Kiso Lacquerware Is The Masterpiece Of Red Colored Lacquer


What is Kiso Lacquerware ?

Kiso lacquerware is made in and around Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture, formerly Kushikawa Village, Kiso County. Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture, where Kiso lacquerware is produced, is located at an elevation of about 900 meters above sea level. The climate is cool in summer and extremely cold in winter, making it a suitable working environment for lacquering. The city also has access to abundant local timber such as hinoki (Japanese cypress) and asunaro (Japanese cypress), which are known as Kiso gogi (five trees of Kiso).

Rusty soil, which gave strength to lacquerware

One of the reasons for the development of Kiso lacquerware is not only the beauty of the lacquer, but also its durability for daily use. One of the reasons for the development of Kiso lacquerware is not only the beauty of the lacquer, but also its durability for daily use. Rusty soil is used as a base material for Kiso lacquerware. It is mixed with lacquer to make a base, which is then applied to white wood. The use of this “rusty clay” makes Kiso lacquerware sturdy and of high quality, and prevents it from chipping and cracking.

The three techniques of Kiso lacquerware

There are three representative techniques used for Kiso lacquerware, each of which gives it a very different appearance. The three techniques are all used to produce Kiso lacquerware, and the rich variations that result from the different techniques are worth paying attention to, even in the same production area.

Nuri-wake roiro nuri
This is a technique in which several types of lacquer are used to paint pictures and geometric patterns. Finally, a gloss is applied to give a neat finish.

Kiso Shunkei
The first coat is colored with colored lacquer, followed by thick coats of raw lacquer, and finally finished with highly transparent Shunkei lacquer (*), which is characterized by its beautiful grain.

Kiso Tsuishu
Kiso Tsuishu is a typical technique of Kiso lacquerware. It is a type of variegated lacquerware, characterized by a mottled pattern of lacquer coated with several different kinds of lacquer and polished out. A tampo made of rolled cloth or other material is dipped in lacquer and then covered with a pattern.

Kiso lacquerware
Source: Ryumondo

History of Kiso Lacquerware

Kiso has been producing lacquerware since the Muromachi period (1333-1573).

Kiso is surrounded by high-quality trees, which led to the development of a variety of wooden products. The origin of Kiso lacquerware can be found in Kiso Town, Kiso County, Nagano Prefecture. The name “Oei-1nen” (1394) on the back of a lacquered sutra box at a temple called Ryugenji Temple indicates that the lacquerware technique existed in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

Lacquerware loved by the common people of Edo as souvenirs from the inn towns

In the Edo period (1603-1867), the production of lacquerware began in earnest in the Naraijuku area. Various daily necessities such as “menpa” and “nurikushi combs” were made by coating wooden products made of cypress with lacquer. The main technique used at that time was Kiso Shunkei. In addition to bowls and chopsticks, a number of beautifully lacquered items were made, such as tubs, ohitsu (wooden bowls), inkstone boxes, and other items that made the most of the grain of the wood. While lacquerware from other regions was more luxurious, decorated with maki-e and gold leaf, Kiso lacquerware, with its sturdiness and simple texture, attracted attention as a travel souvenir that could be easily purchased. Furthermore, the patronage of the Owari clan and its lords contributed greatly to its development.

From the Discovery of Fat Rust Clay to the Nation’s Leading Lacquer Ware Production Center

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), lacquerware craftsmen from Kiso Hirasawa, the center of the production area, went to Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture, known for Wajima lacquerware, to learn the technique of lacquer painting. They learned that the technique was based on soil called “jinoko,” which is processed from the unique soil that can be obtained in the Noto Peninsula. He then searched for soil suitable for lacquering in his hometown, and found “rusty soil” with high iron content in the Narai area of present-day Shiojiri City. By using this “rusty clay” as a base, it became possible to produce high-quality, robust lacquerware, which developed into one of the most durable and beautiful lacquerware in the country.

