Frequent readers of this column might very well be wishing they could learn a little more about what goes into urushi work considering the recent emphasis on the combination of urushi and yakimono in various pieces. Urushi lacquer work has been used since the Jomon period, and some people might also be familiar with another name for this art form. While porcelain objects are often referred to as china, some lacquer ware has taken on terms that refer to them as japaned objects.
While this might sound relatively unusual and it’s not preferred in a modern context, there are some people who continue to use this name. Urushi is nevertheless not something to be laughed at, considering just how strong a finish coat is. Entire suits of wooden body armor received coats, which should be enough to prove just how strong it is.
Indeed something as simple as a pen made today should last for decades if it receives the correct coating. In spite of today’s push for the use of the material as something that’s decorative, it wasn’t until the 1700s that anyone decided to use it in this way. Even then the decorations primarily consisted merely of maki-e gold powder or raden mother of pearl inlay.
None of this constitutes the most impressive aspect of the urushi process, however. The fact that the lacquer is made in such small quantities is more stunning than anything else about it. The urushi tree was once planted all across Japan, but it’s cultivated in fairly limited quantities today.
Sap is collected from trees between the months of June and November. Raw urushi is collected from each tree in amounts as small as 250 ml, which means that a great deal of trees need to be worked in order to produce sufficient stocks in order to actually lacquer items. With declining numbers of urushi trees around this has become more difficult than ever, but people continue to keep up the traditional practice that has continued for centuries.
Sometimes base coats will actually consist of this same raw urushi material. There are people that debate back and forth in regards to what the best way to coat a single piece of artwork is, though the final coats are almost always refined urushi regardless. Those interested in learning more about the field should perhaps begin their research in Wajima, as this small port city has been officially named an intangible cultural asset of Japan for the production of fine urushi pieces.