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Unveiling the Timeless Beauty of Japanese Urushi Craftsmanship in Tokyo

Step into the enchanting world of Japanese Urushi craftsmanship, where tradition and artistry intertwine to create timeless masterpieces. Urushi, a Japanese lacquer, is a natural resin derived from Rhus trees and holds a revered place in Japanese culture, boasting exceptional durability, water resistance, adhesive properties, and a mesmerizing luster. 

Embark on a captivating journey into the realm of traditional Japanese crafts in Tokyo, where a rich tapestry of artisans awaits. Immerse yourself in the transformative power of lacquer as it unveils the depth and splendor of this ancient art form, captivating all who encounter it.

Urushi on a glassware
Urushi on a glassware

The Essence of Lacquer

At the heart of Japanese craftsmanship lies Urushi—a captivating material transcending its physical nature. Beyond its utilitarian properties, lacquer embodies the very essence of Japanese artistry. Its exceptional qualities make lacquer versatile for various applications, including decoration, protection, and adhesion. Whether adorning lacquerware or architectural lacquer work, the unique properties of Urushi breathe life into creations, leaving an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to witness their exquisite beauty.

Urushi is made through a complex and time-consuming process. The process begins by collecting the sap of the lacquer tree. The collected sap is filtered to remove impurities and then stored in airtight containers for aging. During this aging process, natural enzymes in the sap cause a chemical reaction, transforming the liquid into a highly viscous and durable material.

To apply Urushi, craftsmen use a brush of animal hair or a spatula-like tool called a “Nuri-bake.” Multiple thin layers of lacquer are carefully applied to the desired object, such as wood, metal, leather, or paper. Each layer must dry completely before the next one is applied. Drying can occur through exposure to air, but in some cases, heating or humidity-controlled environments are used to accelerate the process.

Fujii Shikki: Masters of Urushi

At the heart of Adachi Ward in Tokyo, the renowned Urushi specialty store, “Fujii Shikkogei,” is a testament to the enduring craft. With a legacy dating back to the Edo period, Fujii Shikkogei sources and blends raw lacquer materials to create exquisite lacquer-based adhesives and lacquerware finishes. Their dedication to quality craftsmanship extends beyond Japan’s borders, as they cater to international customers, spreading the allure of Japanese lacquer craftsmanship worldwide.

Behind the scenes of Fujii Shikkogei lies a hidden workshop, a sanctuary where skilled artisans blend lacquer, boil raw sap, and create colored pigments. This workshop, steeped in history and atmosphere, showcases the fusion of tradition and innovation as craftsmen meticulously craft materials suitable for various lacquer applications. The evocative ambiance within the dark kilns adds to the enchantment of this time-honored craft.

In Fujii Shikkogei's shop. There are everything you need for making Urushi art.
The historic urushi workshop at Fujii Shikkogei

Hotel Gajoen Tokyo: A Symphony of Urushi Craftsmanship

Immerse yourself in the grandeur of Hotel Gajoen Tokyo, a captivating destination that showcases the exquisite beauty of lacquer craftsmanship. Located in Meguro, this prestigious establishment is renowned for its opulent interiors adorned with breathtaking lacquer designs. Among its notable features is the iconic “Hyakudan Kaidan,” a Tokyo-designated tangible cultural property that leaves a lasting impression of timeless elegance.

The architecture of Hotel Gajoen Tokyo is a true masterpiece, blending traditional Japanese design elements with modern aesthetics. The building stands as a testament to the enduring allure of Japanese architectural craftsmanship, with intricate lacquer decorations, exquisite woodwork, and stunning architectural details. Each detail, from the delicate Raden inlays to the meticulously layered lacquer, emanates a mesmerizing luster, captivating guests at every turn.

As you ascend the magnificent staircase of Hyakudan Kaidan, you are transported into a world of artistic splendor. The lacquer decorations, meticulously crafted Raden inlays, and the enchanting play of light create an ambiance of unparalleled beauty. Hyakudan Kaidan is a true embodiment of Japanese lacquer craftsmanship at its finest, where tradition and artistry converge to create a truly mesmerizing experience.

