Deep and shiny luster of black or red, sometimes adorned with a gold leaf or mother-of pearl inlay, you may have encountered beautifully decorated urushi lacquered chests or boxes or tableware in museums or as in historical treasures from the East. Japanese lacquerware, referred to as "japan" in the old days, was introduced to the West in 16th century and widely spread in 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, and immediately enthralled royalty and nobility.
Japanese lacquer urushi has been used to produce holy ceremonial ornaments, works of art and utilitarian objects for thousands of years. In fact the oldest urushi lacquered ornaments discovered in Japan (Kakinoshima B ruins in Hokkaido) dates back to 7000 BC, during the Jomon period, and they are the world’s oldest urushi lacquer objects that had been found until today.
The beauty and the luster are not the only appeals of urushi. Urushi is one of the most durable natural lacquers. It comes from the sap of the urushi tree (rhus verniciflua), which grows mainly in East Asia. Extraction of the sap uses and maximizes the natural vitality of the urushi tree. The urushi tree creates the sap to cure oneself when the tree is damaged. Therefore, it has many excellent characteristics, starting from its unique drying process caused by humidity, showing great adhesion strength onto many substances creating great hardness with durability if once dried. Urushi lacquer is resistant to water, acids, alkali, alcohol, and heat. It also has antibacterial effects and anti-insects effects and the people from the ancient knew its characteristics.
Therefore urushi lacquer had been applied onto many important things from the past, such as, religious ornaments, Buddha, armor goods, wooden structures and ceilings and floors of temples and shrines, tableware and furniture and so on. We Japanese had been living in the world surrounded by the urushi lacquer.
To make a lacquerware, urushi will be applied onto, most of the times, wood materials, and in some cases, some form of natural based materials like cloth or paper formed into shapes using molds. With repeated multiprocess of urushi lacquer coating, drying and polishing will create durable and beautiful surface you see as a lacquerware.
For an example, Wajima lacquerware (Made in Wajima-City, Ishikawa Pref. ) goes through between 75 to 130 processes (by hand) before it is complete as one of the most durable lacquerwares in Japan.
(You will find comprehensive guide of Japanese lacquerware here;
Using urushi as an adhesive, decorating techniques such as maki-e (sprinkled application of gold or silver powder / plate) or raden (mother-of-pearl inlay). Urushi decorating techniques reached the height of the beauty and the sophistication in the Edo period in the 18th century.
Today, we can enjoy the fruit of superb craftsmanship cultivated through our long history of urushi in our daily lives. We hope you would enjoy the beauty, the sophistication behind the Japanese lacquerware and its tradition.