Shioyasu Kobo

Mr and Mrs Shin’ichi Shioyasu standing on the right of the core of the workforce—showroom staff in purple and workshop staff centre and left.
In Pursuit of Excellence
The Shioyasu Kobo is one of the bigger true lacquer workshops and pervaders of true lacquerware in Wajima, with a history going back some one-hundred and fifty years.  It is a large enough organisation to be a focus for tourist buses bringing people who are on tours of Wajima and the surrounding Noto Peninsula.  It is therefore little wonder that there is everything from chopsticks to tables and accessories to grand true lacquered screens in the expansive showroom, with a band of dedicated staff ready to help customers with their purchases.

Pieces to wow the public take pride of place in the showroom.
But the mini-tour of the premises begins at the doors to the workshops, which occupy the back of the building.  Although many of the Japanese tourists who come know a good deal about the origins of true lacquer and how it is used, there are a surprising number who know little more than contact with this refined sap from the lacquer tree can cause a skin rash.  In fact some even think that inhaling the air heavy with its scent may also be harmful.

One of several old design manuals to fall back on when necessary.
On the day back in June when I was working under Masahiko Sakamoto, I was genuinely taken aback by how limited the average person’s knowledge of true lacquer was.  Mind you, of course a good many people were much more interested in why a bearded foreigner was in a workshop that was usually the exclusive domain of Japanese craftspeople.

With the workshop tour over, the visitors move into the showroom to be astonished by some of the trophy pieces on display and then generally buy at least a pair of chopsticks or perhaps a soup bowl or two.

Chased and engraved pine motif for a collection of items to ceremonially bring in the New Year. 
Photo Courtesy of Shioyasu Kobo
Dolls associated with Hina-matsuri, the Girl’s Day celebrated on 3rd March each year.
Photo Courtesy of Shioyasu Kobo
But as a commissioning body, Shioyasu Kobo contracts out work as necessary to any number of other craftspeople rather than completely relying on those working on the premises on Route 249 leading south out of Wajima.  There are those who turn the wooden core of many of the items, as well as specialist decorators on hand to provide just the right set of skills to complete a job and satisfy the needs of the customer.  And, strictly speaking, the desire to satisfy the customer is very high on Shin’ichi Shioyasu’s agenda.  In fact, the situation is the same whether one or many craftspeople are involved in the completion of a product.  It must be of the highest possible quality and can in no way be questioned as to its degree of excellence.  That, in actual fact, is the core of the Japanese work ethic in a nutshell.

Accessory to please those with a contemporary taste in true lacquer work.
Photo Courtesy of Shioyasu Kobo
Stereo speakers with a true wow-factor.
Photo Courtesy of Shioyasu Kobo

To view some of the other products on offer from Shioyasu Kobo access www.shioyasu.com, which is in Japanese, so click on the fourth tab from the left for a product gallery.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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In Kanazawa

This awning fronting a store on Hirosaka speaks volumes about the character and elegance of Kanazawa.
Old, New, Traditional, Contemporary
The Noto Peninsula is part of Ishikawa Prefecture and Kanazawa is the seat of the prefectures government.  Even before the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen route from Tokyo in March this year (see  feature ), Kanazawa has always been a favoured tourist destination for the Japanese and now for an increasing number of overseas visitor, too.  It’s easy to see why because of its history, its well preserved traditional buildings and crafts as well as Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most prestigious gardens that even attracts visitors in the winter.

Along Hirosaka....
That’s not to say that Kanazawa is not a modern city too.  It has an abundance of facilities and a large industrial presence enhanced by its easy access to the Japan Sea.
A number of Japan’s tradition crafts are well represented in Kanazawa including the making of gold leaf, a material often used in the decoration of true lacquerware.

Not far from Kenrokuen is a tree-lined street called Hirosaka.  It is along this avenue that you will find a highly respected supplier, not only of true lacquer but also of a number of tools and decorative materials that are essential to the true lacquerware craftsperson.

