Kawatsura and Lacquerware
The Home of Urushi,
Surrounded by Nature
Kawatsura lacquerware arose in the small village of Kawatsura-measuring a mere 2km in radius-ensconced in the mountains of Akita Prefecture in Japan. The area is also known for its heavy snowfall, and even today one can experience abundant nature amidst a quintessential Japanese landscape setting. The origin of the lacquerware is said to hark back to the 12th century, when Onodera Michinori, a vassal of the famous shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99) who was posted to the village, ordered his retainers to apply urushi to their armor. Boats travelling along the Minase River, which flows through the village, brought in the raw materials needed to make Kawatsura lacquerware-the wood and tree resin-and also transported the product out to the rest of Japan and even abroad.
The techniques required to produce the polished pieces have been transmitted over the generations, from artisan to artisan, for more than eight centuries. Kawatsura lacquerware continues to be a traditional craft that Japan admires with pride.
What is Kawatsura
Urushi originally referred simply to the resin of lacquer tree, but has since become a collective term for manufactured items, such as eating utensils, on which the resin has been applied. However, real Japanese urushi is 100-percent natural: it is made of natural wood from natural trees and coated with natural Japanese lacquer. Everything about Kawatsura lacquerware is made from natural materials: the wooden base and the urushi coating. Natural lacquerware is both light and portable, and also offers several functions stemming from its natural properties: its antibacterial effect, heat resistance, thermal insulation, oil resistance, and antiseptic action.
One special characteristic of Kawatsura lacquerware is the hananuri style in which each piece is finished by liberally slathering it several times with totally natural urushi to take advantage of the material’s rich texture and glossy luster. As a piece of lacquerware is tenderly used over time, its luster only gains in beauty as it “grows” into its owner’s hand.
By the time a single piece of Kawatsura lacquerware emerges, it passes through the hands of several master artisans, each of whom gives it unstinting attention.
The kijishi is in charge of shaping bowls and other round items from bare wood, whilst the sashimonoshi fashions rectangular and curved pieces. After that, the nurishi applies the urushi, and the makieshi and chinkinshi then decorate it with gold dust and gold leaf, respectively. The time needed for such a painstaking process depends on the piece, of course, but usually almost half a year is required at minimum, and even more than one year for some bowls. Only a few lacquerware production districts remain in Japan that can still handle all the steps of the production process, and one of those precious few is Kawatsura.
Today, some two hundred artisan households in the village exquisitely breathe life into their lacquerware, proud of the trust invested in, and the quality of, the products made entirely by their own community.
Artisans and Their Roles
Four Basic Tenets for Handling Urushi
There are no set rules on how to serve food in lacquerware. Put any kind of food in it.
As natural lacquerware acts as thermal insulation, one does not have to worry about scalding one’s hands when holding an urushi dish or bowl within which hot food has been placed. Hot food, or cold food for that matter, can be enjoyed “as is” in lacquerware, without any adjustment of temperature.
As for what types of food can be used in lacquerware, it does not matter if it is liquid or greasy-in fact, anything is acceptable. And as for how to arrange the food, one may use the lid of a bowl as a small dish, or to use a tray as a large plate. The real pleasure of Kawatsura lacquerware is the ability to have things arranged creatively.
If lacquerware is used to serve food, wash it afterwards with a neutral detergent. Never use an abrasive to polish it.
To clean mildly dirty lacquerware, all that it is necessary is to wash it with lukewarm water. For greasy stains, though, use a neutral detergent on a sponge for washing. After washing the lacquerware, do not just let it dry naturally but take a soft cloth and wipe it so as to prevent water droplet stains from developing on the surface. To clean off food that has stuck to a piece of lacquerware, do not try to rub or pull it off, as that could leave permanent marks. Instead, soak the lacquerware in lukewarm water for five to ten minutes, after which the food will fall off automatically.
For long-term storage of lacquerware, make sure to wrap it in paper or cloth as it is put away so that it will not dry out.
Never put lacquerware in a dishwasher, microwave oven, or refrigerator.
If lacquerware is subject to high heat or humidity, or to extreme dryness, it will start to chip or crack, or otherwise be damaged. Do not ever place it in dishwashers, microwave ovens, or refrigerators.
If the urushi starts to chip or crack, get it re-lacquered as soon as possible.
If the urushi starts to chip or crack, or if white stains or dull areas start to appear on the surface owing to heat, illumination, or direct sunlight, have the piece repaired as soon as possible. As long as artisans are available to do the job, lacquerware can be repaired an unlimited number of times. For that reason, Japanese families customarily pass down lacquerware pieces from one generation to the next.