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Japanese Encyclopedia: Urushi, Urushinuri And Shikki (Lacquerware)
  • Japanese Encyclopedia: Urushi, Urushinuri And Shikki (Lacquerware)

Japanese Encyclopedia: Urushi, Urushinuri And Shikki (Lacquerware)

2016.07.21

Japanese food has spread to countries all around the world and with it, Japanese lacquerware - which is most well-known for its striking black and red tones, which makes it perfectly suited to Japanese sweets.

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by ニコ

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The History of Japanese Urushinuri

Urushi (漆) or lacquer, refers to the paints made from the sap of the urushi-no-ki, a tree known as Poison Oak in English. In general, traditional dishes and implements that have been painted with lacquer are known as urushinuri or as shikki ("lacquerware").

The manufacturing and use of lacquerware in Japan is believed to have begun over 2000 years ago. Along with tableware, combs and personal accessories, coffins, armors, Go and Shōgi boards, and many other objects have all been made with lacquer.

In present-day Japan, there are about 30 different places that are well-known for their lacquer work. All across Japan, from north to south, and from the coasts to inland areas, shikki have evolved and taken on the special characteristics of the area in which they are produced.

Understanding that lacquer is a natural component, the sap collection location and timing, methods of drying and the viscosity of the materials all vary from region to region. That is a large burden that lacquer artisans must shoulder. These artisans must take the skills that have been passed down to them and use them to discern the different natural properties of the lacquer and decide when that particular lacquer will be at its finest. Those techniques and knowledge are both held and passed down only in the region in which that particular lacquer is produced.

Features of Various Lacquerware

Though lacquerware is now produced all across Japan, the types that have the longest tradition associated with them typically are named after the region in which they developed. Now, let's take a look at some of the more famous brands of lacquerware found in Japan.

Wajima city, Ishikawa prefecture, is where you will find Wajimanuri, also called Ji-no-konayama, which is lacquerware that developed out of and is manufactured from soil that has been specially gathered for these handicrafts. Wajima Shikki Taidō is a long-standing shop where you can purchase elaborate pieces of lacquerware in Wajima city. For those who would like to purchase lacquerware for more daily use, the shop Wajimayazenni is perfect. With everything from ball pens to coffee cups, here you can find affordable pieces of lacquerware perfect for souvenirs or daily use.

Perhaps most known for its apples, Aomori prefecture is where the Tsugarunuri style of lacquer developed. This technique features layers upon layers of lacquer, giving it a depth that is not seen elsewhere.

And in seafood-rich Miyagi prefecture, you can find Narukonuri. The feudal lord that ruled this region sought to have its lacquerware become famous across Japan and as a result, heavily promoted its development. In order to do so, Narukonuri became closely associated with the famous hot spring, Naruko Onsen. This close connection to the north-eastern hot spring has made Narukonuri the de facto souvenir of any visit to Naruko Onsen. For that reason, even today the old shop Kanegen, the reasonably priced Sasaki Shikki Shop, and others meet the personal shopping needs of the guests to this hot spring town.

Japanese Food and Shikki in the World

A second reason behind the sudden popularity in Japanese lacquerware is the Japanese cuisine boom that has taken place overseas. The striking contrast of the scarlet and black along with the brilliant depth to the polish of Japanese lacquerware really sets off the beauty of Japanese cuisine. Hence, as Japanese cuisine spreads around the world, so too does the incorporation of lacquerware at these international shops. In fact, it is almost certain that most non-Japanese first come into contact with shikki ware by visiting Japanese restaurants abroad.

And, with this boom in Japanese cuisine, there are many more traditional lacquerware craftsmen and artisans looking towards the global market. For example, in Fukushima prefecture, the Aizu shikki producing brand BITOWA started up; producing lacquerware in a variety of designs that are perfect for daily use. And in fashion-focused Aoyama in Tokyo, at Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square, you can find Japan's various famous brands of lacquerware all under one roof.

Japanese lacquerware handicrafts can range in price from hundreds to thousands of yen. If you would like a sturdy, very "Japanese" souvenir, then a piece of this lacquerware is the perfect item for you.

Read these articles for more on Japanese handicrafts!

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