Thinly walled, high-quality lacquers with refined makie and other decorations, used for over a millennium for various purposes from ceremonial implements of the court nobility to contemporary tea utensils

The charm of Kyoto lacquerware
Kyoto lacquers, while considered relatively expensive, feature a thicker layer of lacquer due to the absence of an undercoat of rice glue, making them highly durable. The wood core is thin to ensure that the finished products are also thin, even with multiple layers of lacquer—yet these end products are undeniably solid. The lacquer is mixed together with the jinoko and tonoko clay-powder fillings from the Yamashina area and applied to the wood repeatedly to create the base coat. These primary processes are performed with great precision, yielding durable lacquer vessels that become more and more beautiful with use.
A base of thin wood
Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of Kyoto lacquerware is that it is crafted from ultra-thin wood. Artisans sand down the wood down to the greatest extent possible, rendering it paper-thin. This wood core is the secret behind the slim elegance of Kyoto lacquers, despite multiple applications of the base coats, mid-coats, and outer coats of lacquer. In spite of such remarkably thin wood substrates, Kyoto lacquers are extremely durable.
Exquisite decoration
The next defining attribute of Kyoto lacquerware is the lavishness of its gold and silver decorations. Decorations might include a range of makie techniques including hira (flat) makie, togidashi (burnished) makie, and taka (raised) makie.
Zōhiko, Kyoto's oldest lacquer shop
Zōhiko is a leading Kyoto lacquerware establishment. Boasting an epic history, the company got its start in Kyoto in the year 1661 as a Chinese import goods shop called Zōgeya (literally, “ivory shop”). Later, Nishimura Hikobei I, who apprenticed at the shop, took over the helm in 1731 after the demise of his master’s family, at which time it became known as “Zōgeya Hikobei.” An old illustration of the store shows large red lacquer nested sake cups on exhibit at the far right in front. A forerunner of the window display, this exhibit undoubtedly made quite an impression.  
Oversized nested sake cups
It has been confirmed that these massive nested sake cups were created around 1800. They have been re-lacquered a few times, but these pieces retain their brilliant sheen. Though earthenware sake cups were used alongside lacquer cups in the Heian period (794–1185), down through history Japanese commoners have preferred light yet durable lacquerware to hold their sake—that is until ceramics such as Imari ware became mass-produced and mass-distributed during the Edo period (1615–1868). The enormous sake cups (sakazuki) shown here measure 53 cm, 65 cm, and 76 cm in diameter respectively from top to bottom. It would be a challenge to create cups like these today due to issues of acquiring the proper type of base wood.  
Nishimura Hikobei VIII
Hikobei VIII delved heavily into laquerware technology, creating a vast array of well-known works from the end of the Meiji period (1868–1912) through the early Shōwa period (1926–1989). His works were featured in world expositions as well as in national industrial fairs, winning prizes along the way. Zōhiko grew dramatically with the patronage of the Imperial Household Ministry as well as that of the Mitsui and Sumitomo families, amongst others. In 1926, Zōhiko established the Kyoto Makie Art School to train successors.  
Relationship with the Mitsui family
During the time in the late nineteenth century when the Mitsui family made its dramatic transition from wealthy Edo merchants to modern zaibatsu conglomerate, the family was also developing a deep connection with Zōhiko. Many makie works were created in response to numerous requests from the Mitsui family. Some of these commissioned works were given as gifts to the imperial household on celebratory occasions. Reflecting the prosperity of the Mitsui family, generous amounts of gold and silver were used in a vast array of elaborate works. In autumn of 2011, many of these exquisite Zōhiko lacquers were exhibited at the Mitsui Memorial Museum in Tokyo in a special exhibition entitled “Exquisite Kyoto Makie: The Mitsui Family and Zōhiko Lacquerware.”  
Makie and kirikane decoration
