Seeing the glossy luster of polish on a smoothly carved wooden dish, it doesn’t take a connoisseur to see that creating lacquerware takes sophisticated artistry and skill. These artisanal creations, known as urushinuri, have a rich cultural heritage and exemplify Japan’s reverence for craftsmanship. You can see it showcased most commonly when the finished objects contain traditional Japanese foods.
So synonymous is lacquerware with Japan that in bygone days, it was known as “japan” to the western world, just as porcelain was known as “china.” Kuroe in Wakayama Prefecture is home to one of Japan’s four largest lacquer-producing areas. The old-fashioned town still celebrates this centuries-old artistry today.
Make your own memento
A 25-minute car ride from Wakayama City, the quiet little town of Kuroe is surprisingly untouched by the commercial tourist wave. Start your day at the Uruwashikan, the Kishu Lacquerware Cooperative’s industry hall (map), where you can discover the rich history of this art and even paint and take home some of your very own.
This building houses a museum and a shop dedicated to all things lacquer and presents the town’s historic roots in this traditional art. On display are original tools and details on early methods of lacquerwork in Kuroe. Stock up on gifts at the ground-floor shop, where you’ll find a beautiful range of chopsticks, serving bowls, trays and display pieces.
It’s here that you can paint, or rather, makie your memento. Makie is the process of using gold and silver powder to paint motifs and designs on lacquered dishes. Choose between a tray or a lunch box, select your powdered colors and paint into the outlined motifs. A seasoned craftsman will be on hand to help. Workshops usually last about an hour and are best booked ahead of time.
After crafting your masterpiece, stroll around the Uruwashikan area to discover old merchant houses and the shops that are set among them. One such establishment is Ikeshoo (map). Stacked with beautiful lacquer pieces, this boutique also has an assortment of inden leather items. Inden is the traditional Japanese craft of applying decorative lacquer patterns on deerskin.
The layers of lacquer
Kuroe town remains well-known as the center for Kishu lacquerware production. In fact, it hosts The Kishu Lacquerware Festival every year on the first weekend of November — a popular event that attracts thousands of visitors.
While in Kuroe, be sure to check out one of the more unique styles of lacquer this region is famous for called negoro shikki. This is where portions of black underlay of polish are visible through a vermillion top coating of lacquer.
In the 17th century, Buddhist monks from Negoro Temple devised a new method to create red lacquerware for their temple — they used red only for their top layer of polish. With time and wear, the black layer of polish started to show up in these pieces. These soft black strokes of polish found on some Kishu lacquer show a beautiful contrast to the rich red gloss of the topcoat.