range of materials, it is most often used on wood. It enhances both the beauty and durability of the wood, while maintaining its light weight. Because wood has low heat conductivity, this makes lacquerware excellent for serving food, particularly hot noodle soup, because it keeps it warm but not too hot to hold. On top of that, the lacquer coating adds resistance to water and acidity, and imparts antibacterial effects. These reasons are why lacquer is also used on temples and shrines. This natural, environmentally friendly material combines both beauty and functionality.
Kyoto’s Quality Tamba Lacquer
To make lacquerware, the raw lacquer must first be obtained. The harvesting of it is done by tree tappers using expert techniques on lacquer trees that have grown for at least 10 years. Obtaining the sap is one of the biggest challenges for the Japanese lacquerware industry.
Of the liquid lacquer currently used in Japan, about 95% of it comes from China. While many lacquer-producing areas in Japan have disappeared, one remains in the north-west of Kyoto Prefecture. Yakuno, in the western part of Fukuchiyama City, has been producing lacquer for 1,300 years. This region is known as “Tamba,” and the high-quality sap produced here is called “Tamba lacquer.”
Just as blood seeps out when our skin is cut and forms a scab to seal the opening, sap seeps out when the bark of a lacquer tree is cut. Lacquer tappers use specialized tools to scour the bark and scoop up the milky white sap. Tappers in Yakuno do this from June to September each year. The trees are tapped for only one season and are then cut down. In its lifetime each tree yields only about one cup of sap. The preciousness of each drop means expertise in harvesting it is crucial.
Around 1900, there were 500 lacquer tappers in this region. But their numbers dropped along with the modernization of Japanese society. By 1948, there was one man working to keep the tradition alive here. Mitsuji Kinugawa planted lacquer trees and documented his method of tapping them. Now a non-profit organization carries on his work by nurturing lacquer trees and tappers. NPO Tamba Urushi says it aims “to carry on the traditions of Tamba lacquer to future generations with the hope that the industry can be further developed.”
Tamba lacquer is known for its excellent clarity and luster. Lacquerware artists here therefore make the most of the fuki-urushi method of applying and polishing more than 10 thick coats of clear, uncolored lacquer to highlight the beauty of the wood grain and make it shine. Lacquerware made using Tamba lacquer is available at the Yakuno Tree and Lacquer Museum.
Make your Own Lacquerware at Yakuno Tree and Lacquer Museum
In 2000, Fukuchiyama City created the Yakuno Tree and Lacquer Museum (Yakuno Ki to Urushi no Yakata) to promote awareness of Tamba lacquer and its various uses.
The museum has an archive section that explains the history of Yakuno and its lacquer tappers and displays various specialized implements that have been used on the job. The museum also sells Tamba lacquerware and crafts made from felled lacquer trees.
The heart of the museum is its workshop. It offers a range of craftwork that uses lacquer and can be completed in either one visit, or enjoyed over a period of visits. Locals are enjoying this second option and making friends as they visit weekly, often to fix beloved objects by recoating them with lacquer or using it to fix chips and cracks.
One of the easiest workshops offered here involves using colored lacquer to decorate one of the products available in the museum store. Success is ensured not only by the diligent assistance of the staff, but also due to the method that is used. There is a wide range of illustration stencils to choose from.
Using a selection of colored lacquers that you can also blend to make further hues, a specially made sponge-tipped stick is used to tap the lacquer where you want it to go. The staff will even add a finishing touch of gold-colored powder that adheres to the lacquer. This is a fun way to create an original souvenir that also encourages you to really appreciate the unique characteristics and beauty of the lacquerware as you design your artwork.
The cost of the workshop starts at 1,600 yen. Three other workshops are also available. Because the workshops are conducted in Japanese, it is recommended that you bring a translator with you. Bookings are required.
Yakuno Ki to Urushi no Yakata (Yakuno Tree and Lacquer Museum)
2199 Hirano, Yakuno-cho, Fukuchiyama City, Kyoto Prefecture
Open: 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Closed: Wednesdays (or the following day if it is a national holiday)
Workshops also closed on Thursdays. https://www.city.fukuchiyama.lg.jp/soshiki/64/13903.html (Japanese only)
Kintsugi Workshop in Picturesque Miyama
There are other places in Woodland Kyoto where you can try your hand at lacquer craft. One of them is the kintsugi ceramic-repair workshop that lacquer artist Ai Shimizu runs from her home in the picturesque town of Miyama, where many traditional, thatched-roof homes still stand.
Kintsugi is the Japanese technique of mending chipped and broken ceramics, and it is lacquer sap that plays the key role in doing that. It glues broken pieces together and can be blended with clay powder to fill chips. Gold or silver powder is then applied to the lacquer as decoration. Bringing attention to the cracks and chips creates a new beauty and extends the life of the object.
“I wanted to create a place where anyone can try the lacquer and kintsugi techniques that I enjoy so much,” Shimizu says. Because she is able to speak English, she has held kintsugi workshops for guests from various parts of the world, as well as for locals. Self-sufficiency is a key concern for her as she also aims to share kintsugi with the next generation. “I want to create a cycle of growing enough lacquer for my own use rather than having to rely on imports,” Shimizu says about her plan to increase the number of lacquer trees she grows to 200.
The one-day kintsugi workshop Shimizu runs through her company called Urujyu lasts about two hours. The process usually takes much longer due to numerous applications of lacquer that each require one day to dry, but she has achieved it by preparing in advance numerous similar ceramic pieces that are at each of the various kintsugi stages.
The style here is hands on. You and Shimizu have the same workbench and utensils. You blend and apply the materials yourself, following her motions and instructions. To fix a chip in a saucer, you sandpaper away the sharp edges and apply the sap, which quickly seeps into the pottery. You then use sap blended with clay powder to fill in the missing section. You cut away excess dried filler then polish again. The final step is decoration. Lacquer is applied and gold powder is dusted onto it.
Particularly impressive is Shimizu’s use of traditional, natural materials. Lacquer itself is one, of course, but for polishing she uses a small piece of the Scouring Rush plant, and for the final, gentle brush of the gold dust, she uses a small ball of raw silk that she has obtained by raising silkworms herself. This utilization of traditional materials makes the process even more tactile and sensuous and offers a glimpse of the great depth of the worlds of kintsugi and of lacquer, and Shimizu’s commitment to them.
The workshop is held in an open-sided shack that looks out to a view of farmland and mountains. It is a gentle reminder of how closely tied to nature Japan’s traditional culture and practices are.
Shimizu also sells kintsugi kits, which you can take home to put into practice what you have just learned.
Address: 36 Agake-teranokami, Miyama-cho, Nantan City, Kyoto Prefecture
The cost of the two-hour workshop starts from 11,000 yen. Shimizu also runs a one-week course where you stay at her house and work on just the one piece of pottery throughout. She occasionally holds workshops at Sagano, in Kyoto City. See her website for details: https://urujyu.com/en/