A 400 year-old tradition of lacquered wooden vessels

Wood craftsmen in feudal Japan
Yamanaka lacquerware began around the year 1580, when a group of woodworkers who excelled at hikimono-kiji, the art of turning wood on a lathe, moved from the province of Echizen (the northern part of today’s Fukui prefecture) through the mountains to the village of Masago, some 20 kilometers upstream from Yamanaka Hot Spring in today’s Ishikawa prefecture.
Yamanaka Hot Spring
Thereafter the wares they made were sold as souvenirs to hot spring visitors. In the mid-Edo period (1615–1868), techniques of lacquering and makie (sprinkling lacquer with gold or silver powder) were introduced from Aizu, Kyoto, and Kanazawa, and the area flourished as it became known for tea ceremony implements and other fine lacquerware.
A hand-turned lathe from the feudal age 
At the end of the Edo period (1615–1868), master woodworker Heibei Minoya introduced lathe-produced methods of incising the wood surfaces of vessels including sensuji-hiki (“thousand-stripe engraving”) and other innovations. In in the early Meiji period (1868–1912), Ryōtarō Tsuiki (b. 1874) developed surface engraving patterns such as kesuji (“hair-line stripes”) and inahosuji (rice-ear-like stripes), establishing artistic techniques still in use today.
Decorative woodturning: sensuji (“thousand stripes”)
Yamanaka lacquerware, from its earliest origins, has been distinguished by its techniques of turning wood on a lathe. Decorative woodturning (kashokubiki), the most distinctive characteristic of Yamanaka lacquerware, involves carving fine concentric lines in the wood. There are dozens of patterns, from sensuji (“thousand stripes”) to itomesuji (“threadlike stripes”), inahosuji (“rice-ear stripes”), rokuromesuji (“lathe stripes”), hirasuji (“flat stripes”) and more. The planes and knives used in creating such pieces are all handmade by the artisan and each one is used for a specific task. 
Decorative woodturning: uzusuji (“whirling stripes”) and inahosuji (“rice-ear  stripes”)
Fukiurushi lacquered bowl
After the piece is formed and engraved with a pattern, it is finished with fukiurushi, a technique of rubbing lacquer into the wood to accentuate the natural wood grain. Wares processed this way acquire ever more beauty over time as they are used. Another characteristic design is komanuri, a design of concentric rings in alternating hues of red, gold, and black lacquer.The kinds of trees used are zelkova, horse chestnut, and cherry birch, whose wood is sturdy and doesn’t warp. The wood is trimmed vertically, not horizontally as is more common, which increases the durability of Yamanaka ware. 
Tea caddies(natsume)
There is wide praise for Yamanaka tea caddies (natsume) and other implements for the tea ceremony, many of them decorated lavishly with takamakie (“high relief makie”), in which designs in gold powder, silver powder, or mother-of-pearl rise above the lacquer surface.                 Today there are over thirty studios of these highly skilled craftspeople. Nowhere else in Japan do so many woodworkers live clustered together. Led by Living National Treasure Kawakita Ryōzo (born 1934), they have set up a center to teach their craft, the only institution of its kind in Japan, and are striving to preserve the traditions of woodturning that make Yamanaka lacquerware possible.
Production processes of Yamanaka lacquerware
Making the unfinished wood base (kiji)
Yamanaka lacquerware characteristically uses zelkova (keyaki), horse chestnut (tochi), or Japanese cherry birch (mizume) wood that is vertically oriented to the object (tatekidori). Compared to horizontally oriented cutting, this technique results in less warping and greater durability. The rough-cut wood is first placed in a vacuum dryer and 7 percent of its water content is removed. The wood is left to age slowly, and when its water content is restored, lathe work begins. Then the wood is ornamented with a variety of patterns unique to the Yamanaka tradition: sensuji (“thousand stripes”), inahosuji (“rice-ear-like stripes”), and arasuji (“rough stripes”), to name a few.
Decorative woodturning: komochisuiji ("parent and child stripes")
An unfinished wood bowl
Preliminary coating (shitaji)
After the wood has been turned on the lathe, it is brushed with lacquer, which tightens the natural grain and also serves as filler to prevent warping or shrinkage after drying. At the same time, fragile edges that will be subjected to heavy use are reinforced by attaching strips of hempen cloth with rice paste. After that, the piece is brushed with a mixture of lacquer, polishing powder, and diatomaceous earth, and polished when dry. This process is repeated 10 or 20 times, further strengthening the wood and smoothing the surface. This stage, which takes approximately one month, is essential to the quality of the finished product. 
Hempen cloth pasted around the rim
Surface preparation processes: sabiji-zuke and mizutogi
 The surface is plastered with sabi, a mixture of urushi and polishing powder, and smoothed with a whetstone and water (a process called mizutogi).
Final coating: uwanuri
After refining, black or red lacquer is filtered through cloth or washi paper before being applied to the prepared wooden base with a special brush. Extreme care is required to ensure that fine airborne particles of dust and dirt do not get into the lacquer. Unlike synthetic paints, lacquer (urushi), which is a natural tree sap, hardens in a moist environment, so careful attention must also be paid to maintaining proper levels of temperature and humidity. Yamanaka lacquerware is known for unique lacquering techniques such as tamenuri, hananuri, and kiriaiguchi.  More than 80 percent of all tea caddies used in the tea ceremony are Yamanaka lacquerware.
Polishing of the lacquer undercoat  (nakanuri-togi) with charcoal and water
Completion of lacquer outercoat
Makie is a final step in the production of lacquer pieces. First a design is drawn with wet lacquer, and, before it dries, powdered gold, silver, or other precious metal is sprinkled on top and made to adhere. Yamanaka lacquerware is known for its highly skilled woodturning techniques used in its making, its artisans are also skilled in techniques of makie techniques, which were transmitted by specialists from Kyoto and Aizu in the early nineteenth century. Subsequently, makie specialists brought back the technique of takamakie (“raised makie”) from Kanazawa, further implementing and developing local artistic techniques. Today artisans use a variety of techniques, including takamakie, togidashi makie (“polished down makie”), and hiramakie (“flat makie”), primarily in the making of utensils for the tea ceremony. 
A tea caddy decorated with makie
A fountain pen decorated with makie
Fukiurushi (“lacquer-wiping”) is a process essential to showcasing the beautiful grain of zelkova and horse chestnut woods used in the making of Yamanaka lacquerware. It is also known as suriurushi (“lacquer-rubbing”). The latter term refers to the process of applying the lacquer directly to the wood, the former to the process of wiping it off.   First the unfinished wood is brushed with lacquer using a horsehair brush, and after the lacquer has penetrated the wood, it is wiped with long fibered paper and left to dry. These steps are repeated many times. The quality of the kiji, or wood base onto which the lacquer is applied, determines the quality of the finished product, so it is the highly developed skills of the Yamanaka woodturners that make possible the gorgeous end products finished in fukiurushi.
Completion of fukiurushi
Yamanaka Lacquer Ware Center
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by: Yamanaka Shikki Kyodo Kumiai

English Translation by Professor Juliet Winters Carpenter, Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako(Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))
and Suzuyama Masako, Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Supported by Wakamiya Takashi

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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