Hiroyuki Oka is the present-day Managing Director of Nosaku Urushi Inc. and it is well worth a visit to see some of the fine pieces of mostly traditionally styled true lacquerware on display.  At one end of the ground floor showroom is, however, a counter from where tubs of true lacquer and other materials can be purchased.

If you should be interested in a more contemporary style of this fine craft, please make time to visit the Colony Gallery and Workshop at the northern end of Hirosaka street.  Here you will find work by local craftspeople including pieces of novel true lacquerware by Yoshinori Shibayama, who also runs the gallery.

A selection of Mother-of-Pearl slivers.

Some of Yoshinori's novel work.
So just what is special about this pond?

Architecture becomes art....
Then not far from here, in fact just around the corner, is a facility of which Kanazawa is rightly proud.  The 21st. Century Museum of Contemporary Art is as much a work of “art” itself as the pieces which are on display.  It is a total experience—the spaces and forms are interesting, and the features could almost be called conceptual or environmental art.  Even the sky is a performer and the illusionary pond is beyond conceptional art—enough said.  You need to see it for yourself.

But have traditional crafts and contemporary hardware melded in Kanazawa?  Well, yes they have in a somewhat unusual manner.

A selection of the traditional craft inspired products.
Asahi Electric Co., Ltd, a manufacturer of industrial IT equipment, has for some time been involved in the product development, production and marketing of items making extensive use of some of Japan’s traditional crafts.  Drawing on as many local crafts as possible the Senior Managing Director,Tomohiro Sunasaki and his team have endeavoured to use traditional craft techniques and motifs principally to decorate memory sticks and mobil phone cases.

In every case the handmade qualities of a craft have added appeal and value to the products and they have a worldwide market, even selling at such prestigious outlets as the British Museum in London.

The Chinese market has been one of the more successful adventures for Tomohiro’s team with, of all things, a mobile phone case depicting a Geisha seen from behind, holding a traditional umbrella and dressed in a kimono, against a backdrop of a pagoda and cherry blossom.  To me this is something of an anomaly but clearly appeals to people as an iconic symbol of Japan and its culture, even in China, one of Japan’s closest neighbours.  In fact, the traditional crafts of Japan are littered with such motif that have been used in some cases for hundreds of years.  They will, no doubt, continue to be used in a design vocabulary that is so intrenched that it is difficult for any contemporary designs to make their mark.  One has, in fact, made an appearance in the Asahi Electric traditional crafts range.  And that is Kitty Chan or the Hello Kitty motif.

A tea caddy by Yoshinori Shibayama.
Somehow this too is rather strange and yet who can deny the popularity of a product carrying such a motif.  It’s a new “tradition”.  It’s no different to a Micky Mouse watch.  But despite their failing popularity the continued existence and making of so many traditional craft products in Japan is quite extraordinary.  They are a standard of excellence against which modern products and indeed crafts themselves can be judged.

Today traditional Japanese craft skills and motifs are just one of the components of an enormous design lexicon available to creative individuals.  In the hands of a designer in some instances “old” is “new” and “new”—with perhaps a retro leaning—is “old”.  Even something “traditional” in character can be regarded as contemporary in certain circumstances.  Or a mix of local and foreign designs and motifs creates something entirely new and original.  The permutations in the modern world are endless, exciting and help to define who we are, wherever we live.

More images below.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.

It is possible to try on a Noh costume at the Kanazawa Noh Museum.
Photos by courtesy of Brendan James Meighan

Yoshinori Shibayama at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in the open-roofed cloud gallery.

Yoshinori's gallery and workshop, Colony.


Ama—Free Divers

Legend, History and Reality
These days the aspirations of teenagers all over the developed world probably don’t vary much—I want to become  a professional footballer, a model, a singer.  A few might long to be an artist, a photographer or even to have a steady job in an office.  But there really can’t be many teenagers who would want to become a free diver!  Diving without oxygen tanks!  No thanks.

