Mitani - how their products are created

MITANI is based in ‘Shikki-danchi ‘(Urushi Lacquerware Industrial Estate) in Kaga-city, Ishikawa-prefecture. Facing the Sea of Japan, winter in Ishikawa is notoriously harsh. However, blessed with dozens of superb hot springs and freshly caught seafood, the Ishikawa region is widely renowned for its picturesque scenery.

Ishikawa holds three famous places for urushi lacquerware production in Japan-‘Wajima’, ’Kanazawa’ and ‘Yamanaka’ –, of which ‘Yamanaka urushi lacquerware’ boasts the highest production volume nationwide.

Embraced with an array of urushi lacquerware manufactures in the ‘Shikki-danchi’, MITANI has been in business for 180 years as one of the leading urushi companies and nowadays mainly produces ‘modern urushi lacquerware’.

‘Modern urushi lacquerware’ is a plastic based product that is finished with synthetic resin, which was introduced in the early 30s of the Showa-era (in the late 1950’s), in order to meet the high demand of consumers, who were looking for urushi lacquerware in a wide variety of designs and styles at more affordable prices.

It is suitable for modern life style due to it being microwavable and dishwasher-safe as well as having gorgeous patterns with an alluring hint of traditional virtues, the ‘modern urushi lacquerware’ has become extremely popular for ‘Hikidemono’, which is a gift from the bride and groom to the guests who came to their wedding reception. This new trend in the market has been a turning point for urushi manufacturers, which has contributed to a massive increase in production.
Although there was a time when some companies relocated their production to China, they have started bringing it back to Japan in recent years.

After finalizing the style and design, metal molds are prepared and then forms that are used for applying patterns onto a body are created. The next two steps in the manufacturing process are called ‘Nuri’ (*1) and then ‘Maki-e’ (*2) before finishing.
(*1) Nuri: Literally, it means ‘coat’ or ‘paint’ and implies ‘coat urushi lacquer’.
(*2) Maki-e: This is a technique of sprinkling metal flakes, grains or powder on the surface to create patterns using the adhesiveness of urushi.

All of the ‘modern urushi lacquerware’ produced at MITANI are made in Japan and their high standard can’t be achieved without a dedicated workforce of experienced craftsmen, who live in the surrounding district of the ‘Shikki-danchi’. The process of producing ‘modern urushi lacquerware’ is divided into many different steps that is handled by skilled craftsmen, who specialize in each step of the process, in the same way that traditional urushi lacquerware is manufactured.

The following photographs show the process of how modern urushi lacquerware is created by the masters.

Upon receiving an un-lacquered plastic body, the first process is ‘Nuri’. At this workshop, a method of coating using an air-brush and a traditional manual coating is used as well.

Coat is being applied using the air-brush equipment.

It may look easy to do, but it requires a number of years to master the technique of applying coats perfectly to deliver an immaculately smooth finish.
Whenever applying coats in colors which are different from the one inside or on the rim of the bowl such as traditional Japanese confectionary bowls, it has to be carefully done by hand using sponges or sponge–like materials to achieve a perfect finish.

After this ‘Nuri’ process, the products are dried thoroughly and then go through a quality check before being shipped.

If coats are applied over dust, no matter how small the particle of dust, it makes a bubble which can be seen or felt on the surface. This product won’t be good enough to ship. The woman in the picture is checking each product in detail before shipment.

This is ‘Nuri’ master with his wife.
It is said that, at the age of 60 years old, a craftsman is considered a junior, who is still on his way to becoming a real ‘master’. Although this couple are both over 75 years old, they are still at work. The passion for their work may be the secret that keeps them going and in good shape.

At this workshop, patterns are printed onto the surface of coated products and gold flakes are attached. Patterns are applied using this rubber balloon-like equipment.

The products are dried and then gold or silver flakes are attached by hand one at a time. What fascinated me was the precision of work and the family’s work ethos, which I observed at all the workshops I visited.

This is the method of printing patterns onto the product using a silkscreen.

The silkscreen frame needs to be carefully and accurately placed before the paint is applied, in order to create these beautiful patterns.

After the process of drying, the products are polished and sent back to MITANI as completed pieces.

Even the drying process requires many years of experience. To estimate the drying time, many small factors such as the temperature and humidity etc. on the day need to be taken into consideration. I was so impressed by the craftsmen who were diligently focused on their tasks in the workshops. This pretty Obento-bako is available at AttA.

Finally, this is the studio of a ‘Maki-e artist’. He has 40 years’ experience and used to draw patterns directly onto the surface of products. With an artistic atmosphere, his studio looks like a real artist atelier.

These are some of his previous artworks – what a stunning piece of beauty! He showed me dozens of items in different designs and it was such a pleasure to hear the story behind each treasure.

Each of his words made me realized how accomplished he was as a craftsman and artist.

The process of creating ‘modern urushi lacquerware’ is often misunderstood. Having the word ‘modern’ in its name doesn’t mean that the process itself has been modernized or automated. Each product is carefully hand-finished by a specialized craftsman using the traditional techniques.

When you have a chance to own a product from MITANI, remember how dedicated, passionate and skilled the craftsmen were. Now you know how your MITANI obento-bako is made, I believe the obento-bako will become more than just a bento-box.
It is a piece of Japanese art that you will treasure for a long time.