Lacquerware: A painting tradition with modern elements

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Lacquerware products by Maruyoshi Kosaka Wood & Urushi Works feature vivid and dynamic striped patterns.

Urushi lacquerware’s sense of elegance has been popular since ancient times as household items and works of art. As people’s lifestyles have changed, lacquerware has, too, with better functionality and modern designs.

Some manufacturers and retail stores are also developing attractive products that incorporate the traditional lacquerware-producing technique.

Hyakushiki products feature eye-catching stripes in red, yellow, orange and other colors drawn by hand. The brand is part of Maruyoshi Kosaka Wood & Urushi Works in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture — an area known as the heart of Kiso lacquerware.

The company developed a unique technique of applying lacquer to glass and has sold products using the technique since 2013. With the exception of some, only the outside surface is painted with lacquer. Unlike ordinary lacquerware, which is easily damaged by metal cutlery, their glass products go well with it.

Courtesy of Saishoku nuri Nakakado
Shiny cups in a variety of colors by Saishoku nuri Nakakado

“We succeeded in adding a wonderful sparkle to the product you can’t find on wooden lacquerware, by combining the lacquer’s color with the transparency of glass,” said Reo Kosaka, the third-generation president of the company. “Our products also give people the freedom to use them in a wider range of settings.”

Saishoku nuri Nakakado, a company in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, uses an original technique to create lacquer such as light blue, pink, and purple. The shine the wooden cups and flower vases have when painted with the colored lacquer make them look like ceramics. The company says it has sought to give light, cool and refreshing touches to the more profound and traditional impression of lacquerware to make them easy to use year-round.

Isuke Shoten in Kyoto sells small plates with cute animal patterns that have been handed down by the Unsodo woodblock printing company in the city. The plates are suited for serving sweets and snacks for alcohol, or for use as coasters.

Courtesy of Isuke Shoten
Small plates with cat and rabbit motifs by Isuke Shoten

Products by Yamada Sadauemon Shikkiten, a lacquerware shop in Sabae, Fukui Prefecture, have a special coating that makes them highly durable and dishwasher-safe. Either the inside or outside of each product is unpainted to show the grain of the wooden material, emphasizing the warmth of the wood.

“A number of production bases are working to expand their sales channels to the younger generation,” said Naohiro Kuwayama, manager of the tableware and kitchenware section at Takashimaya Yokohama department store.

Urushi lacquerware is traditionally associated with soup bowls and trays, but it is now used for Western settings as well.

Courtesy of Yamada Sadauemon Shikkiten
Products by Yamada Sadauemon Shikkiten feature a harmonious combination of wood grain and lacquer.

“Lacquerware with modern designs can go well with Western dining,” Kuwayama said. “It’s quite versatile, in fact, and is more attractive than you may think.”

Excellent pairing

“You can use lacquerware on a daily basis. I suggest thinking about how to use it in your life, maybe differently from its traditional use,” said Rieko Nakae, a specialist of setting dining tables.

Lacquerware is a good match for glassware, Nakae said. It is also nice to use jubako, or tiered lacquerware food boxes, as a flower vase or wine cooler by filling it with ice.

Courtesy of Rieko Nakae
Using lacquerware with wine glasses gives an added layer of sophistication.

“Arranging and serving sweets or cheese on lacquerware also looks great,” she said.

“Lacquerware retains heat well, and it’s becoming quite popular to combine a Japanese table setting with a Western-style one. I hope many can rediscover the merits of lacquerware and use it however they want.”