Wajima lacquerware Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

Wajima lacquerware Wajima nuri

Lustrous and Durable Lacquerware
More than 100 skilled steps to make one superb piece of lacquerware release into the world.


What is Wajima lacquerware ?

Nuri means to coat; Wajima-nuri is lacquerware unique to Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture and stems from the use of the local jinoko (powdered diatomaceous earth) only found in the Wajima City area. The jinoko is of the finest quality, and its use for the undercoat ensures the production of extremely strong Wajima-nuri lacquerware, renowned for its beauty and finish.
Two particularly popular forms of decoration are chinkin, incised and gold-filled designs, and maki-e, the application of gold and silver powders. The tasteful and graceful application of valuable gold and silver bewitch the viewer’s eye, but although light and delicate, Wajima-nuri is also robust with a long working life. As it takes over 100 stages to manufacture a finished piece, each item is not only strong and a fine example of its kind, but damaged lacquerware can also be restored to their former glory.


Wajima lacquerware - History

Like any enchanted fairy story, the origins of Wajima-nuri are unclear. Some theories point to the techniques being introduced by a monk from the distant Negoroji temple sometime during the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573). Others link this monk to the Warring States period (1467 - 1568) and specifically within the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 - 1598), and cast the monk as a fugitive from the flames of war. Even today no one is sure of the true origin of this mystically beautiful Wajima-nuri.
However, the one fact common to many of the legends is that Wajima-nuri was derived from the Nego-nuri used as everyday lacquerware. Another convincing, but less dramatic theory is that daily use lacquerware slowly evolved into the Wajima-nuri of today. It was around 1630 in the early-Edo period that a style close to the present Wajima-nuri was established, and another century or so later around 1716 to 1736 in the mid-Edo period, we find processes remarkably similar to those used in the present-day production.
Nowadays, Wajima-nuri is considered to be an elegant and slightly upmarket product, quite different to its reputation before the Showa period (1926 - 1989) as a commonly used household lacquerware; solid, worthy, and utilitarian, but also suitable for ceremonial occasions. However, due to changes to the style of ceremonies and its designation by the Japanese Government as a traditional craftwork in 1975, Wajima-nuri in these modern times came to be repositioned as having artistic connotations.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Kiji (Wooden base) Underlying a typical Wajima-nuri piece is found a kiji, the basic shape made in wood, usually keyaki (Japanese zelkova) or mizume-sakura (cherry birch). The green lumber is often left to season for two to three years and must be well-dried before working. After a thorough inspection, a rough shape is carved, but in the Wajima-nuri method, instead of smoothing and shaping straightaway, the kiji is smoked and dried on a bed of burned sawdust and left to season for a further several months to one year. Only after this thorough drying, is the kiji trimmed to shape, from arabiki (rough carving), sotobiki/uchibiki (outer and inner smoothing and finishing), on to sokobiki (base finishing), gradually working toward the finer detailed parts using specialized tools such as planes or turning lathes; often a kiji is a work of art in its own right.
  2. 2. Shitaji (Undercoatings) The next stage is the application of shitaji undercoats. In Wajima-nuri, jinoko powders and other materials are used to create the unique shitaji finish. Firstly, in the kirebori stage, any cracks that may split further and cause damage are lightly carved out, and undercoats are applied to reinforce the wood; this meticulous and early preparation contributes to lacquerware with a particularly strong and robust finish. Next comes kisemono kezuri, where any of the more delicate and easy-to-break parts of bowls or utensils are reinforced, this time by pasting on cloth. The skilled artisan at this stage will be paying particular attention to cracks or fragile parts and carefully applying layers of undercoat to build up the durable surface so characteristic of Wajima-nuri. After completing this layer-by-layer reinforcement, an undercoat, a mix of ki-urushi (raw lacquer) and polishing powders, is applied to the entire piece, which is then left to thoroughly dry before shaping with a whetstone. Once the final shape is completed, the piece is ready for jitogi (polishing) on a lathe by using water and a tiny whetstone; this process helps prepare the surface to take the finish urushi (lacquer) coatings.
  3. 3. Uwanuri (Finish Coatings) Uwanuri is deceptively simple being just the even application of overcoats of urushi on to the shitaji. Urushi is produced by first slashing many shallow parallel cuts into the trunk of an urushi tree and collecting the milky sap in a special tube called urushi-zutsu. Urushi sap can only be collected from June to October and since the average yield per tree is just 200 grams per season, sometimes the collectors attend to hundreds of trees in a day. The collected sap is first passed through a fine filter to remove bark residues and other contaminants invisible to the naked eye before removing any remaining impurities in a centrifugal separator to obtain ki-urushi. In Wajima-nuri production, ki-urushi is never used, as its color fades within a few years, so by heating and stirring it is turned into nayashi which is colorfast for centuries and makes hard durable lacquerware.
    Since it is essential that in the uwanuri stage, no dust or particles are floating in the air, the final coatings are applied in a special room at an optimum temperature and humidity to keep dust down. Although apparently such a simple procedure, it is a true and painstaking test of the artisan’s skills, and for a plain lacquerware piece this is the final stage in the production process.
  4. 4. Decoration In preparation for decoration, roiro, a type of polishing, is carried out after uwanuri. Using a fine abradant to ensure a mirror like finish with no scratches or blemishes, the piece is carefully made ready for the final stage. The two main techniques used to decorate Wajima-nuri are chinkin, a form of carving filled with gold or silver, and maki-e, the application of gold or silver powders onto a design. Wajima-nuri thus ranges from the absolutely plain and utilitarian through to styles involving highly decorated and stunningly beautiful designs.

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Wajima Museum of Lacquer Art Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

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