Wajima lacquerware Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

Wajima lacquerware Wajima nuri

More than 100 production steps are needed
to create a luminous and durable lacquerware masterpiece


What is Wajima lacquerware ?

Wajima lacquerware (called Wajima nuri in Japanese) is made in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture. The most notable features of Wajima lacquerware are not only its beautiful finish but also the high quality powder used for its production called jinoko (powdered diatomaceous soil), which can be found only in Wajima. Because of the use of jinoko as an undercoat, the lacquerware's high durability is ensured.
Wajima lacquerware uses decorating techniques like filling carved areas with gold or using gold or silver dust to create maki-e. These graceful gold and silver designs attract notice.
It is a durable product that goes through over a hundred stages of production. Therefore it is not only an appealing product with durability but it is also restorable if damaged.


Wajima lacquerware - History

The origin of Wajima lacquerware is said to be either being being taught by a priest of Negoroji (a complex of Buddhist temples located in the city of Iwade, Wakayama prefecture) during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) or a priest of Negoroji who ran away from a wartime fire set by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI (1537-1598) during the Sengoku period (1467-1603). However, nobody knows the exact origin of Wajima lacquerware, even to this day. The common point of all the different theories is that Wajima lacquerware derived from Nego lacquerware, a daily lacquerware. Another possible theory is that daily lacquerware developed and then transformed into the current form of Wajima lacquerware.
It was around 1630 during the early Edo period (1603-1868) that a form close to the present Wajima lacquerware was established. Moreover, the production process became remarkably similar to the current one between 1716 to 1736.
Nowadays, Wajima lacquerware is considered to be an elegant and slightly upscale product but it actually had a different reputation before the Showa period (1926-1989). It was commonly used as a household lacquerware for important ceremonial occasions because it is solid and sturdy. However, due to changes made to the style of ceremony and its registration as a traditional craftwork in 1975 by the Japanese government, it has developed more artistic connotations.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base This process starts from structuring an original shape of lacquerware. Wood from either Japanese zelkova trees or Japanese cherry birch trees is used as material for the lacquerware. They are chopped down, left to sit for two to three years, and used once dried down to the trunk. Once fully dried, the timber is carved into a rough shape after an inspection of its condition.
    Wajima lacquerware is not sharpened straight after the rough carving. Instead the sawdust is burned and the roughly shaped lacquerware gets smoke dried and left to season for a few months to a year.
    Once fully dry, the lacquerware will be trimmed down using a wood plane or a potter's wheel. The trimming includes rough carving, outer carving, inner carving, and base finishing, which are done at a steady pace until the lacquerware is a small piece.
  2. 2. Undercoating The next process is to apply the undercoats. Wajima lacquerware uses a unique material called jinoko to make a special undercoat.
    First, a carving called kirebori is done. If the wood is in a sharpened condition, it is easier to be damaged, however when the crevice is slightly carved with the kirebori technique and an undercoat is painted, the lacquerware is reinforced and stabilizes. More delicate items such as bowls are reinforced by a technique called kisemono kezuri which is done by pasting cloth. Because the artisans pay particular attention to the crevice and fragile parts while applying layers of undercoat, a durable type of lacquerware specific to Wajima is completed.
    After completing the reinforcement of the undercoats, a mixture of raw lacquer and polishing powder is applied to the entire piece. Then the piece is left to dry before being shaped with a whetstone.
    Once the final shape is completed, the piece is ready for polishing on a potter's wheel with water and a whetstone. This process helps to prepare the surface for finishing coatings of lacquer.
  3. 3. Final coat The final coat is the process of applying an even application of lacquer on the undercoating. The lacquer comes from making small, parallel cuts in the trunk of lacquer trees and collecting the sap using a special bowl called urushi zutsu. The sap can be collected only from June to October and in limited amounts of about 200g per tree. Therefore, lacquer is sometimes collected from hundreds of trees in a day. Because the chance to get sap for the lacquer is limited, this process is done at the same time that the wood is prepared and the undercoating is made.
    Then, the collected sap is first passed through a small filter to remove bark residues and other invisible contaminants. Then it is put through a centrifugal separator in order to remove any remaining impurities and obtain the raw lacquer. Wajima lacquerware does not use raw lacquer as it can be damaged easily and the color fades. Instead, the raw lacquer gets heated up and stirred until it turns into a form called nayashi. This step helps the lacquer last for hundreds of years.

    The final coating is applied in a special room at an optimum temperature and humidity. This is to keep dust down since any dust or particle floating in the air must be avoided while working on the coatings.
    Although the pieces looks simple, they require a lot of attention and high craftsmanship so it is a painstaking work. If a piece is meant to be a solid color, this is the last step.
  4. 4. Decoration The polishing method called roiro happens after the finish coats. Lacquerware is carefully polished with a fine abrasive to ensure no scratch marks.
    The two main techniques used to decorate Wajima lacquerware are chinkin, a form of carving filled with gold or silver, and maki e, the application of gold or silver powders onto a design.
    With the application of these two designs, that make Wajima lacquerware even more elegant, the process of making it is complete.

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