Tawame: A New Form of Kyoto Lacquerware

Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

The beauty of opposing forces: A solid-wood body, finely turned until paper-thin―then further worked to the point of translucence. Next, subtly flexed and held in suspended animation by the strength of natural lacquer. Unparalleled delicacy, resilient power, unorthodox beauty. 

Nishimura Keikou III
For three generations, members of the Nishimura family have made their livelihoods as lacquer craftsmen in Kyoto. The third-generation Keikou succeeded to the name in 2008. While focusing primarily on implements for the tea ceremony, such as the natsume container that holds the powdered matcha tea, Nishimura has also augmented the art of lacquer finishing and explored new possibilities for the future of Kyoto lacquerware. 
What is Tawame?
Zelkova wood that has been turned on a lathe to become paper-thin is shaped then soaked with lacquer to harden. In this process, the energy of the zelkova wood, which seeks to return to its original shape, and the strength of the lacquer, which tries to keep it in place, compete to create an energetic yet refined work, a work in suspended motion, an organic form. Tawame gives birth to dynamic, “alive” forms.
Paper-thin Turned Wood Base
The wood base must be shaved down even thinner than the usual usuzukuri (thin body) of Kyoto lacquerware. It is only once this specialized technique of turning is used to reduce the body to a uniform thickness of .3 mm thick from rim to the base that the tawame shaping is possible. 
Dynamic Modeling 
Before repeatedly applying and hardening numerous coats of lacquer, each piece is individually shaped—not simply bent but formed such that a certain tension is created. Once the work is hardened and polished, the opposing forces of its palpable energy and truly refined elegance give rise to tawame’s unique appeal.
Charcoal Polishing
The Nishimura workshop also produces other works, such as these charcoal-polished plates modeled after pewterware. Unlike the traditional brilliant luster, charcoal-polishing produces a matte finish that works well with many of today’s lifestyles.  
The Work of Training Craftsmen
Artisans are not able to maintain and improve their technique without producing a considerable quantity of pieces. Also, without volume the art does not stand on its own as an industry and it is impossible to attract and train successors. This reality and our passion for lacquerware has led to the production of other kinds of works besides what used to be our mainstay—utensils for the Japanese Tea Ceremony and other traditional uses. Sometimes this production is in collaboration with others in the industry, such as the group of six skilled lacquerware artisans (including my own apprentices) that I lead in the joint production of a large number and variety of products.
The Cornerstone of the Tea Ceremony: The Pure Black Shinnuri Chūnatsume Tea Caddy
The basics of all the key Japanese lacquerware techniques, including tawame bending and charcoal polishing, are used in the production of this natsume tea caddy. There are many steps to making a natsume and each requires a high degree of technical skill. 

This shinnuri black natsume by Nishimura shows beautifully faint traces of brush marks.

Preparation of the Core and Sabitogi Polishing
The first process in hardening the delicate wood core, in order to increase the strength, is soaking kiurushi unrefined lacquer into the bare wood. When the lacquer has dried and the shape solidified, hemp cloth is applied to the wood body. This is called nuno kise (dressing in cloth). Next, a mixture of lacquer, polishing powder, and base powder is applied to the core (also called the base) with a spatula-like tool in a process called jitsuke. The base powder is grit and the polishing powder is a clay-like mud. Both are soils that are harvested in the mountains of the Yamashina district of Kyoto. Next, a mixture called sabi, comprised of polishing powder, lacquer, and water, is applied and allowed to dry. This process is repeated several times and finally the surface is finished with a polishing stone and water. 
Nakanuri (Middle Coats) and Sumitogi (Charcoal Polishing)
The next stage of applying the middle coats of lacquer is called nakanuri. After applying numerous nakanuri coats, the shiny black lacquer is “polished” with soft charcoal to remove even the slightest unevenness left by the lacquer brush, leaving a slightly-grey, matte finish. This is traditionally the penultimate phase of production, when a high-sheen is sought, but is the final phase for a matte finish. 
Uwanuri (Final Coats)
For some pieces, such as this natsume, the final finishing process is the uwanuri, applied in two, highly-meticulous stages. For a polished-to-perfection look, the natsume can no longer be touched by hand, so a bamboo rod is temporarily attached to the inside (using a traditional, removable adhesive) and used as a handle, while lacquer is applied to the outside. The rod is also used to mount the object away from all surfaces, during hardening. After hardening, the rod will be detached from the netsuke and the inside lacquered. The uwanuri phase requires as dust-free an environment as possible. The lacquer is filtered and re-filtered, through hand-made washi paper, and the brushes are painstakingly washed in preparation.
Furo (the "Bath")
The furo is an enclosed compartment, or chamber, where lacquerware that have received their final finishing coat are placed to harden. Lacquer hardens in response to humidity. In the furo, the humidity is held at about 70%. If not carefully and repeatedly turned, however, freshly lacquered items will run and their finish will be destroyed. To prevent this from happening, all pieces are turned over every seven minutes, for about the first two-and-a-half hours.
Fushiage (Dust Removal) 
Before applying lacquer, it is strained through hand-made paper to remove as many impurities as possible. It is not possible, however, to completely prevent dust from sticking to the surface of a freshly-lacquered object and marring its sheen.  So, after the final coat is applied, all visible dust and specks are carefully removed, one by one, using the sharpened tip of a crane’s feather. 
Looking to the Future
The Nishimura family originally produced primarily tea ceremony wares. While taking great care to honor this duty, they also try their hand at artistic production like tawame and at commercial products as well. Says the current Nishimura Keikou: “I want to continue venturing into unknown territory with new products, such as our Tawame and matte-finish lines. Our workshop also needs to be able to make large quantities of objects with precision. This means that I need to train my own apprentices and, I hope, to help train master woodworkers capable of supplying us with the exquisitely fragile body cores that we need.” 
Keikou Nishimura Urushi Art Studio
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Information provided by:
Keikou Nishimura Urushi Art Studio

Direction & Text:
Ueno Masato

Mori Yoshiyuki
Syoh Yoshida
Ito Makoto

English translation by:
Robert Cooper

Exhibition created by:
Ueyama Emiko, Kyoto Women's University

Project Directers:
Dr Maezaki Shinya,Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan 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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