Urushi institute of research and restoration, Tokyo

Urushi institute of research and restoration, Tokyo

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.

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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.

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Next stop Tokyo..

Next stop Tokyo..

Our next step is to base ourselves around Tokyo for a few days, so with our first day to spare, where do two shoemakers find themselves? .. In Asakusa of course which is basically a whole street of leather and tools and workshops for the shoemaking trade!

We happen to arrive into Tokyo just as the technical college for shoemaking has its end of year exhibition so we popped in to have a look. This college is where my apprentice, Mariko began learning to make shoes so we took a picture of her next to her old machine.

I also wanted to stock up on some tools I use in m own workshop at home, which are exceptionally well made here in Japan. This picture below is to demonstrate what seems to be our theme of conversation in the workshops we have visited in Japan, the challenges of finding of tool makers which are craftsmen in themselves and becoming fe and far between. This pair of lasting pincers for example now have to be brought in from China as the last Japanese maker of them has now passed away with no one to succeed him.

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Inden, leather craft, Yamanashi

Inden, leather craft, Yamanashi

Inden is a Japanese craft made of lacquered deerskin with more than 400 years of history originating in the Yamanashi prefecture close to Mount Fuji.There are 3 types of Inden made in the company.

・Fusube-smoking one – This is a very traditional technique from Shousouin (Japanese famous warehouse storage that preserve treasures from 7-8 century in Nara-pref)
・Urushi-zuke-stencil urushi
・Sarasa-using lots of colours of paints

The techniques and patterns for making Inden were originally developed to produce certain parts of samurai armors. The production process follows three basic steps that require highly skilled artisans.

The very soft deerskin leather becomes very durable when Japanese lacquer is applied on it, making it very suitable for objects exposed to day to day usage.

Founded in 1582, INDEN-YA is the oldest company we have visited so far and it is clear there is real integrity at the heart of their business approach.
In our meeting with Mr Desawa we heard about the company’s deeply inspiring philosophy to preserving this ancient leatherwork technique. I love that they make their products to last and are passionate about repairing their work even decades down the line.
As long as their logo is visible on the product, they will repair all their products for free, with a few exceptions.

Mr Desawa specified he wants his products to last for a least 3 generations in a family. In ancient Japan people would remake or reuse objects, using an old jacket to make a new wallet for example and creating new things out of old ones is part of this company’s vision to not add to the throw away culture we now live in.

The other truly special thing about Inden-Ya is the treatment of the employees of which there Are 94 altogether, 65 of which are making. It is clear they are treated as family members and they invest a lot in teaching them ancient techniques and many of their workers stay in the company for their whole lives.

They have also been a particularly interesting to talk to because they do the whole process of making inden from beginning to end, with the exception of occasionally outsourcing their stitching. This means it is easier to Quality control – something that is clear when you pick up one of their products, the softness of the skin is unlike many leathers I work with back at home. Mr Desawa said they don’t sell online as they prefer to deal with their customers one to one and allow them to see and feel their products.


One of the techniques we had the opportunity to see in motion was the Fusube – the smoking of the leather. Mr Desawa also gave us a personal tour of the museum he has created which was wonderful to see. Having the opportunity to see this in motion would not have been possible had we not been under the support of the Winston Churchill Fellowhip Trust.


Being the leather craft of Japan, Inden has been the interview I have been looking forward to most and hearing Mr Desawa speak with such passion for the craft has been very inspiring.

One of the designs I like most is the ‘Tonbo’ (dragonfly) whose meaning is to always go forward, never back.

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Chiso Yuzen, Kyoto

Chiso Yuzen, Kyoto

Kyo-Yuzen is a technique of hand painting and dyeing silk mainly used for kimonos. It is a combination of beautiful colours and pictorial designs such as flowers, trees, birds, and scenery drawn and dyed on white silk by brush and often finished with gold leaf or embroidery. The beauty of nature is expressed on the fabric. Kyo-Yuzen has two dyeing styles: Tegaki-Yuzen, hand-painting, and Kata-Yuzen, stencil-dyeing. Hand-painting techniques were originally developed by Yuzensai Miyazaki in Kyoto in the middle of 17th century, therefore, the artform came to be called Yuzen. After that, stencil-dyeing techniques were developed by Jisuke Hirose in Kyoto during the 19th century.

