You Can Make Kawatsura Lacquerware

Yuzawa in Akita Prefecture is famous for a type of lacquerware, recognized by the Japanese government as a Traditional Craft Product. This local craft is called Kawatsura lacquer and is most commonly applied to daily items like dishes, trays and furniture. Despite being destined for use rather than display, the Kawatsura lacquer pieces have a beautiful high gloss and often exquisite gold and silver embellishments. Functional doesn't have to mean boring, after all!

Beautiful Gold and Silver Kawatsura Lacquer -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
But how do artists manage to strike that balance between durability and ornamentation? I heard visitors to the Kawatsura Shikki Traditional Crafts Center can make their own piece under the guidance of a master craftsman, so I decided to try it for myself and find out.
On a snowy day in February, I headed out to the center, which is located about a 15-minute drive from Yuzawa Station. Because of uncertainty about my travel schedule, I hadn't booked a lesson in advance as suggested on the website, but I figured I would try my luck.

Lacquerware on Display at the Center -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
The center offers lessons in the maki-e technique, which involves painting a design on a piece of lacquerware and then dusting it with gold or silver powder, and the chinkin technique, which involves carving into the wood and filling the grooves with gold. I told the incredibly helpful staff I was happy to do either and they made some calls to see if any of the local craftspeople were available to come in.  Despite the bad weather and short notice, master craftsman Hiroki Settsu of Urushi Koubou Settsu kindly agreed to come give me a maki-e lesson.

Check out one of Settsu-san's Amazing Creations
Background on Making Lacquerware
Once ensconced in the upstairs meeting room, Settsu-san gave me a bit of a rundown on how Kawatsura lacquerware is made.
The base wood is carved into shape and sanded down using a kind of potter's wheel to remove any roughness, then dried for about a month to prepare it for the next stage. After that, a plane is used for touching up.
Now the piece is ready to be lacquered. First, it's painted with a mixture of persimmon juice and charcoal ash. Once that dries, the piece is polished and then the step is repeated without the ash. Then, raw lacquer sap is applied, dried and polished. This step is repeated several times to build up a sturdy base, one of the secrets of the style's durability.
Once the foundation is complete, many layers of lacquer are applied, with the craftsperson subtly adjusting the color as they go. Between each coat, the piece must be allowed to dry completely, a process that takes a great deal of time, but results in a final product with deep color and flexibility.

A Kawatsura Bowl in Standard Black -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Taking a Lacquerware Lesson
Of course, none of these steps were included in my short lesson, for obvious reasons. We started with a completed plate and set about adding some decoration.
First, Settsu-san asked me to choose a design from a box of contact sheets. You can free-hand a design too, but for someone as artistically challenged as me, the crutch was appreciated. I opted for a floral design that didn't look too challenging.

The Contact Sheet is Rubbed on the Plate, Creating a Basic Design -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Settsu-san demonstrated the maki-e process on a piece of laminate, using a horsehair brush to paint the design in a special whitish glue. Then, silver or gold powder is blotted on and gently polished, fixing it to the glue. This step looked quite easy in the hands of a master, but appearances can be deceiving.
Once I started, I discovered that painting in smooth lines, especially with a glue that has a tendency to get clumpy as it dries, is surprisingly hard. Settsu-san was able to create smoothly tapering lines, but mine looked more like mad dashes, stuttering out at the end. Plus, I managed to stick my wrist in parts I had already painted several times. Luckily, the unflappable Settsu-san was able to fix these blotches for me.

The Painted Design, Before Applying Gold and Silver Powder -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Once the design was complete, I dusted it with gold and silver powder, which was easy enough. The buffing was a bit difficult though. You can't press too much or you will smear the glue. But you have to press hard enough to get the powder to set on the lacquerware.

Settsu-san Demonstrates the Proper Way to Buff Lacquerware -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Finally, though, I had a finished piece that didn't look half bad! Settsu-san instructed me to store my plate in a warm, dry place for about three days to allow it to completely set. After that, it just needed to be rinsed with clean water and it would be safe to use.

The Completed Plate -- Photo by Jessica Kozuka
Of course, real artists are able to make more lovely and intricate designs. In addition to gold and silver, they use other metals to create a variety of colors and various techniques to achieve different textures. Trying lacquerware painting myself did give me a much deeper appreciation of the skill and effort that goes into making those masterworks, though.

Chinkin creates delicate texture in a ginkgo leaf design - Photo by Jessica Kozuka
My little plate might be a bit homely, especially next to the gorgeous cherry blossom maki-e chopsticks I bought at the Center, but I get a little smile every time I use it. And I think that is the essential charm of Kawatsura lacquer. Unlike a decoration that eventually blends into the background, in using the piece, you enjoy it again and again, revisiting its beauty -- or in my case, the memory of a fun afternoon making inept attempts at it.
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Jessica Kozuka