< The History>
The history of Yamanaka lacquerware dates back to about 450 years ago, during the Tensho era (天正年間1573-1593). The wood lathe carvers from Echizen (越前, Fukui Prefecture) moved to the place called Manago (真砂), where it is about 20km above the Yamanaka Onsen Village (山中温泉町) along the Daishoji River (大聖寺川). Soon their woodworks were sold to the guests at Yamanaka Onsen (hot spring), who came for hot spring care, famous from that time.
Photo courtesy of the Yamanaka Lacquerware Cooperative Association
The wood lathe carving technique was handed down to the people of Yamanaka Onsen. In the Edo period (1603-1868), following the marron color, vermilion-tame colored lacquerware was created. In the middle Edo period, master craftsmen were invited from Aizu (Fukushima Prefecture), Kyoto, Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture), and all over the country, the techniques of maki-e were refined making tea ceremony utensils, the foundation of today's Yamanaka lacquerware was laid.
In the late Edo period, Minoya Heibei (蓑屋平兵衛), who showed his superior skills in the field of wood lathe carving, invented the "thread hiki" (fine grooves) technique, which enhanced the characteristics of Yamanaka lacquerware to stand out from the rest. And from then on, the decoration carving techniques using wood lathe were developed.
Currently, at Yamanaka Onsen, there is an institute called, Ishikawa Prefectural Institute for Yamanaka Lacquerware, where they teach wood lathe carving technique with lacquer manufacturing skills since 1997, which is unique and one of a kind public institute in Japan. Faculty members include current Living National Treasures such as Ryozo Kawagita (川北 良三) in Woodworking, Koichi Nakano (中野 孝一) in Maki-e and Fumio Mae (前 史雄) in Chinkin and there are many other master craftsmen following them in the industry as faculties.
Therefore Yamanaka Shikki is in the forefront of the Japanese lacquerware manufacturing, especially in the area of woodworking.
<About Yamanaka Onsen >
Yamanaka Onsen, as mentioned earlier, is famous for its hot springs. It has been said that the hot spring was discovered 1300 years ago by high-rank priest Gyoki (行基). Gyoki carved a Yakushi-buddha (who cures sickness) into a log and built a small shrine, which was used as a guardian for the hot spring. It is said that many people visited the Yamanaka hot springs and were healed of their sickness and fatigue. However, the place had long been forgotten after many years of wars happened at that time.
In the late Heian period, around the time of the Jishou era (治承 794-1192), Nobutsura Hasebe, the lord of Noto domain, saw a white heron healing its injured leg with a small stream in the shade of the mountains. When the site was dug out, a five-inch statue of Yakushi-Buddha appeared and beautiful hot spring water gushed out. Nobutsura opened 12 inns in this area, and this was the beginning of the Yamanaka Onsen Ryokan.
After a longer period, during the Genroku era (元禄 1688-1704). Matsuo Basho(松尾芭蕉), the sage of haiku poetry, accompanied by his disciple Sora, visited Yamanaka Onsen on July 27, Genroku 2, during his long tour of Japan “Narrow roads to Deep North”. Basho praised Yamanaka hot spring as one of the "Three Famous Hot Springs of Fuso" along with Arima and Kusatsu, and wrote, "Yamanaka and Kiku are the three most famous hot springs in Japan. Basho stayed at Yamanaka Onsen for nine days.
<Master of Wood Lathe Hand Carving>
The late Master Takashi Mizukami (水上隆志) was a true craftsman. He worked as a wood lathe hand carver for his life at Yamanaka Onsen and he is one of the figures that symbolizes traditional Yamanaka craftsman. Unfortunately, he had passed away in 2017, but till then he was one of the most rigorous wood lathe hand carving craftsmen in Yamanaka.
Born in 1936, he started as an apprentice, at the age of 15, to his father Soei Mizukami (水上荘詠), also highly skilled wood lathe hand carving craftsman and who was a prestigious member of the Nihon Kogeikai (Japan Kogei Association). Takashi also became a member of the Nihon Kogeikai at the age of 33, and since then he earned many awards in his life. Master Mizukami’s motto was; “Feeling the warmth of the wood, bringing about the beauty of the grains, and shaping the form to be safe, light, and usable as your daily item.”
For Master Mizukami, to do his job right, he had traveled every year to the deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture to purchase a whole timber. He would have a huge timber transported back to his house and he would cut it into big chunk pieces as he wants and let it dry for many years. Then he would slice it in a smaller chunk and let it dry for several years. And a little smaller chunk and store it inside your warm house. As you understand by now, the traditional wood lathe carvers are also the suppliers of the fine wood. Understanding the wood and taking care of the drying process to minimize the warp of the wood core i.e. Japanese lacquerware in the longterm, which is one of the most difficult and important quality control elements that can not be easily checked. This is how the quality of the wood core for lacquerware was assured from the old days.
Luckily, many had been taught by Master Mizukami at the Yamanaka Lacquerware Insititute where he taught for 17 years. We hope that the true heart of Yamanaka wood lathe craftsmen is passed on to in the future.
* Our line-up of the Yamanaka products are not necessarily the works of Takashi Mizukami.