Transition from tableware to large furniture

After the Taisho era (1912-1926), the most common type of Kiso lacquerware produced was the “sowa-zen,” a table for one person. This type of table, which is still commonly seen in Japanese inns, was the main product until after World War II. Later, taking advantage of the sturdiness of Kiso lacquerware, large pieces of furniture such as chests and zataku were also made. During the Showa period (1926-1989), families often ate meals around zataku, and zataku was a popular product.

In 1975, it was designated as the country’s first traditional craft. Furthermore, the winning medal for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics was a metal and lacquer medal proposed by a Kiso lacquerware craftsman. Currently, the company is taking on new challenges, such as fusion with glasswork and computer products.

Manufacturing Process

1. Wooden base processing

This is the process of making the wood base using solid wood that has been dried naturally enough. Trees are selected with size and shape in mind, according to the finished product to be manufactured. A craftsman known as a “woodworker” is essential to ensure that the finished product is beautiful and free of distortion, and that the wood is finished to the exact dimensions.

2. Preparation of the base

This is the process of preparing the base of the wood before sending it out to the painting process. A mixture of rice flour and raw lacquer called “kokuso” is made and applied to eliminate gaps and bumps. Although this is not visible once the product is finished, it is an important process that changes the durability and usability of the product depending on how well the base is prepared.

3. Base Coating

Rice flour and raw lacquer are mixed and kneaded well to make gray coxo. The most important part of the process is to apply the cohesive layer to the joints and crevices of the wood. The base lacquer is made by mixing rusty earth and raw lacquer, and is then carefully applied.

Kiso Shunkei” is a technique in which no base is applied to the wood, and raw lacquer is repeatedly rubbed into the wood and allowed to soak in to bring out the beautiful grain of the wood.

4. Middle Coating

The middle coat is applied with raw lacquer, being careful not to allow dust to stick to the surface.

5. Katahioki (placing a mold)

The lacquer for kataoki is applied using a tampo (a small wooden stick) to create an uneven pattern.

6. Colored Urushi Lacquer

Pigments are mixed with urushi lacquer to make colored urushi lacquer, which is then painted in different colors. The process is repeated about 12 times, drying each coat and reapplying another coat. When using the “nuri-wari-roiro-nuri” technique, several kinds of colored urushi are used and painted in geometric patterns.

7. Togidashi (polishing)

After the colored urushi lacquer has dried thoroughly, the patterns are polished with a whetstone and water paper. Depending on the amount of force used to grind, the patterns may come out beautifully or the base may show through. Since each craftsman has his or her own unique coloring and pattern, grinding is a test of the craftsman’s skill. It takes a skilled craftsman to produce a beautiful pattern that resembles the rings of a tree. The lacquer is applied in layers, so that even if scratches occur, they will not be noticeable and will be easy to use.

Kiso Tsuishu” or “Kiso varnish,” also known as “varnish,” has been popular as a representative technique of Kiso lacquerware since the period of rapid economic growth. Using a tampo with lacquer applied, this technique involves applying multiple coats of colored lacquer to the uneven areas of the pattern about 12 to 18 times. After the surface of the lacquer is flattened, the surface is polished with a whetstone.

8. Dozuri (rubbing)

The surface is polished with a mixture of charcoal powder, oil, and tonoko (polishing powder).

9. suri-urushi

After the wood is polished, raw lacquer is soaked in cotton and applied several times until the surface of the wood becomes transparent. After the lacquer is applied, the lacquer is wiped off before it dries, then reapplied and wiped off, and the process is repeated patiently. It is popular for its simplicity and the warmth and flavor of the grain of the wood, and is used for furniture, trays, kotatsu boards, and other items.

10. Polishing

The wood is then polished with a mixture of polishing powder (such as tonoko or deer antler powder) and rapeseed oil, dipped in cotton, and then finished off.

kiso lacquerware
Source:  Kiso Tourist Federation
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