Yamanaka Lacquer Ware
The finest turning skills
Yamanaka lacquer ware is said to have started when some wood turners moved to the Yamanaka Hot Spring in Ishikawa Prefecture during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) and settled along the upper reaches of the river there. What gives this ware its special flavor is the execution of decorative surface textures while the core is on the lathe.
Yamanaka lacquer ware is known for the extremely high level of skill of the local wood turners. Their turned pieces are works of art in themselves. I spoke with Minoru Yamamoto, one of the local wood turners who has inherited this precious skill. I found him in his workshop, fragrant with freshly shaved wood, applying himself to some intricate work at the lathe.
The blade makes a sound as it shaves wood from the core.
Making one's own tools
Mr Yamamoto tells me that the local wood turners are trained to be able to turn almost anything and he is confident of being able to make whatever style of bowl you could want. Then I saw the great row of chisels lined up in his workshop and realized this was part of his secret. These long chisel blades are attached to the lathe. "There are about 200 here, I suppose," he said, "but I've got a lot more than that."
Making those blades is part of the wood turner's trade. "If I have to make a new shape of bowl," says Mr Yamamoto, "I make a new tool to do it." And he explains that since he makes his own tools, it means he can turn anything he wants. He also tells me the shape of the carving blade differs with each craftsman, and even if different craftsmen were to use the same blade the bowl would turn out slightly differently, there is so much individuality in their work. He also recalls, "In the old days the master used to teach basic turning skills and how to make one's own tools, but after that you were on your own," so there is a great deal that the craftsman has to work out for himself.
"The hard part of making cores," he says, "is that it's sudden death if you shave off too much." It's a tricky job that requires speed at the same time as caution and restraint.
The craftsman makes his own blades.
Turned wooden objects in this trade are almost always for something utilitarian such as food bowls, so they have to be perfectly functional. Mr Yamamoto explains that this means you have to get the base as flat as possible. But it is rather hard to shave out the base, which is where the spinning lathe is attached to the core.
In addition the Yamanaka craftsmen are skilled at carving decorative textures into the surface of the core before lacquering. There are 40-50 different such decorative techniques, of which the most famous is parallel "threads" carved at intervals. Mr Yamamoto says it is possible to carve several such grooves per millimeter. Not only does this create an attractive surface but the grooves make the bowl easy to hold. Another characteristic of Yamanaka ware is that the wood is cut laterally, not cross-grain and this is partly because it is difficult to apply surface threading and other decorative effects if the wood is cut across the grain.
A special lathe
Another thing that makes threading and other decorative effects possible is the peculiar way that Yamanaka lathes are set up. Employing two flat belts, one that is straight and one that is crossed, the Yamanaka lathe is able to spin backwards or forwards simply by pressing the foot peddle, which acts like the clutch on a car and also controls the speed. "You can't do decorative effects with a lathe that only moves at the same speed," Mr Yamamoto explains.
Always thinking of the next thing
While absorbing the vibrations from the blade with his hands and arms, the wood turner delicately controls his lathe using his feet to adjust the speed. "You can only learn how to do it by experience," says Mr Yamamoto. "It's not something that you can learn from books." What makes the learning process particularly difficult, he says, is that wood is harder or softer in parts depending on whether the inner or outer section of the tree is being shaved, "so you come across these different textures while you are turning." This is why they say that wood turning can be more difficult than grinding steel.
Mr Yamamoto can quickly put his hands on whatever tool he needs for a particular job. Nearby are his many different grades of whetstone for keeping the blades sharp. His hands are a blur as he sharpens a tool, turns a core, changes a blade, sharpens it, and starts the turning again. "While I'm turning one bit, I'm thinking of what blade I'll use next." There is no pause as he deftly executes all these tasks and what started out as a lump of wood transforms into a beautiful vessel before my eyes. His movements are so seductive that I cannot take my eyes away. I suppose this is what real skill is all about.
"You learn by experience", says Mr Yamamoto.
Designated master craftsman who has been a wood turner for 49 years. "I can turn any shape you want," he says.