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Founded in 1555, CHISO is one of the oldest YUZEN dyeing companies in Kyoto. They have been honoured with many awards over the years. They were ordered to create a kimono for the crown princess Michiko in 1958 and when prince Akishinomiya married princess Kiko in 1990 they were asked to create a kimono for the princess. They have developed the technique of velvet Yuzen and in 1994 began to reproduce kimonos from the 18th century to create a beautiful fusion of traditional and innovative designs into their work. They are striving to promote the wearing of kimonos today as Western clothing continues to influence the streets of Japan and cultural traditions are cast aside.

Nowadays they are working in collaborations with other companies using the Yuzen technique. For example, last year they launched a travelling suitcase with Globe Trotter, Chiso provided the hand painted, silk lining for a limited edition range of bags.
One of them encompasses a pattern which is a fusion of the Japanese chrysanthemum (the symbol of Japan) with the classic English rose.
Another case is opened to reveal a design of the crane which symbolizes luck in travel or flight. Despite the ¥2,300,000 price tag they have already sold 5.

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Last year they celebrated their 460 years of opening with an exhibition at the museum of Kyoto.

We met with the production department director, Mizumura Hironobu and Chiso gallery curator, Ishida Naoko who took us to Takahashi-Toku, one of Chisos business partners to meet Mr Takahashi who showed us the extraordinary process from beginning to end.

We have been hearing a lot about the Japanese method of separating out each process and designate a craftsman for each stage and Yuzen is the perfect example of this. As we watched each of the master craftsmen at work, painting on to the silk with no hesitation and perfect accuracy you realise you are holding your breath in pure concentration for them. One of the reasons Kio Yuzen is so intensely  beautiful is that, at the hand of the artist he or she can create anything like from the end of the brush using a kaleidoscope of colour (bearing in mind it takes several years to be able to mix the dyes, master the technique and achieve the desired colour). Each kimono is completely unique.

A kimono requires around 16 metres of pure silk which is all painted separately, here is a breakdown of the process which takes around 6 months and quite often longer if the design is very intricate or complicated.

  1. (Zuan) First the designs are drawn by hand on paper with charcoal in actual size.
  2. White silk fabric is cut into 10 pieces and sewn together to create the form of the kimono.
  3. (Shitae) the design is traced on to the white silk with juice extracted from flowers, this blue compound can easily be rinsed away with water.
  4. (Itome Nori) The outline is traced on the white silk with narrow lines of resist paste, this not only separates one colour area from another but also imparts a decorative quality of its own. (The kimono will then be taken apart and worked on in separate pieces once the design is in place ready to be matched up again later)
  5. (Aobana Otoshi) white silk pieces are put into water to remove blue lines.
  6. (Fuse nori) the pattern areas that are not to be dyed are covered with a rice paste.
  7. (Jiire) after the rice paste has dried the whole piece is brushed with gojiru liquid extracted from soy beans.
  8. (jizome) the background colour is brushed over the entire silk piece using a thicker and wider brush.
  9. (mushi) to set the dyes, the silk pieces are steamed at 100 degrees in a cypress box for around 40 minutes.
  10. (Mizumoto) all the rice paste is carefully rinsed off in cold water – they specifically use water from very deep underground to be very cold and clean.
  11. (Jire) the pattern area is brushed with gojiru to prevent bleeding of the dyes.
  12. (iro-sashi) after allowing to dry, each silk piece is attached to a bamboo frame and the dyer artist brushes the colour onto the design outline.
  13. the piece is then steamed again.
  14. (gomu-suisen) the silk piece is then washed in a special kind of oil because the resist paste is made of gum.
  15. Putting the finishing touch (Yunoshi)
  16. metallic leaf (inken) embroidery (shishu) precious metallic leaf or powder is bonded to the dyed silk piece using various techniques.

As the finale of our tour we were taken to see a special kimono lit up in a room which was made and presented to Mr Takahashi’s daughter on her 20th birthday. You can see from the long sleeves it is for an unmarried girl (Furisode). This kimono is so intricate with many layers of patterns, hand dyed and painted separately that it took a whole year to make. The lightness of the silk combined with gold embroidery and red silk lining make it such a work of art. The sheer beauty and monumental amount of work involved makes the finished piece truly stunning.