At fifteen, however, that is exactly what Chiharu Hayase wanted to do.  When I met her in June this year she told me, “I was always competitive by nature and when I was given the chance to dive for shellfish as a job, I knew it was for me.  It was a challenge, so I had to try it”.

When I was planning my trip to the Noto Peninsula I felt it would be interesting to do a story on these legendary free diving ladies known as ama but it was not going to be as easy as I had imagined.

First of all June was a bad time to see the Ama at work, simply because they actually work between July and April and take time off during October.

These are some of the boats which make the trip out to Hagura-jima.
Situated about 45 km off-shore from Wajima in the Japan Sea is Hagura-jima.  This small island is roughly two by one kilometres in size and the focus of a fishing and diving community dating back many centuries.  It was permanently inhabited up until 2005 but now the population is seasonal with a few living there for long periods while others choose to travel back and forth as necessary.

By all accounts facilities on the island are therefore meagre.  A boat does go out there most days, weather permitting, but if there is no diving a visit becomes a bird-watching trip instead, as the island is a well-known stop-over for migratory birds.

To be honest the prospect of a trip across potentially rough open water in a relatively small boat did not particularly thrill me as I’m not a very good sailor.  Also, originally when I told various people in Wajima that I would like to go to the island, everyone warned me about the mosquitoes.  Apparently they are large and fearsome.  The wearing of light colours was advised to ward off these tough insects, although they think nothing of penetrating jeans in search of nourishment!  So, reluctantly and with a degree of relief as well, I decided to pay a visit to the island another time.

Some of the nori—seaweed—from Hegura-jima
Admittedly, their skill as divers is only part of their notability. Undeniably the fact that in the past Ama worked bare-breasted contributed to their legendary status.  Why bare-breasted?  Because any excess clothing would impair their ability to dive, although a simple thong-like loincloth was worn as a matter of respectability and modesty.  Nowadays they wear fitted order-made wet suits but continue to hold their breath as they have always done.

With a lookout “diving buddy” on the surface in charge of a large coopered tub, in which to put the catch, Ama dive to a depth of about 20 meters in search of shellfish and seaweed in the shallows.  July is when the season starts with the gathering of abalone and turban shells.  Great care is exercised not to over fish and not to deplete the stocks of shellfish by taking any that are too small.  Chiharu says, however, that stocks are falling and the temperature of the sea has risen by one to two degrees during the time she has been working.  How long has she been diving?  “Thirty years” was the surprising answer.

It was a delight to meet Chiharu.  She was full of confidence and her engaging smile was a window to her character.  My first impression, however, was that I was talking to someone with the figure of an Olympic athlete.  Of course, given the work she does that should be expected.  She seemed to have youth on her side, so it really was a great surprise to know that she was 45 years old.  Thankfully she was just as surprise to learn that I am 69.

Chiharu was amused by my picture of her.  Hokkoku Newspaper Photo
Until a few years ago the oldest Ama working out of Wajima was 93.  Now the oldest is in her eighties.  The history of free-diving in Japan dates back some 400 years and there are still several areas where Ama are working, more or less in the same way that Chiharu and her colleagues do.

Given the nature of their work, it is easy to look upon the Ama as almost super-human but they are wives, girlfriends and mothers, living how millions of other women do in Japan.  When Chiharu is not diving she does some part-time work and also helps her mother, who makes the order-made wet suits.  After work when the ladies get together they talk about their husbands, children, boyfriends and even discuss the good places to dive and things to beware of.  “Can your work be dangerous?” I asked.

Not caught by an Ama!
“I had a shark come close to me once.  It was about a metre-and-a-half long and we just stared at each other as it passed by open-mouthed.  It soon swam away but to be on the safe side I rose to the surface and took refuge with my buddy.  Another time I looked up from what I was doing on the seabed to find a group of large tuna swimming round and round me at great speed”.

