I have always been enamored by negoro-nuri. It is a much sought-after antique urushiware that was originally produced by the monks from Negoro-ji temple in Wakayama prefecture beginning in the 12th Century. In negoro-nuri, the monks made their own utensils by applying many layers of black urushi onto the wood base that was followed by a top-coat of red urushi. The vermillion color has a distinctive depth because of the dark layers underneath, and as the surface becomes polished with use, the black is gradually revealed. It is a unique kind of ‘aged-dignification’ that the Japanese have grown to admire in their crafts.
This January just before the pandemic closed down the world, I visited urushi artisans Hashizume Yasuo and his daughter Reiko in the town of Kuroe in Wakayama prefecture. Kuroe is known for the local Kishu urushiware that began during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) as a center of shibujiwan -a simple wooden bowl coated with persimmon tannin. A key reason behind Kuroe’s emergence as a thriving urushiware center was its access to an abundant local supply of wood.
Kishu remains as one of the three largest lacquerware producing areas in Japan, the others being Aizu in Fukushima prefecture and Yamanaka/Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture. The Hashizume family has been working with urushi for 4 generations spanning over 140 years.
The father, Yasuo-san, specializes in urushi work in splendid maki-e, and also in negoro-nuri. Maki-e is an elaborate and meticulous technique for applying designs onto the urushi surface. Designs are made with precious materials like powdered gold and silver, or inlaid with a variety of decorations like mother-of-pearl and even eggshells. He has won numerous awards for his work during his career covering over 6 decades.
Reiko has also been working with urushi for over 20 years. After studying at Tsukuba University of Art and Design, she worked as a designer for several years in Tokyo before returning to Kuroe. “I didn’t plan on making urushi my lifework,” she said, “but when I came back to Kuroe, I wanted to work with it since this is the perfect place to do so.”
For tea utensils, many traditional urushi artisans stick to conventional motifs that are easy to sell by often copying or referencing old designs, but Reiko creates maki-e with original contemporary designs with an eye for surprising motifs. When I asked why she chose humble chickweed and asters as subjects for the tea containers, she said “I often see chickweed and asters growing around me, so I wanted to draw them.” I found her pure artistic motivation for choosing her subject very refreshing and persuasive.
At the studio, Yasuo-san showed me many different types of brushes that he uses, including a wide hake brush that is made from bound human hair and wood. Like a pencil, when the bristle gets frayed on the brush, the wood can be cut to reveal fresh bristle underneath. “The brush is one of the most important tools for making urushiware,” he pointed out. All the brushes were kept in beautiful condition, which is a reflection of the care that he puts into his work.
Urushi is a resin extracted from toxicodendron vernicifluum trees that originally came from China, and it has similar allergenic properties as poison oak and poison ivy. But when urushi hardens, it becomes so strong that it resists heat and also acids and alkalis. Urushi artifacts can be found from the Jomon period over 9,000 years ago, which shows how far back they go.
But out of many traditional crafts that exist in Japan, daily wares with natural urushi disappeared most rapidly from homes in the last few decades. “After the Second World War, many local people converted to making ‘gosei shikki (synthetic lacquerware)’ which is not urushi but synthesized cashew lacquer or plastic”, Reiko explained as we strolled the streets of Kuroe.
Recent arrival of cheap imported melamine wares further impacted the industry, and because many shops carry a mix of real urushi and other lacquer using different kinds of bases including wood, engineered wood, or plastic, what a ‘lacquerware’ is made of is very unclear and confusing. I once purchased a wood bowl coated with plastic because the shop attendant told me it was ‘shikki’ which means ‘lacquerware.’ I don’t think he was trying to deceive me, but he simply did not know. I understand that there is a place for plastic in this world, but since its widespread use is now causing so many environmental problems, I try not to purchase them if I can.
“How can you tell the difference between plastic and real urushi?” I asked Reiko, “It is very hard to tell the difference. Almost impossible at first glance”, she replied.
Sadly, the word ‘shikki,’ has become such a confusing terminology. If you watch a Ted talk by Murose Kazumi, the Japanese Living National Treasure of urushi art, you will further understand this sentiment.
Over the years, Japan has almost lost all of its capacity to produce its own urushi and today a staggering 97% of natural urushi used in Japan is imported from China.
As we strolled the sleepy town, I imagined how bustling it was at the height of the urushi boom with carts piled with wares being transported down to the river. “It must be so green and beautiful in the summer” I said. “Yes, it gets so hot and humid!” Reiko exclaimed.
How perfect then that urushi, a natural resin that hardens only when there is sufficient humidity and the temperature is above a certain level, flourished in Japan. But it is unfortunate that the urushi culture has declined so much over the years.
An announcement from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs that it would only allow use of domestically produced urushi for the restoration of buildings designated as national treasures from 2018 caused a severe price hike and shortage of domestic urushi for artists like the Hashizumes. To keep the items affordable while maintaining their quality, their urushi items are created by using high-quality urushi from China for the base coats, then using Japanese urushi on top layers. “Japanese urushi‘s color is more transparent and its gloss is very beautiful,” Reiko observed. Under current circumstances though, they cannot acquire enough to make their work using only Japanese urushi.
It will take a considerable amount of time to increase urushi production back to a sufficient level to bring down the price of urushi items for daily use. But an important first step is for people to re-appreciate natural urushi in the items they use everyday, and to become aware of the differences with other lacquerware. Natural urushi ages beautifully, and the wares can be re-coated to be used over many years.
In purchasing urushi work, it is important to nurture connections with shops or craftspeople with integrity, so that the correct information is conveyed. I’m encouraged to see the activities of non-profits like Urushinext, whose mission is to increase the local production of urushi and promote every aspect of this craft to the outside world. The efforts to increase domestic production is not about the differences in the quality of imported vs. domestic urushi as such, but more about preserving the Japanese urushi crafts culture as a whole.
Reiko and I had lunch at a local coffee shop started by a young couple in a converted old urushi factory building. We then visited Jokokuji Temple where Yasuo san created brilliant maki-e tiles to be installed onto the ceiling over a 4-year period. After admiring them for a while sitting on the tatami floor, we strolled down the hill. Then I caught a taxi and hopped on the train that took me back to the bustling city of Osaka, thinking about the future of urushi along the way.