Urushi work is the art of creating designs on the surface of artworks by painting them with the sap of the Urushi tree. After it dries, Urushi repels water and forms a hard film that prevents rotting. For this reason the technique has been used on everyday items since ancient times. Look around you––if you are in Japan, at least, you should easily be able to find vessels or utensils painted with Urushi, such as bowls, chopsticks, trays, multi-tiered boxes and so forth. Urushi was used from the Stone Age onward as an adhesive, and later as a coating. Decorative objects painted with reddish Urushi have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Jomon Period, 9,000 years ago.
Thanks to these properties, Urushi has historically been used along with gold, silver, and seashell inlays to create beautifully decorated boxes for precious books or garments, as well as on musical instruments, sword scabbards, armor and so forth. Today, lovely Urushi work articles continue to be made, including daily necessities like bowls and trays as well as tea ceremony utensils such as tea caddies and incense containers.
General Production Process
Bamboo Urushi work is known as rantai.
Bamboo is ideal for weaving into various forms. The bamboo is broken into very fine strips, and their surfaces are coated with layers of Urushi. Articles made with bamboo are both lightweight and sturdy.
Linen Urushi work is known as kanshitsu.
A form is made with clay, and then plaster is used to make a mold in that shape. Linen is affixed to the mold with Urushi, layered to the required thickness, and then the mold is removed. Further coats of Urushi are applied after that. The linen fibers are strengthened when the Urushi soaks into them, and the end result is sturdy, although the linen can be shaped with a great degree of freedom.
Maki-e is a distinctively Japanese Urushi work technique that is said to have developed around 1,200 years ago. It involves using a fine brush to paint a picture with Urushi on the surface of a vessel, and then sprinkling gold powder on the surface before the Urushi dries to create a design. The word maki means to sprinkle and e means picture. There are various styles including togidashi maki-e, hira maki-e, and taka maki-e.
Raden is a decorative craft that uses the iridescent parts of seashells such as abalone, turban shells, and pearl oysters, which are shaved down very thin. Ra means a spiral shell and den means to decorate. The technique was conveyed to Japan from China about 1,300 years ago, and marvelous examples can be seen in the treasures at Shoso-in Temple in Nara.
In this technique, a chisel or blade is used to cut lines or dots into a lacquered surface. Gold leaf or fine gold powder is then inlaid in the grooves, creating a fine and delicate design. This technique was conveyed from China to Japan approximately 600 years ago.
There are three basic variations on this technique: cutting lines, cutting dots, and cutting a combination of the two. All of them employ a special carving blade known as a kinma-ken.
Originally all kinma was done by cutting lines only, but it later became possible to produce complex designs using various colored Urushi and a variety of cutting techniques.
Kinma is said to have been transmitted from Southeast Asia hundreds of years ago.
Dozens of layers of colored Urushi are painted on to a plain surface. Then, a carving blade is used to carve into these layers and make designs in relief. This technique was conveyed from China about 800 years ago.
Hiramon is the technique of stretching metals such as gold or silver into thin strips, which are then cut into various shapes to create designs.
After painting a design with Urushi, you place eggshells broken into tiny pieces on its surface. This makes it possible to create a bright white, which is difficult to achieve with colored Urushi. The shells of quail eggs are generally used.
Urushi-e is the technique of painting pictures with colored Urushi. This is the oldest and most basic decorative Urushi technique.
This is the technique of carving relief designs into wood, and then applying layers of Urushi atop it. The name comes from the city of Kamakura, but similar techniques are used throughout Japan.
"What Are Traditional Crafts? -A Guidebook to Seeing, Learning, and Enjoying-"
Edited by the Japan Kogei Association Eastern Branch. Published by Unsodo ／ List of works English translation: Kazuko Todate (Art critic / Art historian)
Famous local brand
Wajimanuri lacquerware is produced and sold mainly in Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture. It is characterized by a profound color and luster, and a smooth texture. Delicate and graceful gold-foil embellishment is applied by using such techniques as chinkin with its incised and gold-filled decoration, or the sprinkled gold powder of maki-e.
Tsugarunuri lacquerware is produced and sold in the Tsugaru region centering on Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture. It features highly polished, flat, smooth surfaces created by applying layer upon layer of colored lacquer over a wooden Aomori hiba tree base.