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Urushi Lacquer
The Shining Beauty of Japan

The deep, shiny luster of black or dark red lacquerware, often gorgeously decorated with gold and silver or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is a Japanese handicraft form that has long fascinated the world. No other application style can match the deep hues and smoothness of Japanese lacquer (urushi in Japanese). Lacquerware stands as one of the most distinctive forms of Japanese beauty.

The History of Urushi
Urushi is the sap of the urushi or lacquer tree that is native to Japan, China, and Korea. The sap of this tree contains a resin that polymerizes and becomes a very hard, durable, plastic-like substance when it is exposed to moisture and air.

Contemporary historical research indicates that the knowledge of urushi lacquer technology was introduced from China to Korea, and from there to Japan. Though Japan had also been using lacquer in ancient times, the systematic application process used in Japanese laquerware is said to have developed in China. However, the discovery of Japanese lacquerware in Japan from the Jomon period (ca 10500-ca 300 BC) offers strong evidence that lacquer technology also independently developed in Japan.

Stone-age people first discovered the useful properties of the urushi tree and took advantage of its adhesive properties to mount points on spears and arrows. The Japanese of the Jomon period recognized the durability and shiny beauty of urushi and began using it to coat wood, pottery, baskets and bone objects. The arrival of Buddhism in Japan made lacquer production a key industry as it was used together with cloth to create Buddhist images.

From that time onward, as Japanese culture developed, so did its use of lacquer and its application to bowls, plates, trays, sake cups, boxes, combs and other objects. As Japanese civilization developed, lacquerware techniques continuously incorporated ever more refined styles. The Nara period (710-794) saw the birth of the maki-e decoration technique in which gold ''dust'' was decoratively sprinkled on the lacquer surface.

Dragonfly Accessory Box: This round box is for women to keep accessories and other small special things in.

Urushi has found many uses in Japanese craft and culture forms. Urushi bowls or plates are an essential part of Japanese haute cuisine forms such as kaiseki. Maki-e (sprinkled application of gold or silver powder) and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay) urushi techniques have been widely used to elegantly deocorate furniture, make-up accessories, toys, and writing implements.

Octagon Tray with Cranes: Red and black octagon trays decorated with flying cranes (a highly auspicious symbol).

Urushi is also widely used in the tools and utensils for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Urushi was also used for the altars of Buddhist temples and in the making of armour, helmets, swords, and other implements of war. In the Edo period (1600-1868), personal accessories made with urushi such as medicine cases, combs and hairpins became widely popular. Today, urushi continues to be used in its traditional forms and in modern, new ways.

Urushi in Europe
In 1549, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived in Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu (just south of the main island of Honshu). The Jesuits were interested in spreading their religion as well as finding new trading opportunities. They immediately fell in love with Japanese lacquerware and commissioned craftsmen to fashion lacquer ritual utensils for them.

In 1609, the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, granted official exclusive Japanese lacquer trading rights to the Dutch East India Company. The first shipment of lacquer - chests, boxes and tables - arrived in Amsterdam in 1610. The Dutch were so fascinated by the beauty and quality of the Japanese lacquerware that they started calling it 'japan' as Chinese porcelain was called 'china'.

Very quickly Europeans tried to discover the secret behind Japanese lacquer technology. This led to the new word ''japanning'': to try as much as possible to reproduce the amazing luster of Japanese lacquer ware. The production of Japanese lacquerware for export was very limited and thus the cost in Europe was incredibly high. Supply could in no way satisfy the growing demand across Europe. According to an early 17th century document, the Dutchman Willem Kick started Europe's first japanning atelier in Amsterdam.

Soon other japanning ateliers sprung up all over Europe to cater the demand from royal families and court nobles who competed with one another in buying lacquer ware and furniture as status symbols. Many lacquered objects from this period are exhibited in Royal palaces and museums throughout Europe.

From the 18th century onwards, due to stricter investment regulations, ordinary plain black lacquer became increasingly available. It was especially common as a paint for furniture and musical instruments. However, none of these objects could ever equal the mysterious beautiful black urushi black from distant Japan. In 1859, when Japan ended its long period of isolation, it started to directly export its lacquer to international markets. But even then production was limited.

Urushi wears go perfect with modern, western style table sets.

