14 December 2023

Taya Shikkiten: Where the Artistry of Wajima Lacquerware is Born 

In the tranquil heart of Wajima City, besides the lush satoyama landscape, lies the epicenter of one of Japan's most exquisite traditional crafts: Wajima lacquerware. Celebrated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, Wajima lacquerware masterfully fuses time-honored techniques with mesmerizing embellishments. 

From its robust base to its decorative flourishes, each piece tells a story of fine craftsmanship and cultural heritage. And at the core of this artistry stands Taya Shikkiten, renowned producer and manufacturer of Wajima lacquerware. Here,  exceptional skills and steadfast dedication come together to create breathtaking works under its esteemed banner. Join us as we delve into a world of lacquerware excellence, walking through the halls of Taya Shikkiten and visiting the artisans who impart the final decorative touches.

Upon our arrival at Taya Shikkiten's workshop, we were warmly greeted by master craftsperson, Uwamaki Mitsuo. As we entered the workshop, the resonant sound of sandpapering filled the air, a clear indicator of the diligent work underway. The room on the first floor was dedicated to the application and completion of the durable basecoat, an essential step in the creation of Wajima lacquerware. 

Four craftspeople, including Uwamaki, focus on forming the strong and smooth base. The base coating process at the workshop begins with filling gaps and cracks in the bare wooden vessels and applying raw lacquer to reduce water absorption.

Traditionally, Wajima lacquerware production was marked by a rigid division of labor. However, with the decline in the number of artisans, there has been a shift in the crafting process. Now, individual craftspeople often manage several stages of production.

Next, the edges and bottoms are reinforced with hemp cloth adhered with a mix of natural lacquer and rice paste, a vital step called nuno-gise or "cloth dressing." Skilled artisans carefully trim and sand down the dried fabric to a flawless finish.

Following the nuno-gise process, three layers of a thick base coat are applied, consisting of a blend of locally sourced diatomaceous earth, known as jinoko, and natural lacquer. This crucial step contributes significantly to the famed durability of Wajima lacquerware.

Uwamaki guided us to the storage area for the jinoko, pointing out boxes labeled one to three. Each number corresponds to the fineness of the diatomaceous earth inside, indicating its varied textures.

No artisan was applying the base coat during our visit, but Uwamaki showed us the tools of this enduring trade. With an array of spatulas, each carefully shaped to match the contours and dimensions of various pieces, he illustrated how the rich lacquer base coat is skillfully and precisely applied.

Between each application of the base coat, the surface is thoroughly wiped and then placed in a large, door-equipped drying shelf known as a furo, where they remain for about a day to dry.

Subsequently, they undergo sanding to achieve a smooth finish. This attentive process of coating, wiping, drying, and polishing is repeated three times, proof to the labor-intensive yet essential steps that impart Wajima lacquerware with its uniquely rich and resilient foundation.

In a quiet corner of the room, an adept artisan diligently worked on sanding and polishing the multi-layered base coat. Uwamaki, observing intently, shared his insight: "This stage, in my opinion, is a pivotal step. It's the final task before each piece moves on for the naka-nuri, the middle coat." With practiced ease, the artisan's hands moved quickly, each stroke ensuring the base's flawless smoothness—a critical factor that ultimately defines the quality of the finished lacquerware.

A variety of whetstones, each specially selected for different shapes, were neatly arranged beside her in an aged paper box.

Despite its visibly smooth appearance, the polished surface maintains microscopic pores, key for ensuring the lacquer adheres properly to the surface. Achieving the ideal balance between smoothing and polishing the surface is an art in itself, usually requiring at least ten years of experience to develop the exact tactile skills needed.

Next we walked up a flight of wide wooden stairs behind Uwamaki, reaching a room dedicated to the next phase: naka-nuri. Here, the tool of choice transitions from wooden spatula to brush.

In this phase, a thick layer of lacquer, serving as a pre-coat for the final shimmering finish, is carefully brushed over the base coating. The craftsperson efficiently applied this viscous raw lacquer to the surface of a round container, executing quick and uniform brushstrokes.

To guarantee a smooth application, the raw lacquer is strained through three sheets of Yoshino-paper to remove any lumps using a traditional tool named uma.

Here, too, coated items are placed in a furo for drying, a process termed as curing in English. The oxidation of a key component in natural lacquer transforms the freshly applied coat into a hardened finish. Optimal conditions for this curing are a humidity level of 75 - 85% and a temperature of about 77°F (25°C).

