Translated by Jelena Kitamura
Japanese Lacquerware - How To Distinguish Quality Items
Written by kanako moriya
Lacquerware is one of Japan's traditional art forms. Let us show you its beauty, and teach you how to choose it and treat it, both with care and the discerning eye of a professional.
All Those Types Behind One Name – Lacquerware
Today, we will teach you about Japanese traditional lacquerware.
The term represents the utensils, decorations, and such, that were made by applying layers and layers of lacquer on various wooden items, paper objects, and other goods.
The varnish used for lacquering these implements is actually sap, taken from the lacquer tree. It is said that sap was used in Japan even in the Jomon Period (from about 15,000 years to about 2300 years ago), mainly as an antiseptic, adhesive, and such. From those days until the present it has been used in various ways.
It proved to be very useful when it came to decorating not only wooden objects, but glass, metal, cloth, and other such base materials too. For woodwork, it is used when lacquering trays and shelves, wooden pencils, and other everyday utensils beside the ones used in the kitchen.
This time, we have decided to tell you a little bit more about the greatness of Japanese lacquerware.
The Charm of Japanese Lacquerware
1. Its Ability to Change with Every Use
Lacquerware will show you the passing of time with its ever-changing beauty. Every time you use it, it will amaze you with another level of shininess, and as time passes, it should slowly change color to a whole different look. One can even say that lacquerware is nurtured by the users themselves.
2. Its Classical Beauty
By using the traditional technique of makie, where metal powder (silver or gold) is mixed into the lacquer, artisans can depict lovely seasonal motifs, such as flowers blooming, on the lacquerware. You can also find subtle and sophisticated lacquer decorations on the inner surface of bowls’ lids. These symbols of the passing of the seasons and other similar depictions truly resonate with the traditional Japanese understanding of beauty and art.
3. Its Gentle Natural Touch
Most lacquerware is made by applying numerous layers of lacquer on wooden surfaces. That is precisely what makes lacquerware different from other wooden ware; that gentleness and softness you feel each time you touch its surface comes from the all-natural material it was made of. A truly special feeling you ought to get only from sophisticated lacquerware. And, since it retains heat internally, you won’t have much trouble handling it, nor will you have your tasty soups or other warm dishes cool down before you've enjoyed them – what more could you ask for?
3 Tips to Recognize Good Quality Lacquerware
As you might already know, lacquerware, as one of the Japanese traditional art forms, is deeply rooted in the everyday life of the Japanese, so you are likely to find various items in all sorts of places – from the stores at well-known tourist attractions, to the supermarkets in the urban area.
But, since you’re already planning to buy such a precious piece of Japanese traditional art, why not make sure you get the best of the best? In order to help you recognize true quality, we bring you 3 points to pay attention to.
Point no.1: What’s the Material?
Many materials, such as metal, plastics, wood, and other, can be used to create beautiful ware, but one of your priorities, besides the astounding look, should be its appeal to your sense of touch as well. Lacquerware’s solidity, durability, and many other qualities, mostly depend on the type of material used as a base. Wood is considered to be softer than plastic, for example, and it certainly lasts longer.
To get a clue about the material of your preferred item, first check whether it has a label. If the material used is wood, such as Eucommia tree, Japanese zelkova, and similar, it should say “natural wood” on the label.
Point no.2: Is the Lacquer the Real Deal?
There could be three different terms used to describe which type of varnish was applied to the product – lacquer coating, cashew coating, or urethane coating. It is of great importance to find out what type of varnish was used when making the item – was it really lacquer, or not. The greatest features of lacquer are the glamorous feel, and the ability to withstand the test of time while maintaining the same quality. What also sets it apart from other varnish is the fact that you won’t mind its peculiar smell for much too long.
On the other hand, cashew coating and urethane coating have other chemical substances mixed in – in other words, they are synthetic. Of course, objects coated with such varnish are no match for all-natural lacquerware in terms of the feel, look, and other qualities. However, this ware, too, has some good points to it – it’s relatively cheaper, and can potentially bear ultra-violet rays, as well as desiccation, better than their natural counterparts.
For that reason, the ware coated with a synthetic form of varnish is considered to be easier to maintain on daily basis. You can pick your preferred item after sorting out the way you want to use it – would you like it to be long lasting and keep its original quality, sturdiness, and beauty, or would you like something that is easier to use, and to which you won’t need to pay much attention. The first one would be lacquerware, the second one would be ware varnished with some kind of synthetic coating.
Point no.3: What’s the Price?
However, not many would be able to distinguish between the ware so accurately just by looking at their material or coating. In cases when even the staff can’t tell you in detail about the product, or when there are no labels which you can turn to for more accurate information, your last weapon for recognizing the real quality is the price.
Nonetheless, there are things to know before you bet everything on the product’s price – you must find out the market prices for each manufacturing area.
Yes, you should pay attention to that as well – the production process of lacquerware varies depending on the area, so consequently, the prices for each manufacturing area vary, too. We could give you one (perhaps shocking) example of such high-priced and high-quality ware – one Wajima lacquerware bowl might cost more than 10,000 yen, because of the long and zealous hard work that has been put into its making. On the other hand, you might find bowls by other manufacturers for 3000 yen, and find them to be of exquisite quality and beauty.
The most trustworthy way to look into the market prices for each area is said to be by paying a visit to the local veteran shops. After you’ve gotten your hands on that valuable information, the next step is to keep your hands off the suspiciously cheap products. For especially cheap and especially valuable items, it is best to consult the store staff, because you never know when or where you will get to buy that very special item that suits your taste and needs just perfectly.
One more way to know you’ve gotten yourself a true masterpiece would be to find one with a traditional seal on it – a sign that it was made by a famous, respected artisan, or by using some highly esteemed traditional technique.
How to Use It
Now, make sure you use your precious lacquerware the right way.
Beware of Desiccation and Ultra-Violet Rays
Take extra care of you lacquerware when it comes to desiccation and UV rays. If you wish for your ware to always be as mesmerizing as the first day you laid your eyes on it, make sure to use it periodically and take care of it afterward and don’t let it be directly exposed to sunlight. To avoid dehydration (desiccation), store it in relatively humid places, such as under the shelves (in cabinets), or close to the floor.
Some believe you shouldn’t use detergent to wash your lacquerware whatsoever, but as long as you don’t soak it for a long period of time, there shouldn’t be any problems even if you do want to use some detergent. However, do take utmost care to dry it out completely! After you’ve given it a proper wash, make sure not to leave any traces of water behind by gently and carefully wiping it dry.
Furthermore, don’t let it near your microwave or dishwasher! It might damage your ware, or even make it lose its trademark shininess, so try not to let such a sad thing happen.
So, if you feel a sudden and irresistible urge to get yourself some wonderful lacquerware while at a tourist spot, look for it at ware shops, souvenir shops, department stores, and such. Other than that, you can get your eyes and hands on some beautiful lacquerware at Japan Traditional Craft Aoyama Square in Tokyo, where they display and sell traditional artwork.
Choose yourself some elegant lacquerware while on a trip or as a memento, use it properly, and it will last you for decades – your very own piece of, both exquisite and useful, traditional Japanese art.
In cooperation with
Japan Traditional Craft Aoyama Square Ms. Sasaki
Kagawa Traditional Lacquerware Craftsman Mr. Watanabe