Zōhiko lacquerware is richly decorated with makie, a lacquer decoration technique in which patterns are made using gold or silver powder sprinkled onto wet lacquer. Makie is a representative technique of Kyoto-style lacquerware. In the takamakie (high relief makie) technique, a pattern is created in relief with lacquer, carbon dust, and sabi-shitaji, which is a mixture of lacquer and tonoko (burnt clay dust), followed by sprinkling of the metallic powder to yield a three-dimensional effect. In the hiramakie (flat makie) technique, meanwhile, a pattern is drawn with lacquer, upon which makie metallic powder is sprinkled and then mixed with the lacquer to harden. This technique is finished with polishing. The kirikane (cut metals) technique involves cutting small, thin pieces of fine sheet metals such as silver and gold and pressing them onto the piece. The many other kinds of makie techniques include nashiji ("pearskin" ground), kanagai (inlaid mother of pearl), tsukegaki (makie lines over a makie ground), and kimetsuke, which features inlaid metallic decorations on the relief areas of takamakie.
Curtain-shaped makie inkstone case
A defining characteristic of Zōhiko lacquerware is its superb designs. This box is shaped like a kichō (draped partition) of the type used in the homes of nobles since the Heian Period. The obverse of the lid shows three musicians waiting to play in the shadow of a screen. An oil lamp sits between the musicians, who play the koto, transverse flute, and hichikiri, and the flame throws light on the lamp saucer. The instruments and lamp feature a host of fine details.  
The lacquer workshop in the early days
This photo of a Zōhiko workshop built in 1918 shows some of the many craftsmen who worked here, including makie and lacquer coating specialists, in the midst of the production process. Zōhiko retains many pamphlets and other printed materials from this period of time, allowing us a glimpse of how the work was done. At present, the company employs a division-of-labor system whereby Zōhiko places separate orders with woodwork artists, lacquer coating artists, makie artists, and more. Orders for Kyoto lacquerware include many lacquers implements used in cultural activities as well as special commissions. Designs are devised in-house in accordance with specifications, along with strict inspection at each of the different stages.
Lacquerware design sketches
Zohiko retains numerous antique design sketch patterns drawn on handmade washi, or Japanese paper. In order to transfer the design, the contours of such a sketch pattern would be traced with red lacquer and pressed onto the surface of the lacquer object. These sketches are known as okime. At Zohiko, okime have been carefully stored over the years for use in-house in arranging or combining existing designs, as well as devising new ones.  
A discerning eye
Kyoto lacquerware is rendered durable with multiple coats of base coats, mid-coats, and top coats, with inspections performed using a strict checklist at each stage. For the final inspection, each makie piece is checked for subtle unevenness in coating, brush stroke prints, tiny pieces of dust, and more.
Zōhiko wants people to discover the appeal of lacquerware in new ways, and employs various means to reach this end. This fountain pen is the result of a 2008 collaborative project with French artist Michele Odiale. A one-of-a-kind item, it combines bold sculpture with lacquer technique.
Future Initiatives
During our interview, Zohiko President Tsuyoshi Nishimura remarked, “Zohiko never loses sight of new possibilities for Kyoto lacquerware. This lacquerware is of extremely high quality, but one must use it to truly get a sense of that quality. In particular it is a critical component of the Japanese food experience. It is a unique part of Japanese culinary culture that the user actually touches their lips to the bowl, which means the texture of the lacquerware must consider this fact. Yet lacquerware is ideal not only for food but also for taking in the delicate flavors of Japanese sake. Additionally, we offer seasonal themes, in accordance with the Japanese people’s inherent aesthetic sense surrounding the four seasons. Even as the traditional tokonoma (traditional alcove) becomes less popular, simply having a seasonal decoration at the door imbues the space with a uniquely Japanese touch. Our goal is not only to carry out successful collaborative projects with overseas partners, but also to convey the special beauty of Japanese culture in general and Kyoto lacquerware in particular to the world.”
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Zohiko

Supported by Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

Taxt written by Ueno Masato

Exhibition created by Suzuyama Masako & Sakashita Riho , Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

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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