"Jippo no ma" at Hyakudan Kaidan, Hotel Gajyoen Tokyo

Lacquerware's Protective Charm

The application of multiple layers of lacquer to lacquerware serves a dual purpose: enhancing its visual appeal and safeguarding the underlying materials. With its robust coating, lacquerware becomes resistant to scratches and abrasions, ensuring its enduring beauty remains intact for generations to come. This marriage of aesthetics and functionality elevates lacquerware to an esteemed position among cherished possessions.

All sorts of brushes are available at Fujii Shikkogei

Urushi Crafts Museum: A Gateway to Tradition

Venture into the Urushi Crafts Museum in Sumida Ward, where a treasure trove of lacquer craftsmanship awaits. Within the museum’s lacquered walls, a rich tapestry of exhibits unravels, showcasing lacquerware, production tools, and historical lacquerwares of repairs and restorations spanning the Edo period to the present day. Engage in conversation with Mr. Shintaro Ataka, a certified Tokyo Meister and second-generation owner, as he shares his insights into lacquer craftsmanship.

Shintaro Ataka and his wife at the Urushi Crafts Museum

The Dance of Leather and Urushi

Discover the artistry of “inden,” a traditional Japanese leathercraft that melds deer leather with Urushi. Through a meticulous process of dyeing, applying, and drying lacquer, inden artisans create a glossy finish that both protects and beautifies the supple deer leather. Adorned with intricate Japanese patterns and delicate carvings, inden crafts result in stunning accessories and small items that seamlessly blend tradition with contemporary aesthetics.

The Enduring Legacy of Inden Yabe

In the bustling district of Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, lies a sanctuary of inden craftsmanship that has stood the test of time. Inden Yabe, established in 1924, has earned acclaim as a renowned inden—traditional Japanese leathercraft production area. With a rich history spanning a century, Inden Yabe epitomizes the seamless fusion of tradition and innovation. Led by the talented Yabe family, their Tokyo Meister-certified expertise and commitment to pushing boundaries have propelled Yabe Inden to new heights, creating a captivating world where old and new coexist.

At the helm of Inden Yabe stands Yoshinobu Yabe, the second-generation owner and a certified Tokyo Meister. With his exceptional expertise, honed over years of dedication and practice, Yoshinobu Yabe has become a custodian of inden craftsmanship. His mastery and unwavering commitment to preserving tradition have propelled Inden Yabe to prominence and earned him recognition as a respected authority in the field.

While deeply rooted in tradition, Inden Yabe embraces the spirit of innovation. Under the guidance of Yusuke Yabe, the third-generation owner, the workshop has ventured into uncharted territories, exploring Western-style designs and creating new products. By blending traditional techniques with contemporary sensibilities, Inden Yabeinfuses its creations with a touch of modernity, appealing to a diverse range of tastes and capturing the imagination of a new generation.

A business card holder by Inden Yabe. Oinari san, a fox, is considered as the guardian and protector of crops, prosperity, and success for Japanese.
Yusuke Yabe won the prize at Tokyo Teshigoto Competition in 2023.

The Global Resonance of Urushi Craftsmanship

The allure of Japanese lacquer craftsmanship transcends borders, captivating art enthusiasts worldwide. Museums and galleries around the globe proudly display these masterful creations, offering a glimpse into Japan’s rich artistic heritage and evoking a shared admiration. As lacquerware bridges the gap between past and present, tradition and innovation, it serves as a testament to the universal appeal of art and culture, resonating with people from all walks of life.

As we immerse ourselves in the captivating world of Japanese lacquer craftsmanship, we witness the profound impact of human creativity across time and space. From the time-honored techniques handed down through generations to the ever-evolving expressions that push the boundaries of innovation, lacquer craftsmanship stands as a testament to the enduring beauty of Japan’s artistic legacy. Within each lacquer creation, we find a harmonious blend of tradition, artistry, and cultural heritage—a testament to the indomitable spirit of creativity and the power of art to transcend boundaries and inspire awe.

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