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JAPANESE LACQUER - HISTORY


The Shining Beauty of Japan


The deep, shiny luster of black or dark red lacquerware, often gorgeously decorated with gold and silver or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is a Japanese handicraft form that has long fascinated the world. No other application style can match the deep hues and smoothness of Japanese lacquer (urushi in Japanese). Lacquerware stands as one of the most distinctive forms of Japanese beauty.


The History of Urushi
Urushi is the sap of the urushi or lacquer tree that is native to Japan, China, and Korea. The sap of this tree contains a resin that polymerizes and becomes a very hard, durable, plastic-like substance when it is exposed to moisture and air.

Contemporary historical research indicates that the knowledge of urushi lacquer technology was introduced from China to Korea, and from there to Japan. Though Japan had also been using lacquer in ancient times, the systematic application process used in Japanese laquerware is said to have developed in China. However, the discovery of Japanese lacquerware in Japan from the Jomon period (ca 10500-ca 300 BC) offers strong evidence that lacquer technology also independently developed in Japan.

Stone-age people first discovered the useful properties of the urushi tree and took advantage of its adhesive properties to mount points on spears and arrows. The Japanese of the Jomon period recognized the durability and shiny beauty of urushi and began using it to coat wood, pottery, baskets and bone objects. The arrival of Buddhism in Japan made lacquer production a key industry as it was used together with cloth to create Buddhist images.

From that time onward, as Japanese culture developed, so did its use of lacquer and its application to bowls, plates, trays, sake cups, boxes, combs and other objects. As Japanese civilization developed, lacquerware techniques continuously incorporated ever more refined styles. The Nara period (710-794) saw the birth of the maki-e decoration technique in which gold ''dust'' was decoratively sprinkled on the lacquer surface.



Urushi has found many uses in Japanese craft and culture forms. Urushi bowls or plates are an essential part of Japanese haute cuisine forms such as kaiseki. Maki-e (sprinkled application of gold or silver powder) and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay) urushi techniques have been widely used to elegantly deocorate furniture, make-up accessories, toys, and writing implements.




Urushi is also widely used in the tools and utensils for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Urushi was also used for the altars of Buddhist temples and in the making of armour, helmets, swords, and other implements of war. In the Edo period (1600-1868), personal accessories made with urushi such as medicine cases, combs and hairpins became widely popular. Today, urushi continues to be used in its traditional forms and in modern, new ways.

JAPANESE LACQUER - HOW IT'S MADE

 

Kyo-nuri Lacquerware: Japan's finest


Due to the traditional knowledge possessed by the many skilful craftsmen centered around the imperial court, Kyoto prospered as the center of Japan's lacquer ware industry from the Muromachi period (1333-1568) onwards. Kyoto lacquerware has always been regarded as the most exquisite in all of Japan.

Applying extraordinaly fine gold powder using a special bamboo tool.

During the Muromachi period, the Imperial court began to hire individual Kyoto lacquer craftsmen. Examples of artists from this period are Koami and Igarashi, who made tea utensils under the direction of Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga.

The era, known as ''Higashiyama Makie,'' brilliantly reflects the splendor of the Kyoto lacquerware, which exquisitely expressed the subtle aesthetic ideas of wabi (rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness) and sabi (patina or the beauty or serenity that comes with age) that are so important in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Soup Bowls, Sun and Moon: The circles represent the sun and the moon. Urushi is applied over the gold and silver foil; it will fade over time and the gold and silver underneath will appear more clearly.

In the Azuchi Momoyama Period (1573-614), Kyoto lacquer ware strongly reflected the tastes and preferences of the affluent and dominant warrior class. The gorgeous rich effects of Kodaiji Makie are particularly noteworthy. Beginning in the Edo Period (1600-1868), despite the popularity for brilliance and glitter, works started to reveal increasingly delicate and elaborate aesthetic preferences.

Today, Kyoto lacquer ware is not limited to only ornamental objects, but also includes ordinary tableware, furniture, as well as a number of different household effects. Kyoto lacquer ware has been designated as a ''traditional Japanese handicraft form'' by the national government.


Hand Mirrors with Grapes: Traditionally, grapes are a symbol of longevity and they have long been a popular motif in Japanese arts. Shell inlay has been used on some grapes to add a feeling of luxury.


At one time, as the convenience of plastic and bakelite products rapidly changed the market, Kyoto lacquerware experienced a down turn. In recent years, however, consumer tastes are reverting back to the idea of quality over convenience or price considerations. A wide appreciation of genuine traditional lacquerware has returned. One problem that remains is that there is a shortage of lacquerware craft masters. Efforts have intensified in the last few years to train and cultivate young artisans.

How to Care for Lacquer Ware

To properly maintain lacquerware take the following precautions.

1) Do not soak in hot or cold water for a long time. Wash with warm water and dry with a soft cloth.

2) To maintain a good gloss, wipe gently with a soft cloth after washing. Avoid excessive force.

3) Avoid putting in the refrigerator, the dishwasher, under direct sunshine, or in extremely dry places. This could lead to discoloration.

4) Do not use with direct heat, in a microwave, or in an oven.