“Something most people don’t appreciate is how many sounds there are in the sea.  It’s not just the movement of the waves or the breaking of the surf.  The swell deep down moves rocks, moves in and out of openings in the formations creating sounds that can’t be heard anywhere else”,

It had been fascinating meeting Chiharu and perhaps someday I will have the opportunity of seeing her at work in the waters around Hagura-jima.  All I needed to complete my report was a photograph of her.  We went out onto the quay where the moored fishing boats made a suitable backdrop.  Two local newspaper reporters who were shadowing my visit to Noto at the time took the opportunity of photographing us too.  For me, Chiharu is an embodiment of two worlds.  History and legend are represented by the image of her going about her work off Hegura-jima, drifting effortlessly through the magically lit world beneath the waves like a mermaid from a storybook.  Reality is epitomised by her T-shirt and her dainty slip-on shoes.  Long may legend, history and reality exist side by side.

The websites below explain more about the work of the Ama.



Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except for the image from the newspaper.

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Chased, Engraved—Chinkin

Of Cats and Monkeys
Kazutaka Furukomi and his partner Sachiko live in a residential area on the outskirts of Wajima.  A number of modern houses sit squarely on terraced plots with engagingly framed views of the surroundings and small gardens boarding the lots.  Many of the true lacquerware workshops and other old buildings in the centre of Wajima on the other hand, stand cheek by jowl and are sometimes separated by the narrowest of spaces, through which an enterprising cat or dog—and it has to be said—rat may pass.

Kazutaka’s working conditions are somewhat different from those “urban workshops”.  As he is almost solely engaged in the job of decorating pieces of fine true lacquerware, all he needs is a comfortable room where he can sit on the tatami matting at his worktable and focus on his work in comfort.  As long as the room is well lit, clean, cool in summer and warm in winter he is happy.

Sachiko is very supportive and keeps an eye on the business side of things and does her best to keep their beloved cats out of Kazutaka’s workroom.  An eager attention seeking cat is the last thing Kazutaka wants breaking his concentration.  Keeping the cats at bay is not easy when there are four felines roaming the house courting a human or searching for a comfortable place to curl up for a sleep.

Easter Egg Photo Courtesy of Kazutaka Furukomi
So what is Kazutaka’s work?  He does chinkin—the engraving and chasing of true lacquer.  It is one of the main decorative techniques used, the other being makie, although it is essentially different.  Makie involves various surface treatments whereas chinkin is in simple terms just like engraving—the scratching of a hard surface to express a decorative feature.

It is a craft but since he first started work Kazutaka admits that it has become much more of an art and, fortunately for him, is recognised as such and has a following.

Chased panel.  Photo Courtesy of Kazutaka Furukomi
Many department stores all over Japan have galleries for artists and craftspeople to exhibit their work but it took Kazutaka some time to actually get a foot in the door and to be asked to exhibit his work.  So now he has a fan base and for someone in his 30s he is lucky enough to be supporting himself and Sachiko from what he sells at exhibitions or through orders.

Having spent some time manning exhibitions he has learned much about the psychology of the gallery hawks, most of whom are female.  In fact 90% of those who visit his shows are women and, not only that, they are the ones who buy his work, but not immediately.

“Women who come to my shows will sometimes spend two or three hours in the gallery, sometimes talking to me or just mulling over a purchase before taking the plunge.  Men, on the other hand, see a piece they would like then go out of the gallery to consider things before returning to make the purchase.  It’s all over in thirty minutes”.

Women clearly carefully consider how they might use a purchase and that is perhaps why it takes so long.  Whereas men are either taken by a piece or not.  It seems to be as simple as that.

Although Kazutaka concentrates on chinkin he is not incapable of making a wooden carcass or core of a piece.  The division of labour in Wajima is generally seen as being quite strict but not universal.  It did, however, strengthen during the latter half of the 1980s when business was booming—the so-called “bubble economy”.  It has, nevertheless, been a corner stone of the true lacquerware trade in Wajima for many hundreds of years.

The engraving or chasing of true lacquer is carried out when the lacquer is hard, not just on the surface but deep down.  True lacquer which has been allowed to harden for two to three years however, is too hard to work easily.  Ideally it needs to be about a year old.

