Having a bowl that will change and enlarge as you do is quite satisfying, even though porcelain dishes and metal utensils are standard fares. Japan is home to a huge variety of traditional handicrafts, but Urushi, or lacquerware, has the longest history of them.
I. About of Urushi
The sap of the urushi tree is known as urushi. Rhus Vernicifera is the name given to it by scientists. It is a native of China, Korea, Japan, and the eastern Himalayas and belongs to the Anacardiaceae (sumac) family. This tree’s sap includes a resin called urushiol, which, when exposed to moisture and air, polymerizes to form lacquer, an extremely hard, resilient material that resembles plastic. In actuality, ureshi is a type of natural plastic. In South-East Asia, there is a tree with comparable characteristics.
1. History of Urushi
There is proof that individuals from the stone era learned about the advantageous qualities of the urushi tree’s sap. In order to make spears and arrows, they initially employed adhesive abilities. Urushi was first used to cover wood, ceramics, baskets, and bone goods in early Japan by people who recognized its strength and gleaming beauty.
The use of urushi evolved along with culture from its initial use in the production of Japanese lacquer bowls, plates, trays, sake cups, boxes, combs, and other items. The harmony of traditional Japanese cuisine in Japan has been complemented by the use of urushi bowls and plates. Classical fashion arose in the culture of the noble court. With the use of maki-e and raden urushi techniques, furniture, cosmetics, toys, urushi pens, and writing instruments were all tastefully decorated with gold and silver.
In addition, Urushi became a crucial component of the harmony of Natsume (tea canisters), Kogou (incense burners), and other equipment and utensils used in the tea ceremony. Urushi was a material used to make armor, helmets, swords, and other military equipment outside of the court, as well as in Buddhist temples. People decked themselves with lovely urushi jewelry during the Edo period, which ran from roughly 1600 to 1867. European lacquer pottery was first introduced to the continent in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company.
Chinese screens were transported into Europe during the eighteenth century, frequently to be employed in the construction of new items. These panels can be divided in two to create two lacquer surfaces that can be used as wall panels or trimmed down for cabinets. There are currently a lot of these hybrid pieces of furniture in both private and public collections.
Asian lacquer was first used for furniture and other decorative arts in the twentieth century by a number of French designers. Screens, furniture, and paintings made with Asian lacquer were created by artists including Eileen Gray and Jean Dunand.
While many artisans still create lovely lacquerware today, urushi has emerged as a significant medium in the Asian art scene, particularly in Japan. In their paintings, art pieces, and jewelry, contemporary artists are using urushi more frequently, using its hues, forms, and techniques.
2. Different types of Japanese Urushi lacquer
Urushi can be broadly categorized into three types:
- Ki-urushi, a squeezed, unprocessed tree sap, has an opaque beige tint. As the trees draw water from their roots for growth, the urushi that is collected in the spring (hatsu-hen) has a high water content and is ideal for the ro-iro polishing procedure. Because the urushi harvested in the fall (oso-hen) is of lower quality, it is used for undercoats and sealing instead.
- Naka-nuri urushi is a high-quality urushi harvested in the summer (sakari-hen) On a hot day, ki-urushi is constantly churned in big vats heated by a heater or by hand. This is done to evaporate some of the water content that thickens the urushi for the initial coats of pure urushi after the shitaji undercoats have been completed.
- Uwa-nuri urushi is tapped in the summer and is of the greatest quality since it contains the least water and the most urushiol. The same as naka-nuri urushi, but churned in vats for a longer amount of time until transparent and honey-like in consistency. However, if all of the water content is removed, the urushi will not dry, thus this process must be carefully controlled. Because urushi is natural tree sap, the conditions and quality will vary year to year depending on the trees and the environment.
3. Why is Urushi so special?
Urushi, unlike paints and varnishes, does not “dry.” It needs moisture to set correctly and must be cured at a specified temperature and humidity level. The setting, or polymerization, happens, resulting in a long-lasting surface.
The end result of the polymerization is an extremely durable, long-lasting covering. After setting, urushi creates a highly hard, long-lasting surface. And with proper care, it can last for generations. “Urushi will not degrade for hundreds of years — it’s the law of nature,” says urushi maestro Kazumi Murose. It is created and used on a timescale that is millennia longer than human life.” When you touch a piece of urushi art in your hands, it’s as if you’re holding onto time itself.
Urushi has become a part of Japanese and global culture, in part because of its durability. Its collection and use date back thousands of years, making it one of Japan’s oldest traditions. If you visit an Asian art museum, you’re bound to encounter a few urushi artifacts, such as tea cups, a Japanese lacquer box, a Japanese lacquer tray, or perhaps an entire cabinet covered with urushi lacquer.
II. How to collect Urushi?
Urushi has traditionally been manually gathered. Urushi farmers are extremely skilled, and before starting out on their own, apprentices must work for them for a number of years.
Additionally, they must exercise extreme caution to safeguard themselves from urushiol. Even the vapors can be dangerous. Some farmers, however, over time build up an immunity, thus accidental contact with the sap does not result in a painful rash.