 

Kawashima Selkon Textiles, Kyoto

Kawashima Selkon Textiles, Kyoto

Our last day in Kyoto and our first interview of the day is with Kenji Tsujimoto, the director of Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co Ltd’s museum.

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He told us a bit about its long history after the company was began in 1843 by Jinbei Kawashima. The second generation of the company (Jimbei Kawashima ll) was inspired by European textiles and ancient tapestries after his many visits to Europe.

Kawashima Selkon co is a very big company, occupying many buildings on the outskirts of the city, currently employing over 1000 people. It is pretty unique in that they do hand and machine weaving all in one business, around 40/50 people do the weaving by hand and they also do all the dyeing of the thread and have an extensive private museum of their accomplishments which contains over 160,000 items collected over the 173 years it has been open.

They make small and extremely large weavings, speciality tapestries, theatre curtains and specialized woven recreations of works of art.

They also run Kawashima textile school, short weaving courses for international studenst or graduation students in Japan. The aim is to help create the next generation of weavers.(It was established for originally but nowadays more and more students are so serious to learn) I found it interesting that when we asked more about the students who want to learn to weave, Mr Tsujimoto talked about the common fact that most of them have worked or are working for a business or city firm and decided they need a way out and through the courses they provide, many of them quit to become full time weavers which is very promising for the future of the trade.

It was particularly interesting to watch both the hand and machine weaving in motion, two completely different worlds residing under the same roof. Machine weaving, where the bobbins are about the same size of me, and the huge machines work away churning out 2 to 3 metres per hour requiring perhaps 5 or 6 staff to either press the go button or attend when the red warning light comes on signalling a problem. And in contrast the hand weaving which is so intricate and time consuming it takes 1 person at the machine every day over 3 months to make one obi belt and is entirely driven by hand. – we were allowed to take a few pictures here but not of any of the work in progress which is why they are close up.

We were taken to see the dyeing room where they dye all the silk thread. The room faces North to prevent the sun coming in and distorting the colouring process.

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The huge commissions such as theatre curtains will need to be worked on this loom which is the biggest weaving machine in Japan and the whole reason why Kawashima needed to relocate from the city of Kyoto to the suburbs, where a special building was built for purpose. A whole curtain will be woven by several employees working on different sections at the same time and will weigh a whole ton when completed. Picture below is one theatre curtain in working progress.

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Kawashima was the first Japanese company to receieve a Royal Warrant, and they have worked on many pieces for the Royal family and exhibited all over the world.

When we walked around the museum it was pretty breathtaking to see the detail and sheer brilliance of Kawashimas work over the years, particularly the tapestries which were often 6×5 metres in size. There were so many works of art that I walked past and did a double take as I suddenly realised, when close up that the pieces are actually woven recreations of some of the most famous works of art in the world. Some of the tapestries are so intricately detailed, they contain over 100 species of birds and plants. It was interesting to see the combination of European and Japanese influences in a lot of the work. They have a licence to weave William Morris designs and had a large exhibition of curtains in his famous ‘strawberry thief’ print. Again we were unable to take any photos of any of the work in the museum due to strict regulations which is a shame as the work was some of the finest I have ever seen.

Museum of traditional crafts, Kyoto

Museum of traditional crafts, Kyoto

Our meeting with the director general, Rie Doi and the executive director Seiji Hatta took place in the middle of the 7 day annual Festival of Traditional Crafts so we had a chance to see live demonstrations of master craftsmen at work and were able to ask a few questions about the work the museum are doing to preserve ancient traditions and see how their projects plus the work of the council/city have developed the craft industry around Kyoto.

It is evident that in Japan but especially here in Kyoto, traditional crafts are officially recognised and protected. We discovered that around 10 years ago, it was decided by the Ministry of Economy, central government that the definition of craft must be the item has to be entirely made by hand and the process of making not changed for over 100 years. The craft must also be closely related to Japan’s traditional culture and must take place in Kyoto city.

Rie stressed that her belief is that hand crafted items should be used in our modern day lives and not be specially reserved for museums pieces or as it was in the past, made for kings and nobility. Craft should have connection to the user But it’s creating a market and being able to convert the ancient skills to make items tha fit into our day to day lives that will enable the Survival of our important heritage skills. 

