Odawara lacquerware | Elegance and simple with zelkova


Odawara lacquerware making the most of Zelkova

Odawara lacquerware is a type of lacquerware produced in Odawara City, Kanagawa Prefecture. In the middle of the Muromachi period (1333-1573), a group of craftsmen who excelled at wheel turning settled in this area, and they used high-quality wood from the Hakone Mountains to grind the wood and coat it with lacquer.

There are many types of lacquerware in Japan, many of which are designated as traditional crafts. Odawara lacquerware is characterized by its simplicity and modernity. For example, bowls and plates made of Odawara lacquerware are made with the grain and color of the wood as it is. 

Many of the designs also dispel the concern that “traditional crafts are a hot topic, but I’m afraid I won’t end up
using anything too flashy…. Odawara lacquerware is not only beautiful to the eye, but also very durable. If you feel that the color has faded with use, you can send it in for repainting. The lacquer layer becomes thicker, more lustrous, and more durable.

odawara traditional Japanese craft
Source: Magcul

Why Odawara lacquerware is so great?

In addition to the craftsmen’s excellent groundwork techniques and the quality of the wood, Odawara’s climate and humidity are ideal for making lacquerware. It also uses the “itame” technique*, a sophisticated technique that brings out the beauty of the grain of the wood, which is not found in other regions.

Odawara lacquerware is mainly made of zelkova wood, which is used for about 95% of Odawara lacquerware. Zelkova is a strong wood with few distortions, but it is prone to warping and twisting during the growth process, which is called “Kyoui”. Therefore, the wood must be dried for a long period of time before it can be used in the processing stage, which was a very time-consuming process in the days when only sun-drying was available.

Today, many workshops use dryers to dry wood. However, since it is not good to dry the wood too dry, the wood is carefully made with the experience of skilled craftsmen, who do not rely on machines alone. Odawara lacquerware is ideal for making bowls and trays because of its solidity. The more you use it, the more you can enjoy the beautiful grain of the wood as it ages, and the more your hands become familiar with it, the deeper its flavor becomes.


In the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573), Ujiyasu Hojo, the third ruler of Odawara, invited well-known lacquer craftsmen to his castle to develop lacquerware techniques. And began to use “Iro Urushi Nuri” (colored lacquer) techniques such as Tame-nuri. Iro Urushi is raw lacquer with colors such as vermilion and black added to it. In the Edo period, these techniques were used to apply lacquer not only to everyday items such as bowls and trays, but also to armor, helmets, and other armors. Thus, by the middle of the Edo period, it became possible to continuously ship lacquerware to Edo as practical lacquerware. In this way, Odawara lacquerware was able to ride the wave of the Japanese economy.

Japanese traditional lacquerware
Source: Magcul

Furthermore, the Odawara area became known as one of the best castle towns on the Tokaido Highway with the Hakone barrier, an inn town, and a hot spring resort, and prospered. As the gateway to the Kanto region, distribution was smooth and it was convenient to travel to and from other areas. Demand for Odawara lacquerware grew rapidly. In May 1984, Odawara lacquerware was designated as a traditional national craft.

Characteristics of Odawara Lacquerware

The first thing that stands out about Odawara lacquerware is its grain. Odawara lacquerware is often simple in design, and the beauty of the original grain of the wood (zelkova) comes alive. The “keya” of zelkova used in Odawara lacquerware is derived from “keya-keishi,” which means “conspicuous” or “beautiful.

There are three techniques to maximize the beauty of zelkova: Suri-uri-nuri, Kijiro-nuri, and Iro-urushi.

  1. Suri-uri-nuri” is a method of finishing by repeating a process called “dozuri,” in which raw lacquer is directly rubbed into the wood over and over again. A beautiful luster gradually develops as the lacquer is rubbed into the wood with a special cloth or paper.
  2. Kijiro-nuri” is a method in which a whetstone or whetstone powder is used to stop the grain of the wood*, and then transparent lacquer is applied to accentuate the beauty of the grain of the base material, zelkova. This simple technique requires the quality of the base material and the level of the transparent lacquer coating technics.
  3. Sai Urushi Lacquer” is a technique of applying colored lacquer by adding pigments to raw lacquer, such as vermilion lacquer and black lacquer.

In any case, Odawara lacquerware is mainly made to highlight the beauty of the wood’s natural grain and to bring out the original color of the wood.

Japanese traditional lacquerware
Source: https://www.japan-kogei.com/odawarashikki-about.html


Manufacturing Method of Odawara lacquerware

1. Wood base processing

The raw wood, such as zelkova, sen, mulberry, and tochi, is cut according to the size and purpose for which it is to be made. The next is then split using a circular saw or band saw (kiritori) based on an inked surface of the wood’s mouth, fixed to a retaining claw, and roughly shaved into the desired shape. This wood is then dried in a smoke dryer for 3 to 4 days, bonded to the surface of the wood to prevent splitting, and then dried in an electric dryer for 3 weeks. Then dried naturally for another two to six months. The process of “taking time to thoroughly remove water” prevents the wood from splitting.

The dried wood is then processed using a Rokuro machine or router, changing the blade many times according to the shape of the product. After the surface of the wood is made smooth, the wood is coated with water and polished with a tokusa (a wood pestle).

traditional Japanese lacquerware
Source: Magcul

2. Lacquer Processing

After drying for one or two days, raw lacquer is applied again and allowed to dry. This process improves the grain of the wood and the adhesiveness of the lacquer. The process of applying raw lacquer and polishing with a cotton cloth is repeated 7 to 8 times to polish the lacquer film surface and make it smooth, and then a very small amount of raw lacquer is rubbed to finish the process.

Kijiro-nuri is done by applying raw lacquer to the wood with a spatula or brush. After rubbing it with a cotton cloth and wiping it well, rub rusted lacquer on it. Repeating this process twice, the surface is dried for 2 to 3 days and polished with a whetstone or paper to accentuate the grain of the wood. In the next step the lacquer is coated with raw lacquer and dried in a drying bath, Kijiro Urushi, which has had the moisture removed from the raw lacquer, is applied and allowed to dry.

Kijiro lacquer is used to make the lacquered surface thinner, and after the base coat is polished, Kijiro lacquer is applied again and allowed to dry. After the middle coat is polished, the lacquer is carefully applied to the surface to prevent brush marks from appearing and allowed to dry. The process of under-coating, middle-coating, and top-coating is repeated to produce a highly transparent finish. After water polishing with paper, the work is completed by repeating the polishing process with polishing powder and polishing agent.


Odawara Lacquerware has developed with such a policy of being easy to buy and use. Even among traditional crafts, many of which are relatively expensive, Odawara lacquerware is sold at a price that anyone can afford. Odawara lacquerware is easy to buy and yet adds color to the dining table. (More expensive but famous one is Wajima lacquerware.) Such a tradition has been cultivated.


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