From the start of June to the start of October, farmers can pick urushi. A gash is made into the trunk at a height of about 8 inches, reaching into the area known as the “tubular urushi pipeline zone” beneath the bark. The cuts must be exact and done with specialized instruments. Too little sap will be gathered, if any at all. If it’s too deep, the tree will perish.
Another cut will be positioned over the prior one every four to five days. The tree will be cut repeatedly with recovery days to give it time to mend. The tree will either be removed at the end of the season and a new one planted in its place, or it will be utilized to gather wax, another by-product. The tree may need to rest for three years before being harvested once more, but this is not always the case. To Western ears, this can seem wasteful, yet the Japanese have been honing their techniques for thousands of years.
Before an urushi tree can be harvested, it must grow for 10 to 15 years. Additionally, only a modest amount of urushi—roughly 200 grams, or enough to paint 10 tiny rice bowls—can be harvested from each tree. Urushi sap is extremely valuable because it requires a large investment for a modest return.
III. How do artisans use Urushi?
A protective waterproof covering made of hardened urushi lacquer resists rotting and aging while also repelling mold and mildew. Lacquer has traditionally been used to protect goods made of wood, leather, paper, basketry, and metal, but more recently, it has also been used to protect items made of pottery, glass, metal, and even plastic. In addition to being extremely durable and weatherproof, urushi is also incredibly beautiful. Urushi has evolved into something much more than just a piece of utility and is now regarded as one of Japan’s greatest traditional art forms. It is elegant and refined while still being straightforward and modest.
Wondering how artisans use Urushi? Yeah, Urushi often uses in artworks with Maki-e technique.
Maki-e, which translates to “sprinkled picture,” is a Japanese phrase. It’s a fitting name given that the main technique in the art involves dusting objects with metallic powders (often gold or silver) to produce images. The metal powder is often applied to a surface with a tiny bamboo pipe, but cotton can also be used on occasion.
But first, urushi lacquer must be applied on the metal before it can be sprinkled on a surface. A surface that will receive metal particles is produced when urushi lacquer is applied to things.
Maki-e, which has roots that go back to the seventh century A.D., was used to embellish items that were typically preserved by aristocrats and aristocracy. They valued the art for its complexity and the finesse and attention to detail needed to perform it successfully. Usually jewelry boxes and other such items were used; the first Maki-e fountain pen wasn’t made until 1925.
There are four main techniques use in the art of Maki-e.
1. Hira Maki-e
Hira Maki-e, the simplest Maki-e technique, entails merely scattering the metallic powder onto the surface and painting layers of lacquer over it. Although it is quick and easy, it is also quite one-dimensional.
Since the Kamakura period (1185–1333), when fine and uniform-sized metal powders were accessible, this technique has gained in popularity. The most well-known instances are Kodaiji Makie (maki-e made for Kodai-ji temple in Nara).
2. Togi-dashi Maki-e (sanded out maki-e)
Hira Maki-e is slightly more sophisticated and beautiful than Togidashi Maki-e. The same fundamentals are used at first, but after the design is finished, more urushi layers are added. These extra layers increase the product’s tensile strength. After that is finished, the surface is polished with charcoal to show the underlying design’s finer intricacies.
The technique that follows this one (known as aratogi) is called suri-urushi, in which raw lacquer is applied with cotton and removed with crumpled rice paper before being burned (shiage togi) with charcoal. Then, granular charcoal is applied with water and gently polished with a soft cloth. Finally, polishing and suri-urushi are done three times.
A Chinese T’ang-style sword from the Nara era (645-794) that belonged to the Shs-in in Nara has the earliest existing example of togidashi maki-e on its sheath. Togidashi maki-e lacquer pottery flourished throughout the Heian era (794–1185). Shishiai togidashi maki-e is the name of a style of pottery that dates back to the Muromachi period (1338–1573) and uses high relief (takamaki-e) in combination with the method.
3. Taka Maki-e (raised maki-e)
The really exciting thing is now coming up! Taka Maki-e specifically refers to the technique of lifting selected design parts to give the image a slightly more three-dimensional appearance. The typical method used by artisans to achieve this is to apply numerous layers of urushi lacquer on important design elements. It takes a long time since the craftsman must wait until the lacquer is completely dry between each layer.
4. Shishiai Maki-e
Most people believe that this is the most sophisticated Maki-e technique currently in use. It combines Taka Maki-e and Togidashi, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Burnishing on a flat surface is one thing, but burnishing minute features after they have been raised up and textured in a consistent and aesthetically acceptable fashion is quite another. It requires a great deal of talent and is typically only available to individuals with extensive experience in the field.
In summary, Maki-e is a stunning art form that takes an absurd amount of expertise to execute successfully. It also demands flow, which we believe many of us are looking for in a profession. Like other arts, it requires whole and complete focus on the job at hand as well as total and complete immersion in the moment. The closest analogy, in our opinion, would be watchmaking in the west. Both precision and meticulousness are necessary in equal measure, and losing either of them would be tragic.