Japanese craftmanship is obviously stunning but it is also extremely technically beautiful as we have seen in great detail.  Here in Japan, they have a master craftsman for each process so the attention to detail and division of labour makes the it even more perfect. Yuzen (hand painted and dyed silk) for example employs 11 different craftsmen which make up the whole process as it is so labour intensive.

She also talked about craft being taught in more schools and stressed again that there needs to be more practical and technical teaching and not taught as a historical pieces of the past. The demonstrations here in the museum are a great way to show people the different processes and help others understand the workmanship involved.

Another important factor, is people’s general understanding of craftmanship. Here in Japan for example, much like the £1 shop in the UK they have the 100¥ shop where you can get almost anything at a fraction of the price which is really corrupting our relationship to products and devaluing our need to pass down or repair items. After all, for 100¥ what does it matter of it breaks, you can just buy another one can’t you?

One of the biggest struggles master craftsmen face, as we have heard many times elsewhere, is that the production of tools is facing an all time low which is one of the biggest challenges at the moment. One of the positive technological advances is actually helping this problem in Japan and there is a small movement going on as they experiment by using a 3d printer to recreate the tools needed.

The museum is also working hard to collaborate modern design with traditional craft, for example some hand painted Yuzen fabric is now being used in Dior shops as decorative wallpaper. One of the areas they are working in most is to create workshops for young high school students to participate with traditional craftsmen to help innovate new, modern uses for the work or invent new designs.

When I asked what Rie sees as the most important of all the challenges in keeping ancient craftmanship alive here in Japan she said they have very recently been collaborating with travel agencies and international tours and are busy convincing the craftsmen to open up their workshops for visitors over the busy seasons. She brought out a small pocket size comprehensive booklet of postcards detailing each of the crafts which they are planning to have available soon. They are also soon to be opening a website for this particular venture.

During the interview we got a chance to see some of the craftsmen working away, here is a few of the many interesrting ones we saw.

This man had a natural fascination for the Craft of braided cord so he has been learning for the past 30 years, he tells us with a smile. This craft is more than 1000 years old.

Here is a another master craftsman practising Kyo Zogan or Damascene, a 5th century form of decorating precious metals with gold or silver, originally from Syria. It was brought to Japan along with Buddhism through the Silk Road and is virtually unchanged in its methods. These patterns are obtained by engraving deep, patterned cuts into steel and then placing a gold foil into the lines of the design. This foil is hammered until the gold (or silver) penetrates into the cuts forming the design. It used to be used for decorating Japanese swords and armour, Then 600 years ago the gun arrived in Japan and the amount of practising craftsmen declined. Nowadays there is 25 designated craftsmen, 10 of whom are young craftsmen, 3 are apprentices.

Just to finish off the day, We also had an opportunity to see Nihon Buyo, a traditional Japanese dance performance.

City of Kyoto, traditional industries

We jumped straight in a taxi to our next meeting, this time with Shinichi Nakayama, assistant director of City of Kyotos Craft division. They do similar work alongside Kyotos prefectural government textiles and craft devision but they work mainly within the tourist industry in the city too.

Mr Nakayama explained about their current plans for promoting Kyotos traditional crafts of which there are 74 altogether

They are helping to create text for children in elementary schools to teach what traditional craft is all about. They help to provide demonstrations to help young children understand the work of the craftsman which is proving very successful.

As with the previous meeting, Mr Nakayama explained that Japanese traditional crafts, for so many years was reserved for the royal family and the future of the crafts survival depends on creating a market for the every day use which is one of their main priorities today. They are working on creating new markets for the masters of crafts, helping to pass on the techniques to younger generations which will innovate new modern ideas and helping them with branding and advertising.

One of Kyoto City’s recent projects is called ‘Kyoto Contemporary‘ to bring collaborations between Kyotos masters of craft and designers all over the world , which began 4 years ago. One of their collaborations was with Salvatore Ferragamo.

Another recent venture is a new challenge which is connecting Manga artists with global designers.

They have also created a competition for young craftsmen to have a chance to gain exposure in magazine and exhibit their work and receive scholarships for business training and organisation.

It’s been great to see in a bit more detail the work of both divisions who are doing some great work in helping to promote the traditional crafts industry and foster a new generation of makers for the future.