A New Standard from Yamanaka Onsen

Ensconced in this mountainous hot-spring town, the woodturners and makie lacquer artists of Yamanaka Onsen have long pursued perfection.

The organic beauty of lacquerware

The lacquerware tradition in Yamanaka Onsen began some 400 years ago, when a community of woodworkers settled in this hot-spring area—drawn by the curative waters, perhaps, but also by the dense forests available to them.

A deep bowl made of tochi (Japanese horse chestnut) by Takehito Nakajima.

These woodturners used lathes to cut, sand, face, and otherwise shape wood into bowls and trays that they then lacquered themselves. Today close to 60 turners carry on their craft here, along with the lacquer artisans and traders who settled in the area later.
It’s not uncommon for those encountering wooden lacquerware for the first time to be taken aback by the material’s light feel and smooth finish. The combination strikes some observers as less like high-quality wood and more like plastic.

Marks on the trunk of a Japanese lacquer tree show where it has been tapped.

So what, exactly, is the appeal of lacquerware?
The main raw material of lacquer is sap collected from trees of the sumac family. The key component of varnish gathered in Japan is urushiol, a high-molecular compound, allergenic oil, and skin irritant.
As if handling this substance alone weren’t troublesome enough, in order to dry the varnish its naturally occurring enzyme laccase must undergo oxidized polycondensation, a process requiring a steady temperature of 20–25ºC and a humidity factor of 60 to 80 percent. A wooden chamber known as a muro is used to this end.
Once it dries, however, natural lacquer is incredibly tough. It is resistant to water, heat, salt, alkali, and acid, and impervious even to nitrohydrochloric acid, a substance that can melt metal. A 2,000-year-old piece submerged in muddy water was found with its shine still in place. What’s more, a lacquer finish is both germ-resistant and antiseptic.

Flowering white clover is rendered in brilliant gold makie by Yamazaki.

Lacquerware is also ecological. The bark of a varnish tree is cut and its sap collected drop by drop. Using traditional methods, only about 200 grams of sap can be recovered from a tree that has been growing for 15 years. Imagine! A raw material that will last more than 1,000 years can be recovered in 15.
Lacquer imparts a translucent effect to the surface it coats. When people first found the hardened sap in the forest, their instinct was to use it as an adhesive. It was later adapted as varnish once its beauty and protective properties were discovered.
A vermilion-lacquered comb from the prehistoric Jomon era, discovered in Fukui prefecture, has shown that lacquering techniques, as well as our quest for artistic expression, were well in place as early as 6,000 years ago.

Woodturning and painting techniques

The artisans Takehito Nakajima and Mushu Yamazaki, heirs to Yamanaka’s legacy of woodworking and lacquerware, work at the forefront of these crafts today.
Nakajima is one of the top woodturners in Japan. He works with entirely with tools he has made himself, and does lacquering as well.
In Yamanaka, no clamps or other metal fittings are used to hold wood in the electric lathe—the piece is simply set into a wooden frame that protects it from scratches or other damage. This makes it easy to change the turning direction at any moment so that an entire bowl can be shaped in just a few minutes. Once the lathing is finished, the piece can be quickly removed and the next one set in place. Nakajima reports that a turner from overseas took one look at his setup and remarked, “That’s crazy! Doesn’t it scare you to work that way?” In fact, he explains, it’s a clever way to bring out the inherent suppleness of the wood.

An elegant bowl emerges beneath his hands as Takehito Nakajima works a piece of wood with tools he has made himself. Turners in Yamanaka typically use wood that is cut crosswise against the grain, which results in more durable wares.

Everything Nakajima makes is magnificent, but his sake cups have special appeal. As their design is carefully considered right down to the texture and touch of the piece on one’s lips, these works of art are a sublime way to savor sake. Nakajima’s mastery is evident in the feather-lightness of his vessels as well as their ultrathin walls. His recent works feature translucent lacquer with the gloss of marble, a new form of expression.

Yamazaki, whose works are sought after by collectors the world over, is, equally, one of the top lacquer painters in the country.
In the decorative art form of makie lacquer painting, designs are built up three-dimensionally, often sprinkled with gold or silver powder. Beyond artistic talent, patience and an abiding affection for each piece are requisite. As only the slightest bit of lacquer can be applied before it is set to dry and the next coat begun, the process is long and labor-intensive.

Fountain pens by makie artist Mushu Yamazaki. Multiple coats of lacquer were polished down to portray karashishi lions, shells, and other good-luck symbols, turning a writing instrument into a luxury article of understated elegance.

Yamazaki takes on restoration projects, too, preserving masterpieces and other antiques in exquisite form for future generations. His painstaking care, extending even to parts that are hidden, can at times only be confirmed with a magnifying glass. It is no exaggeration to place his trailblazing work in makie in league with that of the great Edo-period master Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891).

The flounder-shaped plate “Karei” by Yamazaki is an intricately detailed modern piece featuring not only makie but also the kanshitsu technique, in which multiple layers of hemp cloth are lacquered over a mold.