Aizu lacquerware Photo:Fukushima Prefecture

Aizu lacquerware Aizu nuri

Traditional techniques passed down from the Edo period
Auspicious drawings and charming versatile decorations


What is Aizu lacquerware ?

Aizu-nuri is lacquerware made in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. In the manufacturing process, it is classified into round pieces, such as bowls, and flat pieces such as trays and bunko (stationery boxes). Patterns combining pine, bamboo, and plum and hamaya (ritual arrows to drive away devils) are called Aizu pictures. The characteristics of Aizu lacquerware are its auspicious designs and the beauty of its diverse decorations. Although during the Edo period the colors black, vermilion, and blue light (green) were often used, in modern times an opaque reddish brown or yellowish vermilion has been used, and color schemes created using a limited number of colors have also become an attraction. In addition, since the carved grooves are finer and more shallow than in the lacquerware produced in other areas, the decoration has a soft appearance. For top coating, Aizu-nuri employs such techniques as coating with "tetsusabinuri, which has an astringency similar to that of cast metal, achieved by using sabiurushi (rust lacquer), or “kinmushikuinuri” which uses chaff to create a pattern. There are many other kinds of top-coating techniques, such as “kijironuri,” which brings out the beauty of the wood grain, or "hananuri,” which creates gloss by the addition of oil. Each technique requires advanced skills.
In surface decoration, “keshifun maki-e” is the representative technique of Aizu-nuri. Pictures are drawn with a brush full of lacquer, and the finest gold dust is applied using cotton wadding.


The story has come down to us that Aizu-nuri originated with lacquer trees that were originally planted in Aizu in the Muromachi period. Then Ujisato GAMO, who was the Lord of Aizu in 1590 (Tensho 18 ), encouraged the Aizu lacquerware industry, and this caused Aizu-nuri to take root in earnest. He invited wood specialists and lacquer specialists from his former post, Hino in Omi Province, to instruct artisans in state-of-the-art technology, spurring the further development of Aizu-nuri. As a result, Aizu became a major production area handling the entire process from lacquer tree cultivation to decoration. In the Edo period effort was put into technological innovation in Aizu-nuri, while it received generous protection by successive lords of the domain. All this succeeded to such an extent that the lacquerware came to be exported to China and the Netherlands.
Aizu got involved in the Boshin War at the end of the Edo period and suffered a devastating blow from it, but thanks to the subsequent reconstruction, in the middle of the Meiji period it regained its vibrant energy as one of the leading areas of lacquerware production in Japan.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Approximate carving Aizu-nuri comes in two forms: round pieces, such as bowls and trays, and flat pieces, such as tiered food boxes. The materials used for the wooden bases of round pieces are horse chestnut, zelkova, and the like, while the wood for flat pieces comes from such trees as magnolia, zelkova, paulownia trees. After the wood has been cut into an approximate shape, it is naturally dried for more than three years in order to remove the lye and astringency of the wood. Because wood from young trees would cause distortion, trees more than 100 years old are used for pieces like large trays. Horse chestnut is used for white parts, while zelkova is used for the red; the tree and the part of the tree used as material depends on what is being made.
  2. 2. Wood lathe grinding The sufficiently dried wooden base is shaved by the hands of craftsmen. The craftsmen who cut the round pieces are called wood specialists, and they shave the wood using the wood lathe. When using a wood lathe, controlling the force exerted by the hands can bring about subtle differences in shape, and it is possible to make just one piece.
    On the other hand, craftsmen who make flat pieces are called sowashi, and the tradition of Aizu sowashi is said to be the oldest in the nation. At the stage of cutting the wood base, many different kinds of planes must be employed so as to create the desired shape. Unless the wood base is well taken care of, the coating and the surface decoration will not be beautiful; a good technique is required.
  3. 3. Preparing undercoatings There are two ways of making undercoatings: sabishitaji and shibushitaji. For sabishitaji, a mixture of raw lacquer and polishing powder is painted on, and it has a flat and smooth finish. Following the other way of making the undercoating, called shibushitaji, persimmon tannin from a small kind of persimmon is mixed with coal dust, matsuhokori (soot prepared by burning pine wood), or ordinary soot, and painted on the piece. After repeated polishing, the persimmon tannin is painted on. Because sibushitaji has no thickness, yase (a phenomenon in which the grain looks pale) occurs a few years after the overcoat, imparting a unique texture.
    If the base is strong, it will not break. The making of the base is an important part in the process of creating a strong lacquerware piece.
  4. 4. Polishing The undercoating is polished using a grindstone to make the lacquer adhere better and to eliminate the unevenness of the wooden base.
  5. 5. Lacquering Undercoating, intermediate coating and top coating are done. Lacquer is applied in the undercoating and intermediate coating. After polishing while performing a final check for the presence of scratches, the top coating is applied while being careful to prevent dust adhesion or uneven coating. Hananuri and kijironuri are commonly used as top coating. In the case of hananuri, in Aizu lacquer is mixed with egg white to prevent the lacquer from running and avoid unevenness, creating a soft and warm paint surface. Kijironuri highlights the wood grain. The method of coating is different, depending upon whether the piece is flat or round, but in either case, care is taken to avoid chijimi (the lacquer becomes hardened instead of spreading out).
    Upon the completion of top coating, the piece is dried in a drying chamber, and in order to dry it uniformly, the piece is turned over from time to time.
  6. 6. Maki-e Maki-e is a method that makes use of the adhesive quality of lacquer, scattering powder of gold, silver, and the like, or else colored powder, on a lacquer drawing. Pigments of vermilion, yellow, and blue, etc. are used for colored powder.

Where to Buy & More Information

Fukushima Dento Sangyo Kaikan

See more Lacquerware

See items made in Fukushima