Kiso lacquerware Photo:Shinshu・Nagano Prefecture Tourism Association

Kiso lacquerware Kiso shikki

The more it is used, the softer the glaze becomes
Warmth produced by the beautiful grain of the wood


What is Kiso lacquerware ?

Kiso lacquerware is produced in the old Narakawa Village in Kiso District, which is now Shiojiri City in Nagano Prefecture, and the surroundings. Shiojiri City in Nagano Prefecture, the area where Kiso lacquer ware is produced, is a plateau approximately 900 meters above sea level.
The climate has cool summers and very cold winters, making it ideal as a working environment for the application of lacquer. In addition, an abundance of local materials are available, such as the Japanese cypress and thujopsis, both of which are part of the Kiso Goboku, or “Five Sacred Trees of Kiso”.
Natural lacquers are applied to the wood materials such as cypress, cercidiphyllum and Japanese horse-chestnut. After washing it in hot water, it is wiped with a soft cloth and is then stored in a location that is neither damp nor overly dry, and away from direct sunlight.
The characteristic of Kiso lacquer ware is that it develops a warm glaze the longer it is used and it becomes solid. The characteristic methods are kisoshunkei, kisotsuishu, and nuriwakero-ironuri. Kisoshunkei is a technique that brings out the beauty of the wood by repeatedly working in the unrefined sap of the lacquer tree without applying a first coat. With kisotsuishu, which is also known as kisokawari-nuri, a pattern is applied using a pad containing a large quantity of lacquer after applying a first coat to the wood base. With nuriwakero-ironuri, multiple kinds of colored lacquer are used to paint geometrical patterns in different colors, and the surface is carefully polished after drying the final coat.


Kiso lacquerware - History Photo:Shinshu・Nagano Prefecture Tourism Association

Kiso lacquerware was developed in Shiojiri in Nagano due to its topography and because the production area has been an important location for transportation since long ago.
Kiso lacquer ware began at the start of the 17th Century, and, having developed due to the great patronage of Owari Tokugawa in the Edo Period, it become a popular souvenir for people travelling on the Nakasendo road.
In the early part of the Meiji Period, rust clay that could be used to apply an undercoat was discovered, which made lacquer ware easier to produce. As rust clay includes a large amount of iron, it enabled the production of lacquer ware that is more solid than that of other production areas, and Kiso lacquer ware became well-known nation-wide as a result.
In the post-war period of growth, a large variety of products were produced, including vessels not essential in the lives of common people such as high-quality furnishings used in Japanese and Western-style hotels.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wood processing This is a process to make a wood base using a solidified wood that has been completely dried naturally. The type of tree is selected to suit the size and shape of the finished product. In order to ensure a beautiful and straight finish for the wood, the presence of an artisan known as a woodworker, who can finish it according to the measurements, is essential.
  2. 2. Production of first coat The process of producing a first coat is carried out before sending the produced wood base for the coating process. A paste called Kokuso is made of rice flour and the unrefined sap of lacquer trees, which is applied in order to remove any crevices and unevenness. Although it is not considered to be part of the final product, the quality of the production of the first coat is an important step in the durability and ease-of-use of the final product.
  3. 3. Undercoating After mixing the rice flour and the raw lacquer, a well-mixed gray paste called Kokuso is produced. The most important thing is the process of coating to fill in the joints of the tree and other crevices with the paste. After making the first coat of lacquer by mixing the rust clay and raw lacquer, it is carefully lacquered.
    Kisoshunkei is a technique in which a first coat is not applied and raw lacquer is repeatedly rubbed in and soaked into the wood, resulting in a beautiful wood grain.
  4. 4. Intermediate coating An intermediate coating of raw lacquer is applied while taking care to ensure that no dust becomes attached.
  5. 5. Printing An uneven pattern is applied using a tool called a tanpo, which is used for printing.
  6. 6. Colored lacquering A color lacquer is made by mixing a pigment into the lacquer, which is repeatedly applied in different colors. Each coat is dried before another coat is applied, and this process is repeated approximately 12 times.
    When using the nuriwakeru-ironuri method, several kinds of colored lacquer are used in order to paint a geometrical pattern in different colors.
  7. 7. Polishing After the color lacquer has completely dried, it is polished with a grindstone and water paper to bring out the pattern. The beauty of the pattern and the appearance of the first coat depends on the amount of strength applied when polishing. The hue and the individuality of the pattern depends on the craftsman, so polishing is where the skills of the craftsman can be seen. The skill of an experienced worker is needed to bring out beautiful patterns like annual tree rings. As multiple layers of lacquer coats are applied, it is easier to use and makes any scratches less obvious.
    Kisotsuishu or kisokawari-nuri, which is also known as kawari-nuri, has become popular as the leading example of Kiso lacquer ware techniques since the post-war period of economic growth. This is a technique in which a tanpo is used to apply the lacquer approximately 12 to 18 times to repeatedly coat the uneven part of the pattern with color lacquer. As multiple layers of coating are built up, the surface of the color lacquer becomes flat and a grindstone is then used to polish the surface.
  8. 8. Douzuri A polish made of coal dust, oil and polishing powder is applied.
  9. 9. Suriurushi After polishing the wood, cotton soaked in raw lacquer is used to repeatedly paint until the wood surface shines. This is a repetitive task that requires patience, as the painting must be wiped before the lacquer has dried, before being painted and wiped again. This is popular due to its simplicity, the warmth of the wood grain and the sense of taste, and it is used in furniture, trays, and for the tabletops of kotatsu (heated tables).
  10. 10. Polishing Articles are polished and finished with cotton, to which a mixture of powders such as polishing powder and ground antlers in addition to canola oil is applied.

Where to Buy & More Information

Kiso Kurashi No Kogeikan

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