With a remarkable history spanning over many millennia, as far as Japan’s prehistoric era, traditional lacquerware is one of the finest craft forms of Japan. It is an art that demands a high scale of expertise with exceptional patience and concentration. For this reason, skilled craftsmen with years, if not decades of experience create authentic lacquerware in its purest form. The lacquer is essentially the sap of a tree called ‘Urushi’ meaning ‘lacquer’ in Japanese and the fermentation process turns the sap into a plastic-like material that hardens enough to be highly durable.
It is the wooden crafts that are more commonly enhanced by intricate lacquer paintings including ornamental objects, furniture and above all, tableware which is the most popular in the culture. What precisely makes lacquerware distinctive from other types of woodenware is the numerous coats of lacquer applied on the surface, giving it its own smoothness and glossy finish. The traditional process includes several stages starting from priming the woodenware and applying the base layer of lacquer. Usually, the base layer is applied in black, or red followed by eight to ten subsequent rounds of overlays of lacquer. This later allows the underlayer to show through the upper layers, creating a charming and unique two-tone lustre as the craft wears off with usage. This unique feature turns out to be a delight to the aesthetic eye. The more overlays applied, the stronger the wooden surface becomes. There can be occasions where refined pieces with the finest quality could even contain up to 60 layers of lacquer which could take months or even years to complete. After each layer is applied, pieces are left to be dried and hardened inside a room with high humidity. The final stage of production is the application of the last layer of high-gloss lacquer where even a speck of dust is avoided in the environment as it could affect the finishing touch of these fine crafts.
Carried forward from generation to generation for centuries, the mastery of lacquerware is carried on in various regions in Japan with their own unique flavours. Wajima lacquerware or “Wajima-nuri” is a classic example of prestigious lacquerware produced in the city of Wajima with its own attributes. Its complex designs such as ‘chinkin’, where gold leaves are embedded into the base layer and ‘maki-e’, whereby gold and silver powder is affixed to the surface of wares have become iconic in Japanese lacquerware tradition. Wajima lacquerware is also characterized by its innovative techniques used for enhanced strength and durability of its products. It was in this tradition where the powder of high-quality clay, called ‘Jinoko’, was produced to be blended with lacquer that is applied as the base coat to create a solid base. Another approach to create a solid piece is ‘Nuno kise’ where a piece of fabric is applied on the wooden surface with lacquer coated on top of it forming a durable handicraft that lasts for decades. Crafting top quality lacquerware in such elaborate manners could include more than 100 individual processes for a single piece and each process is handled by specialized craftsmen who have mastered the specific technique.
Today, though there are imitations of Japanese lacquerware, the difference of authentic materials that offer the glamorous feel and softness on the lacquerware surface is quite distinct. Just as the precision of wooden base, the premium quality of Japanese lacquer applied by inherited skills, is exclusively unique to Japan. Characterized by exquisite craftwork, Japanese lacquerware will surprise anyone with new levels of shininess that changes its beauty over time.