Characteristics of Urushi
Liquid urushi can be applied to just about any surface: wood, metal, cloth, ceramics, etc.. When it solidifies, it becomes a very hard coating that waterproofs and protects the coated object from the effects of mold, mildew and other forms of weathering. It also provides protection against caustic substances such as acids.

Square Trays: These trays are processed with a special lacquer technique called sabi (rusty) urushi. The sabi urushi technique is usually used for inner layers.

Only direct and prolonged exposure to sunlight will cause urushi to deteriorate. Urushi's hardness and durability make it an excellent protective coating for any object that will be used continually over a long period of time.

It also has excellent adhesive properties. It is used as a special kind of glue for metal leaf, powders of various kinds, shells, etc.

*Makie is a traditional way of decorating an urushi surface. First, a drawing is etched on the polished flat surface. A coat of urushi is put on and then gold or silver powder is sprinkled before the urushi dries. After drying, another thin coating of urushi is put on the surface. Then after drying, it is polished.

Kyo-nuri Lacquerware: Japan's finest
Due to the traditional knowledge possessed by the many skilful craftsmen centered around the imperial court, Kyoto prospered as the center of Japan's lacquer ware industry from the Muromachi period (1333-1568) onwards. Kyoto lacquerware has always been regarded as the most exquisite in all of Japan.

Applying extraordinaly fine gold powder using a special bamboo tool.

plIn the Muromachi period, temes and the court began to patronize individual Kyoto lacquer craftsmen. Examples of artists from this period are Koami and Igarashi, who made tea utensils under the direction of Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga.

The era, known as ''Higashiyama Makie,'' brilliantly reflects the splendor of the Kyoto lacquerware, which exquisitely expressed the subtle aesthetic ideas of wabi (rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness) and sabi (patina or the beauty or serenity that comes with age) that are so important in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Soup Bowls, Sun and Moon: The circles represent the sun and the moon. Urushi is applied over the gold and silver foil; it will fade over time and the gold and silver underneath will appear more clearly.

In the Azuchi Momoyama Period (1573-614), Kyoto lacquer ware strongly reflected the tastes and preferences of the affluent and dominant warrior class. The gorgeous rich effects of Kodaiji Makie are particularly noteworthy. Beginning in the Edo Period (1600-1868), despite the popularity for brilliance and glitter, works started to reveal increasingly delicate and elaborate aesthetic preferences.

Today, Kyoto lacquer ware is not limited to only ornamental objects, but also includes ordinary tableware, furniture, as well as a number of different household effects. Kyoto lacquer ware has been designated as a ''traditional Japanese handicraft form'' by the national government.

Hand Mirrors with Grapes: Traditionally, grapes are a symbol of longevity and they have long been a popular motif in Japanese arts. Shell inlay has been used on some grapes to add a feeling of luxury.

At one time, as the convenience of plastic and bakelite products rapidly changed the market, Kyoto lacquerware experienced a down turn. In recent years, however, consumer tastes are reverting back to the idea of quality over convenience or price considerations. A wide appreciation of genuine traditional lacquerware has returned. One problem that remains is that there is a shortage of lacquerware craft masters. Efforts have intensified in the last few years to train and cultivate young artisans.

How to Care for Lacquer Ware
To properly maintain lacquerware take the following precautions.

1) Do not soak in hot or cold water for a long time. Wash with warm water and dry with a soft cloth.

2) To maintain a good gloss, wipe gently with a soft cloth after washing. Avoid excessive force.

3) Avoid putting in the refrigerator, the dishwasher, under direct sunshine, or in extremely dry places. This could lead to discoloration.

4) Do not use with direct heat, in a microwave, or in an oven.

Note: In rare cases, some people may experience an allergic reaction to lacquer. In such cases, please consult a doctor.

Producing quality lacquer since 1661

Zohiko is one of Kyoto's most exclusive Kyoto lacquer shops. It is presently located near Heian Shrine. Originally, it was located on Teramachi when the first generation owner opened a shop named Zoge-ya (literally Ivory Shop) which offered goods and tools imported from China.

