Japanese traditional urushi lacquerware, historically referred to as “Japan”, is one of the most famous and precious crafts produced in Japan. AttA is currently selling two different types of lacquered obento bako – one is finished in ‘Shunkei-nuri’ and the other one is in ‘Yamanaka-nuri’. Recently we had an exciting opportunity to visit Ishikawa Shippohdo in Kaga-city, ISHIKAWA, to view the process of making ‘Yamanaka lacquerware’.

Producing the urushi lacquerware requires a tremendous amount of time and many skilled craftsmen. Untreated timber is dried before being sent to a kiji-shi (wood craftsman) by a supplier. After kidori, which is the process of cutting the timber into pieces one size larger than the actual product size, the block of wood is carved and dried multiple times, then handed to a nuri-shi (lacquerer) as the cured wood called kiji. This is then followed by making a solid foundation layer using a paste made of clay powder and urushi on the surface of the kiji. The nuri-shi then applies several layers of urushi coat until it brings out an immaculate beauty and durability. After this stage, an extra touch of decoration can be added by the makie-shi (sprinkled picture artist) to enhance the design.

Today it’s a common practice that urushi lacquerware manufactures use the kiji made abroad because of its competitive price, though Ishikawa Shippohdo has managed to procure the kiji produced locally in Sugaya area, which is only a 10 minute drive away.

‘Yamanaka lacquerware’ is renowned and highly respected as the ‘capital of kiji production’. The signature techniques used in their products are unique carving styles utilizing a lathe such as ‘Usu-biki’ or ‘Kashoku-biki’. (Visit this youtube to see the Kashoku-biki technique https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBK6yN8ZHLM#t=10). These methods were developed in Yamanaka hundreds of years ago and none of the artisans in other areas can replicate them. As other areas don’t have as many active kiji-shi as Yamanaka has, they purchase their kiji from the kiji-shi in Yamanaka. High demand for kiji by manufactures from all over Japan results in non-stop production in Yamanaka and the kiji-shi having to work seven-days a week.
Sugaya is the area where many kiji-shi are based and we had the chance to visit a kiji-shi workshop that has been making the kiji for Ishikawa-Shippohdo.

The timber needs to be dried for one to two years after being cut down. After obtaining the dried timber from the supplier, the kiji-shi caries out kidori and starts carving.

The photograph shows that the kiji-shi is working on the lathe with a block of wood, making it into the shape of a bowl as shown on the right hand side. You can see an uncarved pile of wood behind the lathe, waiting to be carved. The kiji-shi was literally covered with wood shavings.

The kiji-shi manages many planes and small tools and he can finish each bowl in the same size and shape in the blink of an eye. This carving process is not the only task of the kiji-shi. The process of carving consists of three different stages – initial rough carving, mid-carving and final carving – and between each stage of carving, a curing period between 50 to 60 days is prerequisite in order to adjust the amount of water existing inside the kiji. This drying process reduces and balances the moisture level of the wood. This is required to prevent the kiji from warping or cracking, which is caused by the shrinking process. A minimum period of a year and a half is necessary to process the kiji from raw timber to the point that it is ready for urushi coating.
I was invited to look inside the shed that is used for the drying process.

On the 1st floor in the drying shed, there is a stove fixed to the floor to keep the room dry, which is run by burning the wood-shavings discarded from the lathing process.

No wonder there were hundreds of bowls piled up in the corner of the room because rounded shaped products like these bowls are their well-known specialty. This unique stacking style was developed in Yamanaka. In spite of how it looks, it stands very stably and doesn’t collapse even during earthquakes.

On the 2nd floor, there is tons of the kiji, which has nearly finished the drying process.

During this drying process, a sign of wood-worms can be detected and some of the kiji ends up cracking apart. These aren’t good enough to become a commercial product, so have to be disposed of.
I was amazed at the sight of the kiji and truly impressed with the amount of work, as the kiji-shi not only produces the kiji, but also controls stock and manages quality.

A manager of Ishikawa Shippohdo said, “We nuri-shi are extremely fortunate to be able to work closely with so many experienced kiji-shi in our neighborhood. This enables us to meet up and discuss details of design upon launching a new model. Many urushi manufactures in other areas don’t have local kiji-shi and they need to rely on craftsmen based faraway.” His comment truly touched me. Living and working in the local community to create urushi lacquerware has become very rare to witness these days. Yamanaka is one of very few production areas where the traditional ways and spirit have survived and are still valued.

You may not be aware of this but the wood used in urushi lacquerware comes from many different varieties. For example, to enhance the natural beauty, aralia, chestnut and cherry tree have ideal grains, and the solid and dense oak and betulaceous are suitable for products that require durability such as tableware or utensils. If you own urushi lacquerware at home, why not check the type of wood used for those.
(If you are interested in the products, please check this page: http://www.obento-atta.com/product/22)
The story continues: http://www.obento-atta.com/page/7


漆製品が出来上がるには長い年月と多くの人の手がかかります。 原木は乾燥させたのち、材料屋の手を経て、木地師に渡ります。木材は、木地師によって製品より一回り大きめの形に大まかに切り出された(木取り)後、挽、乾燥を繰り返し、木地となって塗師の手に渡ります。塗師は、木地に下地をしっかりと作った後、何回も塗りを重ね、強さと美しさを兼ね備えた漆器に仕上げるのです。更に華やかさを加える場合は、蒔絵師がこの後装飾を施します。







この乾燥の過程で、虫食いを発見したりすることもありますが、中には乾燥途中で割れてしまう木地もあるそうです。 そのような木地は製品にならないので廃棄するとのことでした。これだけの木地をストックして管理し、注文に応じて成形していく木地師のお仕事は大変だと思いました。石川漆宝堂の方が、

因みに、漆器にはいろいろな種類の木が使われています。素材感を出したい時には、栓、栗、桜がその木目の美しさから良いそうですし、お椀など強度が必要なものには固くて緻密なケヤキや水目が用いられるそうです。お家で使われている木製品が何の木で作られているか調べてみるのも楽しそうですね。 (続く http://www.obento-atta.com/page/7