Japanese Crafts: A Guide to Echizen Lacquerware

Echizen lacquerware originated around the city of Sabae in Fukui Prefecture, in the northern part of central Honshu (mainland Japan). This traditional Japanese craft, known for its subdued luster and elegant beauty, boasts a history going back more than 1,500 years and is produced by experienced artisans, each specializing in one step of the production process. Today, Echizen lacquerware comes in all shapes and sizes, from furnishings for weddings and other celebrations to candy dishes, lunch boxes, tea utensils, chopsticks, and soup bowls. More and more varieties of Echizen lacquerware continue to be produced, including those with stylish designs that fit perfectly with people’s modern lifestyles, as well as products that are also dishwasher-safe. These items are appreciated by people around the world. Now then, let us introduce you to this traditional Japanese craft!

The History of Echizen Lacquerware

Echizen lacquerware originated more than 1,500 years ago in the Fukui village of Katayama, which is where the city of Sabae stands today. It’s said that the history of the craft started when Emperor Keitai (at that point still a prince) ordered a lacquerer to fix his crown. Impressed with the crown’s restoration and the black lacquer bowl that the artist sent along as a gift, the prince became a patron of lacquer crafts.

A key component in lacquer is resin, and it just so happens that resin-collecting lacquer-tappers have been living in Echizen since ancient times. It’s said that during the construction of Nikko Tosho-gu (now a World Heritage Site) in Tochigi Prefecture, the Tokugawa shogunate ordered massive amounts of lacquer from Fukui lacquer-tappers. From this, it's clear how these craftspeople were renowned around the country for their skills.

We also can’t forget about the local woodturners. After secluding himself in Echizen, Prince Koretaka (844 – 897) of the Japanese Imperial family brought with him knowledge of a device called a "spinning lathe," and became a patron of woodworking using this technique to produce bowls, trays, and more. This eventually gave birth to the traditional "kijishi" woodturners, who now consider Koretaka their forefather and venerate him. Today, the prince is even enshrined as a deity in Katayama Shikki Shrine (constructed in 1221), which makes sense as “shikki” means “lacquerware.”

Originally, Echizen mainly produced so-called "marumono" (round wares like bowls), but after 1868, they also started making square items like rice containers or food boxes, as well as flower vases, trays, and many more. As Echizen’s lacquerware output grew, they started focusing more on items used by businesses like inns or restaurants. And because most of those wares were produced in the Kawawada district, the Echizen style also became known as Kawawada lacquerware.

The Characteristics of Echizen Lacquerware

Echizen lacquerware is the result of collective work by highly-skilled artisans specializing in a different step of the production process, all working in unison to create something truly special. Nowadays, Echizen lacquerware is produced by woodworkers and lacquerers, as well as decorators who paint designs and adorn the products with gold or silver. This cohesive and graceful production process is one of the primary characteristics of Echizen lacquerware.

These lacquer products are primarily made from durable wood like Japanese horse-chestnut, Japanese cherry birch, Japanese zelkova, or katsura trees. The woodworkers start by carefully examining the trees, then cutting and processing them using specialized techniques. Next, any joints, imperfections, or holes are reinforced and coated with primer. The smallest mistake during any step of this process can greatly affect the resulting ware.

Once a piece has been coated with primer, it’s time to apply the lacquer. This will need to be repeated a few times, so the craftspeople have to wait for each layer to dry before they can proceed. They also need to stay on their toes, as the drying time will differ depending on that day’s weather or humidity. The process consists of three coatings of lacquer, waiting to dry in between. It’s important that no dust gets in the lacquer at any point and that each coat is equally thick, so only the most experienced craftspeople can pull it off.

Finally, the piece is finished off with some "makie" decorations using gold or silver dust, or metal or seashell inlays (the latter of which are called "raden"). These are very delicate techniques that require a lot of experience and a steady hand, but produce some truly beautiful wares.

Echizen Lacquerware Today

Echizen lacquerware was designated a traditional Japanese craft more than 40 years ago in 1975. Currently, the Echizen Lacquerware Cooperative (established in 1900), in a quest to find new markets for the products, has decided to exhibit them at the Tokyo International Gift Show.

Modern Echizen lacquerware comes in all shapes and sizes, from smaller products like chopsticks to larger pieces. You can, of course, find them in museums and at exhibitions, but for a more hands-on experience, sign up for a lacquerware workshop where you’ll be able to paint and decorate an Echizen lacquerware piece on your own.

There are many kinds of Echizen lacquerware. Some are luxurious and gorgeous, while others are more subdued and simple. The designs also vary, so you can have fun collecting different kinds of Echizen’s famous wares.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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