When the wood work has been finished, the process of nuri-coating starts at Ishikawa-Shippohdo. They were founded by the grandfather of the current owner after World War ll, and as a nuri-shi trader he engaged in all the processes and shipped his products for sale. Even nowadays, they are still sticking to the same manufacturing style as before – to do kiji-gatame and apply uwa-nuri at their own workshop - and sell the remarkable lacquerware finished with the finest urushi using locally sourced kiji.

The first process to be taken at Ishikawa Shippohdo is to purify the urushi sap, which is called urushi-gatame. This is to remove physical impurities that may have mixed with the sap whilst it was collected. This is a vital stage in preparation for the perfectly silky paste and it is done in a centrifugal machine with some cotton wool.
The kiji, treated by the kiji-shi, is carefully polished and then proceeds to the next step called kiji-gatame. Kiji-gatame is the crucial process of covering the wood grain by applying multiple urushi coats. As you might have learnt in science lessons at school, inside a tree trunk, there are many thin vessels running through to distribute water and nutrients to each branch and leaf. These vessels must be filled up by flowing urushi down several times in order to prevent the products from leaking. By penetrating urushi paste deep into the grain of the wood, it helps to stop the kiji from warping.

The urushi-paste has been prepared.

The craftsman is in the middle of kiji-gatame

The next step, in order to increase durability, is to lay a hempen cloth over the surface of the kiji and set it aside to dry. The cloth is then smoothed with a knife, another layer of urushi coat is applied, then the kiji is set aside to be dried and smoothed again. This process needs to be repeated several times. The photograph shows the process of smoothing.

Adequate humidity and temperature are the most important elements to provide the perfect conditions to dry urushi: technically speaking, urushi doesn’t ‘dry’ in the air but ‘hardens’ or ‘sets’ under moist warm conditions. There is a large cabinet called the ‘furo-dana’ (damp box) placed in the workshop. After shita-nuri (to apply first layer of urushi coat), the kiji is laid out to dry on the lightly moistened shelves. The inside of the ‘furo-dana’ is splashed with water that feels slightly chilly. While working inside this room during the cooler seasons, if you wear a pair of glass they steam up.

This ‘furo-dana’ has been used since they moved their workshop here and, over the years, it has developed character.

These bowls will soon have shita-nuri applied.

After shita-nuri, the products need to be dried and moved to the next process called naka-nuri (to apply another layer of urushi coat). After naka-nuri, they are smoothed and dried, then proceed to uwa-nuri.

In a separate room facing the window with plenty of natural light coming through, uwa-nuri – a final coat to be applied to the product having been through many processes – is the next step to be taken. Before beginning uwa-nuri, the room must be mopped, vacuumed and cleaned using an air-cleaner in order to create an absolutely dust free work environment to achieve a perfectly even surface of the product. They were working on tumblers for cold drinks such as beer to apply uwa-nuri when we visited their workshop.

While coating, products can’t be touched, so a stand is used.

Uwa-nuri has been applied to these tumblers.

They need to be dried again in a special drying cabinet, which is designed to rotate products to ensure even drying.

This drying process normally takes up to around one month, though it varies depending on the temperature and humidity. There are many products lined up in the cabinet.

These products started their nuri process six months ago. Although it is not widely known, urushi has antibacterial properties and keeps contents at a constant temperature. So it is suitable for a wide range of products such as tableware, beer tumblers or obento bako etc.

You may, by now, have been astonished by the fact that to produce a fine piece of art, urushi lacquerware, requires many months (around two years from the time the tree was cut down) with an enormous amount of commitment and effort from craftsmen. Today, even Japanese people purchase less traditional urushi lacquerware than before due to its perception of requiring high maintenance. However, urushi lacquerware finished using the proper traditional process is amazingly robust and lasts for decades. As a matter of fact, it is much easier to take care of than many people expect. Although they are not microwavable or dishwasher safe due to the nature of this product, washing by hand and drying properly, is all that needs to be done. AttA has been using the obento bako produced by Ishikawa Shippohdo for two years, it is still in perfect condition and hasn’t lost any of its color or shape.

With aesthetic finishing, soft and smooth texture, and sturdy structure, traditional urushi lacquerware is a tableware that enriches the atmosphere of any meal time. The intention of this article is to help you understand how special traditional Japanese urushi lacquerware. We hope you find a piece of urushi that you love and lasts for generations.
Thank you for your reading of this long article.
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