This article originally ran in Taiken Japan in April 2018. The Japanese know well that art is an understanding of nature. By observing and putting oneself in accord with nature, one can realize personal and emotional insights. This is true when working on finely crafted objects.
One such art is Maki-e, (蒔絵) one type of traditional Japanese lacquer painting. Maki means “sprinkling” and “e” is a picture. It is the most basic technique of a pattern of lacquerware making that is traditionally painted on plates, trays, mirrors, cups, boxes and other objects made from bamboo or wood, but also sometimes paper, leather or basket materials. It’s painted with urushi, (漆) a sap from the urushi tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly Rhus verniciflua) then sprinkled with gold, platinum, or other precious metals.
Urushi trees are found in Asia, including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. There are urushi trees in Mexico, but the Japanese variety is known for its superior quality. Urushi is known to withstand temperature change and erosion from water, acids, alkalies and alcohol. When urushi hardens, it absorbs moisture from the air. Urushi is cured with heat and humidity and is so high-quality that it retains its glossy look even after hundreds of years.
The word urushi has come to be known as Japanese lacquerware, itself, and is thought to come from the combination of the Japanese word of “uruashi” (beautiful, pleasing,) and “uruosu” (moist and luxurious). Urushi is also thought to even mean, “elegant woman,” I was told. Urushi is applied with a brush, that traditionally were made from human hair. Today’s brushes come from such animals as sheep, minks and mice.
Historically urushi was utilized as a paint for functional items, such as cloth, paper and bamboo, and also as an adhesive in the making of hunting and warrior equipment, and used on the tips of spears for its toxic component that is similar to poison ivy. It is believed that lacquer-making techniques were imported from China to Japan, however there is evidence that lacquer craft emerged independently in Japan during the Jomon Period (14,000 – 300 BC) as lacquered ornaments were discovered. Combs and trays have been excavated from the Fukui Prefecture Shimahama tomb that were used earlier than the Jomon Period. It was during the Heian Period (794 – 1185 AD) that Maki-e was developed, using gold and silver powder to implement beautiful designs. The Edo period (1604-1868 AD) saw the art flourish among royalty and the upper classes, causing Urushi trees to be cultivated widely.
You can experience the meditative effects of this traditional art by making your own beautiful makie art at Kyoto Artisan Workshop, which is conveniently located a 1-minute walk from the famous Nishiki Food Market. Maki-e is the most basic method of lauerwork, however, more advanced techniques are also offered, such as the Chinkin, Hakuoshi and Raden methods.
First, you choose your object to paint from a variety of trays, mirrors, plates, boxes, pen boxes, photo frames and more. Then, you select a pattern – everything from dragons to cherry blossoms to temples and rabbits.
You then trace the design on the object. Next, you paint the traced pattern with urushi, which takes a steady hand and intense focus. Then, colored powder is sprinkled on the piece and set to dry for 20 minutes. Paint is then applied if desired. Plenty of assistance from the staff is available during the process, including the materials preparation as well as the final step of heating the piece for finishing and taking home.
Synthetic materials are used at the Kyoto Artisan Workshop instead of the traditional urushi, which is highly toxic and can cause a rash. Instead of real gold powder, a mixture of brass and bronze is used, I was told, and the objects are made of plastic instead of wood for the basic classes.
Wear old clothing, in case you get materials on your clothing. Bring your reading glasses if you need them, as this is finely detailed work. Because it’s detailed, you may want to choose a simple pattern for your first art work, and be sure to get a sample as a guide to work from. Steady your hand by using the other hand under it as a support.
Lacquer painting is a traditional art in Japan. By participating and experiencing in Japanese art, you are helping preserve it. According to the 2016 census by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the number of employees in traditional craft industries continues to decrease as it has done for a long time. Traditional crafts emphasize the skill and knowledge one acquired over time. An elder artisan is not displaced by new technology, but rather revered for his or her wisdom and mastery of the art.
This intense, time-consuming focus has a tendency to stop the mind’s wanderings and place it in complete focus on the art process that when finished, produces a refreshing effect. Traditional urushi lacquerware are symbols of patience and resilience – symbols of the Japanese people themselves.
You will find your patience and focus pays off in the experience as you will leave with a beautiful piece of functional art and meditation on nature that makes a great item for the home or gift, as well as a great participatory memory of Japan!
The Kyoto Artisan Workshop
Address: Tanisakaimachi BLDG. Kikuya-cho 513
Sakaimachi-Nishiki agaru, Nakagyo, Kyoto 604-8127 Japan
Located in the heart of downtown Kyoto, 1 minute walk north from Nishiki Market
Hours and Days: Open every day, 9 am. To 5 p.m. Reservations required. Holidays available with a reservation. Call ahead regarding Pandemic schedule changes.
Cost: Depending on experience selected, from 2500 – 3500 Yen + fee depending on item selected for painting.
Classes available between 1 to 70 participants.
Workshops can also be held off premises. Call for more information.
Other traditional crafts are also available, such as Japanese book binding and fan painting.