To maintain a dust-free environment, the windows in the room are kept closed, and air conditioning turned off making the room a demanding environment for the artisans to endure.

Vision and Concept

A room adjacent to the naka-nuri room is reserved for the final touch: the uwa-nuri or top coating. Here, a solitary craftsperson labors behind a large vinyl curtain, an extra measure to shield the delicate work from airborne dust and particles.

This stage demands the use of the finest quality lacquer and exceptional care to avoid any unevenness or impurities in the final coating. Every minute detail, including the smallest specks, is closely inspected. The finished pieces are then placed on a rotating device specially equipped in the furo in this room.  This allows the lacquer to dry without any accumulations or uneven spots.

Here are the boards set in furo as the rotating device. Each piece is attached to the "branches" on the boards with a special adhesive clay. 

At this workshop, repairs are also done for lacquerware items such as Jubako bento boxes and bowls from other regions. Lacquerware, a sustainable material, can be mended even if cracked or chipped, allowing these beautiful pieces to be passed down through generations.

Uwamaki shared reflections on his continually evolving path as a Wajima lacquerware artisan. "With forty years in this craft, every day still reveals new lessons and opportunities for growth. The ongoing challenge of adapting traditional Wajima lacquerware to meet modern lifestyle brings fresh challenges, both for myself and for my fellow artisans."

Next, our exploration into the world of Wajima lacquerware takes us to the studio of a maki-e artisan of Taya Shikkiten. The studio was a scene of detailed artistry with a delicate ochoko cup, featuring an intricate swimming fish pattern, nearing completion.

Maki-e, a hallmark of decorative craftsmanship, involves the painstaking drawing of fine designs using colored lacquer with an exceedingly fine brush, and then subtly highlighting with gold powder while the lacquer is wet. The challenge intensifies when decorating curved surfaces, such as the ochoko, where the complexity of the artistry escalates.

The maki-e artisan deftly demonstrated how he uses a kinzutsu, a specialized bamboo tool for applying gold powder. Its meshed end allows for precise control, dispersing the powder with each gentle tap. 

As we observed, the complexity and precision of the task became increasingly apparent, especially when the area shrank in size, requiring an even greater degree of skill and meticulousness.

Another ten-minute stroll took us to the workspace of a master chinkin artisan. Chinkin is a decorative lacquerware technique that involves etching fine lines into lacquer surfaces and then filling these grooves with sprinkles of gold powder and layers of gold leaf, creating an elegant and luxurious finish. 

Stepping into a room arranged with an air of cozy diligence, we found the artisan immersed in completing a classical Wajima lacquerware pattern named hika, or "flying flowers." This design, depicting the delicate fluffs of a dandelion, is laden with symbolism, representing the success and prosperity of future generations. With a deft touch, the artisan added a tap of gold leaf to the center, bringing the floral motif to vibrant life.

The first step in the making of chinkin designs is delicately transferring designs drawn on thin pieces of paper. Each piece of paper is covered with gofun powder (white pigment) on the back to facilitate the transfer on to the pristine, smooth surface of lacquerware.

In the skilled craft of chinkin, finely sharpened chisels etch uniform lines into the lacquer, next to be filled with radiant gold powder. Excess gold is gently wiped with a oil-moistened tissue paper, leaving only shimmering gold inside the carved lines. With a final touch of a perfectly placed gold leaf, the exquisite artistry is completed.

The intricate and luminous beauty crafted by his swift hands was nothing short of breathtaking.

A Culture of Sustainability

Our journey finishes amidst the Wajima mountainsides, the very place where jinoko was unearthed. A solumn monument stands as a humble tribute to the roots of this prestigious lacquerware.

Overseen by the Wajima Lacquerware Cooperative Association, jinoko stands as the fundamental element of Wajima lacquerware, essential in maintaining its high quality. Here, within these mountains, the legacy of Wajima continues to be preserved and honored.

Taya Shikkiten masterfully merges contemporary trends with the enduring allure of traditional Wajima lacquerware, all produced in-house. This harmonious blend of modernity and heritage transforms each piece into a symbol of exquisite beauty, echoing a legacy cherished since the Edo period.

Observing the creation of these Wajima lacquerware pieces offers a deeper appreciation for the meticulous attention and commitment invested in each step, underscoring the cultural significance and esteemed value of this traditional art form.