In the early Edo period (1600-1868), the third generation owner and lacquer craftsman, Hikobe Nishimura, created an incredibly beautiful lacquer art and maki-e decoration of a sacred white elephant and the Fugen Bosatsu (Buddhist deity). He donated it to the family temple and it became famous throughout the city. From that time onwards, people started to call the work of the studio ''Zohiko'': Zo for elephant and Hiko for Hikobe.

  Ink Stone Box with Yatsuhashi Maki-e (reproduction)

The original of this gorgeous ink stone box (a National Treasure) was created by Korin Ogata (1658-1716), one of the artistic geniuses of the Edo period. The maki-e decoration shows one of the scenes from the Ise Monogatari (a long Heian period poem). Zohiko is active in the preservation of urushi culture.

Since that time, Zohiko has been a top quality Kyoto lacquer ware production studio. The present generation owner, the 9th Hikobe Nishimura, has also tried to adapt the traditional beauty of lacquer to modern times. For example, he collaborated with a Swiss watch manufacturer to create special wrist watches (limited production) a few years ago.

Zohiko is also highly active in the preservation of Japanese culture. On the second floor of their main shop, there is a small museum devoted to exquisite lacquer work, Kyoto dolls, folding fans, ceramics, glass ware, Noh theatre masks, metal crafts, woodblock prints, and other craft forms. Entry to the gallery is free of charge.


A few minutes walk west of Heian Shrine, between Reizen and Nijo. Open: 9:30-18:00; Tel: 075-752-7777; http://www.zohiko.co.jp/

Interview with Mr. Okura
Maki-e lacquer ware craftsman for 28 years

''I never feel bored with my work. There is always something new to learn.''
Interview with Mr. Okura: Maki-e lacquer ware craftsman for 28 years

  Mr. Okura in his studio. The chest-like furniture behind him is a muro, used to dry lacquere ware. Lacquer will not harden if the humidity is not high enough. The inside of the muro maintains an 80% of humidity level at 25 degrees centigrade.

Mr. Okura has been working as a maki-e and gold foil decoration craft master at Zohiko for nearly 28 years. His career as a maki-e craftsman started when he finished university. ''My father was also a maki-e craftsman and as I loved to create things with my hands, I had no doubt that I would be a maki-e craftsman just like my father was.'' In his small studio, he sits alone and concentrates on finishing each piece painstakingly by hand. He completes only a few works a day. Some objects take more than one month to finish.

The production process for making lacquerware can be roughly divided into three parts: making the wooden base, lacquering, and maki-e decoration. For exceptionally high quality works, over 50 separate production steps must be completed, of which 20 involve the application of lacquer. Each lacquering stage has a different name but they are all directed to one goal: getting the final surface to be as hard as possible. The more layers of urushi applied, the harder the surface becomes.

The best brush for drawing on lacquerware is made of the underarm hair of rats. The hair is really thin and has the perfect hardness. The square tool Okura wears on his thumb is called a Tsume-ban which as a lacquer palette. The inside of the shell doesn't absorb lacquer. The one on the right is Okura's original Tsume-ban which he has been using for many years.

Okura explains, ''Typical woods used for lacquerware are zelkova, horse chestnut and cherry tree as they are very strong to begin with. The most defining characteristic of Kyoto style lacquer ware is its unbelievable thinness.'' Using a lathe and a plane, the wood is made as thin as possible. In fact, the final wood base is so thin that you can see the light through the grain. This thinness is the key to the amazing light and delicate feel of Kyoto lacquerware. And yet it is very strong.

''My work requires exceptional concentration. I need to create exactly the same design by hand. I don't decide what to draw. All I do is copy. And yet I never feel bored with my work. There is always something new to learn.'' Okura does worry that the demand for quality lacquer ware is decreasing. Despite the passion and excellence of the craftsman the industry can not survive without sufficient demand.

Incredibly thin wooden base (made of Japanese keyaki or zelkova). Light goes through it.

''I think urushi is one of Japan's finest and most representative craft forms. It is characterized by precision craftwork and expresses the elegant beauty of Japan.'' I hope foreign visitors will find the essence of Japan in our urushi crafts and arts. I believe, that once they touch and hold a piece of top quality lacquer they will be amazed at how light and beautiful it is.'' Okura speaks slowly and does not use a lot of extra words but there is certain persistence and passion in his speech that echoes his work.