IV. What is the most popular Lacquerware today?
Elegantly carved “kuronuri” (black lacquer) or “shunuri” are the two main types of Japanese lacquerware (vermilion lacquer). The major allure of lacquerware is supposed to be its shiny appearance, although items that have aged gracefully over time are also highly endearing. Additionally, because many locations maintain their own distinctive traditions, contrasting the various styles is highly enjoyable. Each type of lacquerware has a particular vibe that should definitely be experienced, from the striking designs of Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware from Aomori Prefecture to the dignified aspect of the thickly lacquered Wajima-nuri lacquerware from Ishikawa Prefecture.
And below are some of the most popular Lacquerware of today:
1. Thermo mug urushi
This thermo cup combines modern thermoregulation technology with 1,500-year-old Echizen lacquerware, a traditional Japanese art. Every stage of the creation of Echizen lacquerware, from base building to lacquering and embellishment, is personally handled by a skilled craftsperson, producing the most exquisite, high-quality item imaginable. You’re sure to discover one that you like among the many various designs and red and black colors available.
The mug also has a screw-type lid with great sealability, making it appropriate for usage in nearly any environment, including the workplace and the home. More importantly, it gives you a reason to experience the allure of Japanese lacquerware every day, putting one of the nation’s oldest crafts in the tangible context of Japanese culture. It is not only sustainable because it is recyclable!
2. Urushi business card holder
One other piece of Echizen lacquerware is this business card holder. Lacquerware is now available in a wider variety of objects than mere tableware including plates, chopsticks, and cups. People can enjoy refined beauty on a daily basis because it is utilized to create a variety of products, including this business card holders and smartphone cases.
This elegant business card holder will spark conversations with colleagues and clients right away because of its brilliant amber brown hue and exceptional durability. It will naturally fit 51 x 89 mm North American and 55 x 85 mm European business cards in addition to the normal 55 x 91 mm Japanese business cards, making it a pretty worldwide fit. However, there are other regional card sizes available, so please double-check the size before making a purchase.
3. Urushi dishes
These charming contemporary plates are created utilizing the renowned Kagawa lacquerware techniques, which date back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). You can mix and combine these sets, which come in a variety of colors, to find one that you like. They come in two sizes, 21 cm and 25 cm, and may be used to serve a wide range of cuisines.
The plates begin as natural wood and are then covered with lacquer using methods that have been handed down through the ages to make them extremely water resistant, insulated, and bacteriostatic. They get more colorful and soft to the touch as you use them more. While they cannot be put in the microwave, dishwasher, or oven, with proper care, you may still enjoy the natural development of these plants for many years to come.
You can also buy a set of these plates in six various colors, which will definitely make your dinner table pop!
4. Two colors of bowl top coating (inner black, inner vermilion)
More Kagawa lacquerware can be seen in the form of these bowls. Using a painting technique known as “komanuri,” which is also used to decorate Japan’s “koma” spinning top toys, they are embellished with circular red, yellow, and black patterns. These patterns’ roundness plays a significant role in their appeal.
Even when holding scalding hot soup, the bowls’ excellent durability and insulation prevent you from getting burned.
5. Dry lacquer kotobuki cherry blossom chopsticks
These chopsticks are manufactured in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, utilizing the Wajima lacquerware style. Wajima, known for its thriving lacquerware industry, is generally regarded as the mecca of Japanese lacquering.
Wajima lacquerware distinguishes itself by using high-quality soil found only around Wajima in its base coat. Because of the use of this soil, the resulting lacquerware is extremely durable.
Popular motifs referencing nature, such as cherry blossoms, maple leaves, and snow, decorate these Wajima lacquerware chopsticks. As a result, they make excellent wedding or special occasion gifts.
>> Read more: Japanese kotatsu table-History of the Japanese Heated Tables.
V. How to care for Lacquerware?
To get the most value out of your purchase, you should take excellent care of any genuine, traditional urushi products you have chosen, such as a Japanese lacquer box or Japanese lacquer tray.
Avoid overexposure to UV radiation or drying out your urushi goods. If you would rather exhibit your collection than use it, be sure that it is not exposed to direct sunlight for a significant portion of the day. The majority of conventional items are packaged in hardwood boxes with paper inserts that can be used to protect and maintain humidity. If not, keeping the urushi objects in good condition only requires keeping them in a cabinet with strong doors or a location that is somewhat humid.
There is one unbreakable rule to follow if you really want it for daily use: go old school. This means that you shouldn’t use hand mixers or any other sharp objects on lacquerware, or put it in the dishwasher, microwave, or toaster oven. If you must wash it, use a gentle, eco-friendly detergent. Never, ever let anything sit in the sink to soak. Urushi shouldn’t ever be totally submerged in water, but it also shouldn’t ever dry out. It should be carefully washed, dried with a soft dish towel, and stored until its subsequent usage.
Urushi, which has deep roots in Japanese culture and society and is supported by a long history, perfectly expresses the country’s traditional ideas of beauty. Nevertheless, the Japanese have developed numerous innovative methods to enjoy lacquerware while still upholding tradition. They are Japanese works of art that are highly regarded all around the world. Do you have your favorite Japanese urushi items? Let us know in the comment section.