Urushi or Japanese lacquer has been found to have been used in Japan for something like 7000 years BC. This ancient craft is a method of using the sap from the lacquer tree and coating objects made from wood in laquer and decorating in fine gold. We have seen many bowls and spoons on our journey all over Japan, as urushi is famously used for enhancing the quality and decorative finish of all sorts of utilitarian objects. But in its long history Urushi has been used to make many historical artefacts and the creation of lacquerware has long been practiced only by skilled dedicated artisans.
The craft of Urushi was actually known as ‘Japan’ although nowadays people translate it as ‘lacquer’ researchers and urushi craftsmen are trying to make urushi to be known as urushi instead of Japanese lacquer.
Urushi is produced in a three-step process: first the base is prepared. Most often the base consists of wood, which has to be shaped and is a whole craft in itself, but it can also be of paper or leather. Next is the application of lacquer, which hardens as time passes, thereby sealing the base. Generally several layers of lacquer are applied. The lacquer is then decorated with a variety of methods. the maki-e technique, a powdered metal (usually gold or silver) is sprinkled on the lacquer before completely hardened. This technique was developed and popular in the Heian period but is continued unchanged today.
We met with Tasuku Murose who is one of Kazumi Murose sons, a well known national treasure of Japan. It was actually really nice to have our meeting with the next generation down to a master craftsman, someone who now in his early 30s has decided he wants to continue the skills of his family’s history.
Before deciding to join his fathers company, Tasuku went to university; over this time, he realised he was the only person amongst his fellows who knew about the history and processes of Urushi. So he decided to take a different path and learn more about this ancient craft and then did a masters and doctorate. Now he works alongside his brother and his father.
His father concentrates on the making and repairing Tasuku and his brother help with the business, and at the same time, they are busy running workshops to let others learn about the ancient craft of urushi and bring awareness to this specialist skill. They also employ other craftsmen, some of whom we met in the workshop.
Tasuku talked about his experience growing up with most young people of his own generation aiming to work in a business in the city, choosing a career in IT rather than any learn any kind of traditional craft. Most of them probably ending up blending in to the sea of men in black suits that were packed into the train on the way here today. We talked about today’s choices for the younger generation where there seems to be a shift away from the business world and more looking to the arts for their career path, although interestingly much more Art and Design rather than traditional craft.
The number of craftsmen is certainly fluctuating; in his fathers generation, there were actually only 3 other students on the course at Tokyo Gedai University (Tokyo University of the Arts) who wanted to learn about urushi.
Tasuku then showed us some of the working processes of urushi. This picture reveals the grades of processes from the bare wood to the sanding until the finish is a smooth glassy finish that is so smooth it looks like smooth black marble and is as shiny as a mirror. You can see here that the bare wood is protected by linen as the wooden pieces are often very thin so will need protecting. Then a sand based paste is applied before polishing and applying the urushi around 7 or 8 times. This is a popular method in Wajima, one of the largest production areas of urushi in Japan.
A small piece will take around 1-2 months of work and the bigger boxes or specialised piece will take around 6 months, this is because of the drying time involved between each of the coats of urushi.
The next part of the process is to decorate items which are classically done in ornate gold designs. The gold sprinkled on is called Maki-e decoration. First you paint the pattern then before it sets you would sprinkle he gold powder and then wait 1 or 2 days for it to set. They mainly use pure gold and sometimes the work involves cutting the gold by hand and using a pair of special tweezers to individually apply each tiny by hand, one fleck at a time. Tasuku explained that that once you look close up, the the smaller gold dust is actually round which is why it looks so fine.
Nowadays urushi boxes continue to be used all over Japan for very special items or family heirlooms. In fact Japanese people put so much emphasis on special boxes or packaging, if you go into a shop they will wrap your items up in such elaborate wrapping with so much care and attention it makes you feel like the packet of tissues you brought is a special gift for yourself.
Its the smaller things you notice while being here that actually sustain the bigger things, like part of urushis survival depends on the people of Japan’s continued need for a beautiful box.
We were taken to see the workshop next and were welcomed with the strong, rich scent of urushi as we entered. Each workshop we have visited is so all encompassing. Watching the craftsmen at work and breathing in the smell of urushi is really intoxicating in a good way.
The workshop is one of the 4 largest Urushi restoration centres in Japan. They are currently working on some very important pieces which we were unable to photograph as we walked around the workshop. It was pretty magic seeing some of the workmanship which is 200-300 years old, a bit like leather, the urushi just gets mor beautiful with age. Some of the restoration work is so specialised it can take up to 2 years to complete.
One of the craftsmen showed us a bowl they have finished working on, he told us that because Urushi is made from wood which can swell with age and fluctuation in temperatures make the urushi crack so some of the work involves deciding which parts they need to fill in and some they have to leave as the wood will shrink back again. He also said how much they learn from the restoration projects they do, how they see older techniques and often use them for new creations.
He showed us a special bible stand that was created for churches all over Europe, and exported mostly to Portugal and Spain.
This is the urushi tree. The sap is collected during summertime and the tree is cut down after the season. The sap is collected by cutting the skin of urushi trees. It’s very important for the direction of the cut to be right to gather the sap. Amazingly only one cup of urushi comes from a whole tree.
Nowadays 90% of urushi comes from China but Tasuku said they would like to use Japanese urushi as and when is possible.
There are currently only two official institutions teaching urushi in Japan although there are a few small workshops like Murose’s that teach urushi techniques to raise awareness of this wonderful craft. Here are a few photos of the classes they use for teaching, they currently run around 10 courses per week with 4/5 students each class. Tasuku is also soon to be teaching about urushi at Tokyo University.