Kawatsura Lacquer Ware
Made for daily life
While ornamental lacquer ware styles may have become mainstream around Japan, Kawatsura ware is one of the few that is still being made plain and simple for everyday use. Techniques that have grown out of the craft's 800-year tradition lend it an indefinable warmth.
Your grandchildren will still be using it
Persimmon juice mixed with raw urushi lacquer is applied directly to the wooden cores of Kawatsura lacquer ware to make it strong and prevent warping. It is one of the sturdier varieties of lacquer, and one which will last for at least three generations, so if you buy it and start using it now, it will still be going strong when your own grandchildren are grown up. Since this is a function-first lacquer craft originally made for the daily use of the farming people it bears no unnecessary decoration and employs only local timber and urushi lacquer.
The craft is said to have had its beginnings in the Kamakura Period (12th-14th centuries) when Onodera Shigenori, the brother of Onodera Shigemichi, lord of Inaniwa Castle, built a workshop, which is now the center of Kawatsura lacquer ware production, and engaged in the lacquering of sword sheaths, arrows and armor. From the Edo period (1600-1868) it became a prosperous center for lacquer ware production where various techniques were born.
Not a speck of dust
As I entered the workshop of Mr Kenkichi Asano, I was cautioned to shut the door. This was to prevent dust from coming in. Mr Asano explained to me that dust is the enemy of lacquering. At 44 he is one of the younger lacquerers in his trade. But even though he is young he has been lacquering for more than 30 years having started at 15. He says it is easy to tell real lacquer ware from plastic. "You only have to use it and you will know immediately by the touch of it on your lips or the feel of it in your hands." You can also test it by pouring in hot soup. If the bowl becomes too hot to hold, you know it is plastic, because the wooden cores of real lacquer bowls insulates them.
The lacquer workshop is filled with a deep silence.
Teaching makes all the difference
Kawatsura lacquer ware is having considerable success in finding young people to carry on the craft. This is largely due to the existence of special lectures and workshops that are held so that people can learn everything from the basics of the craft to advanced techniques. Mr Asano says no such courses of study were available when he was learning the trade, but on the other hand, there were plenty of artisans around to teach him on the job. He says that each of the craftsmen had his own way of doing things and they would tell him off if he did not do it their way, but by the same token he was able to pick up methods and ideas from each that allowed him to discover his own style.
The silence broken
The craftsman scoops up a vessel and applies a layer of lacquer with a measured stroke of his brush. After checking to see that no specks of dust have marred the surface he stacks it on to the pile of finished items separated by wooden palettes, making sure one cannot touch the next. Since lacquering abhors dust, no air movement can be allowed. The craftsman keeps his mouth shut at all times and the room is filled with the deep silence of concentrated work.
But all of a sudden I am taken aback by a loud creaking groan. It is made by a machine that flips the stack of lacquered items over periodically so that the lacquer dries evenly.
The machine flips the bowls over.
Honoring the local lacquer craft
These days Akita Prefecture has begun encouraging local schools to use Kawatsura lacquer vessels for school lunches. This is partly for health reasons, since plastic has been found to contain hormone-disrupters while aluminium may be one of the causes of Alzheimer's disease. Urushi lacquer has, meanwhile, proved over hundreds of years that it is absolutely safe. Children who use real lacquer ware even say they prefer it despite the extra effort needed for its care. I was told by Akita Prefectural Lacquer Ware Industry Union spokesman, Kohei Sato, that they are developing even sturdier versions of Kawatsura lacquer ware for school use and are considering the idea of having every child acquire his or her own set of lacquer luncheon vessels which would be used throughout their school life. This would teach them more than anything else the importance of taking good care of lacquer ware. And by having children come in contact with real lacquer everyday, they will once again develop an appreciation for the genuine thing - a knowledge which has all but been lost by the present generation.
With the efforts of Kawatsura craftsmen, the future of lacquer ware looks bright.
These articles appear too well made to have been the work of beginners in the basic lacquering course.
Has been a Kawatsura lacquer ware craftsmen since leaving junior high school and says he has finally learned the basics well enough to do some experimenting. He says he is able to accept orders to repair and refurbish lacquer ware, too.