Celebration of Lacquer Craft

Lacquerware, also known as shikki, is a highly developed art in Japan. Obtained from the sap of the lacquer tree, lacquer (urushi) is used not only for decoration, but also for waterproofing and protecting wooden objects against moths and decay. Creating shikki is a laborious process in which 20 to 30 coats of various kinds of lacquer are applied onto a prepared wooden surface by hand. Each layer is left to dry in a moist, warm place for about a week before the next coat can be applied. The product is then polished with charcoal to enhance its luster and translucence.

Wajima City, the location of the Nakamuro house, has been famous for producing refined lacquerware for at least 500 years. Situated at the northern end of the Noto Peninsula facing the Japan Sea, Wajima was once a major port. The chiefs of lacquerware producers, called nushi, traveled from there by boat to trade with wealthy merchants and farmers around the country. In the golden age of the lacquer industry, lacquer guilds exchanged information about customers, helped improve techniques through friendly rivalries, and cultivated the nushi culture. The Nakamuro house was built by the head of one such guild in the days gone by, and has recently been restored by a modern nushi. Katsuro Nakamuro, the current owner of the house.

Nakamuro is the president of Wajimaya Honten, a long-established lacquerware company. When he found this house in 1988, it was over about 80 years old and was in a dilapidated state, having stood empty for years. Nakamuro felt that this house had a special historic aura, and was inspired to fulfill his dream of rebuilding nushi culture through renewing this house. He commissioned architect Shinji Takagi, who was born and lives in Wajima and is well versed in the use of regional material such as wood and lacquer, to help with his ambitious undertaking.

This elegant yet utilitarian building was originally built to serve as a guest house, a residence and a workplace, complete with an inner garden and a storehouse (kura), and a perimeter wall with a lacquered frame. Close inspection of the house revealed that its floors, ceilings, walls, verandas, posts and fixtures had all been lacquered using different techniques. Nakamuro set himself a challenge—the repaired and refurnished house had to exceed the original in terms of quality. During the renovation, new ideas were also incorporated, such as those in the design of lighting fixtures and a well. Elaborately carved and beautifully lacquered, the ornamental nail covers (kugikokushi) and door catches (hikite). as well as the decorative sliding doors added to the house are beautiful works of art in their own right.

With the renovations complete, this house once again represents the best of lacquer-based nushi culture. Nakamuro hopes that it will play an important role in passing on local culture and traditions to future generations.

Above: Shoji doors serve as principal partitioning devices, in addition to providing a source of illumination and decoration. Here, shoji also control the view from the windows. The fusuma screens seen through the glass are special (genji-fusuma)—they have an inset of shoji in the center.

Left: The main earthen-floored corridor (tori-n'ma) that connects the front and the back of the house, provides access to all the rooms. This photograph shows the entrances to the guest rooms and the Buddhist altar room on the left. The wood frame is made of ate, a locally grown conifer selected for its resistance to decay and its compatibility with lacquer. The wood has a special sheen resulting from the ten coats of lacquer that have been applied to it. The practical dark colors of this earth and sand floor replace the original flooring that was white in color, which must have been a challenge to maintain.

Above: Black lacquered wicker boxes such as these are art forms in themselves, and were used as light, portable trunks by die lacquer makers to carry dieir wares. Bowls in the foreground are of recent vintage, based on designs from books compiled in the Taisho Period (1912-1926).

Left: A lacquered tray is set for serving green tea and yubeshi, a noted confectionery of this district, made from aromatic citron and glutinous rice.

Opposite: These two tatami rooms adjoining the street were once used as reception rooms, where lacquerware producers (ntishi) exchanged information after their long travels. A Buddhist altar can be seen in the background.

Above: The fiisuma doors in the altar room have an unusual design with a lacquered board inset in the shape of a wild boar's eyes (inome).

Right: The painting on the lacquer boards depicts a mythical flower named hosoge, which is believed to bloom in the Buddha's paradise.

Opposite: The wooden lacquered veranda (e/igowo) and earthen-floored doma corridor form a buffer zone between the interior and the exterior of the house, designed here to respond to the weather conditions in this snowy district. Wooden doors (amado) enclose the engawa during the winter, expanding die living area, while in the summer the doors are stowed away to make the engawa an extension of the garden. The white plastered floor reflects the sunlight deep into the home's interiors.

Above: A four-stringed Japanese lute (biwa) stands beside the tokonoma, in keeping with the musical theme of the drawing room's decor.

Left top: The mythical flower ho söge adorns the lacquered door catch (hikite).

Left bottom: Gold inlay in the form of the Japanese lute decorates another door catch. Cropping a part of a picture to give a tantalizing idea of the whole is an old tradition in Japanese arc.

Opposite: The 100-year-old lacquer dinner sets comprising matching bowls for rice, soup and other dishes are placed on footed trays.

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