The surface is chased with fine engraving tools and the hardened lacquer spins away for the surface like the zest of lemon peel.  Different engraving tools produce different marks, although some of the most effective work is done in lines.

True lacquer is rubbed into the design.

When a design is complete, some true lacquer is rubbed over the engraving to fill the grooves.  The excess is then wiped off before the motif is dusted, for example, with very fine gold or silver powder on a wad of cotton wool.  The powder fills the wet lacquer charged chased lines and any excess is wiped off—something to recycle!

In a similar way finely powdered pigment can also be used to bring out a motif and a degree of grading is also possible.

In Kazutaka’s case the hair of a cat or a monkey is ideally suited to chinkin.  Or is it chinkin is ideally suit to the rendering of the hair of a cat or a monkey.  In whichever case his work is some of the finest to be found in Wajima.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Osaki Collection 4

Wonderment and Change
The variety of designs of lids and bowls held in the Osaki collection is considerable and covers a period of about one-hundred years from the end of the 19th century.  Many of the pieces were made as samples to be offered to potential customers.  Generally speaking the wooden core material is Zelkova (Zelkova serrata )—a type of elm.  The decorative technique employed on many of the pieces is called makie.  This can simply be painting with coloured true lacquer or involves the use of powered gold or silver and sometimes gold or silver leaf or chips.  The decorations are mostly traditional in character, meaning that they are variants of motifs derived from nature, mild abstractions of nature and geometric pattern pure and simple.  Some auspicious motifs are also use.

Almost with out exception these lids and bowls were made and decorated for sale to established markets—high class restaurants, inns and for domestic use—and were therefore not expected to be “pieces of art”.  In some cases hundreds were made where as others were only made to order for a favoured clientele.  Nevertheless they do represent in a limited way how fashion and taste has changed over the course of one-hundred years up until the late 1940s.

The lids and bowls shown above span the period from the latter part of the 19th century to the middle of the 1920s and were made as samples to be offered to restaurants and inns or ryokan, which are similar to a hotel but breakfast and dinner would usually be served in a guest’s room after futon have been tidied away.

This elegant lid and bowl date from 1861, the first year of the Bunkyu period as it says on the box.  It was made for domestic use and is known as the Bunkyu bowl.  Its form is unusual and appealing.  Would it sell today?  Who knows.

This is the first of three lids and bowls dating from the latter part of the 1920s.  The design of this particular bowl is said to be in the style of Art Deco.  It was made as a sample for exclusive restaurant use.  Both gold and silver have been used in its decoration but over the years the silver has tarnished.

This late 1920s lid and bowl has an interesting form, the result of a piece of joinery.  The wispy ethereal clouds and bird motifs contribute to its distinctive character.  It is a sample made with the exclusive restaurant and inn market in mind.

This is a very unusual piece.  Fish are seldom seen on a lid or bowl.  This could be a giant catfish.  Once again it is a sample for exclusive restaurant and inn use made in the late 1920s.

Made either in the 1930s or 40s or even a little later, the simple decoration on the lid and bowl is understated and yet elegance personified.  The design of all of the lids and bowls shown here must be seen in the light of being one piece in an ensemble of plates, dishes and bowls, which would make up a place setting for one person.  A restaurant or indeed a host entertaining at home would carefully plan not only the food to be served but also tableware in keeping with the food, occasion and season.  The aim would be to create a composition not only to stimulate the mind and the palate but also to delight the eye.

Although it is not clear exactly when this lid and bowl were made it seems likely to have been sometime during the last 40 to 80 years.  Neither is it known who the customer was but it may have been made for use at an exclusive restaurant.  Three years ago, however, a true lacquerware collector placed an order for this design.  Given the complexity of the design it is hardly surprising that it took a year to fulfil the order.  Yes, the pattern is on the inside of the bowl and the lid—the epitome of chic in Japan.

Given the advances in contemporary machine technology, we are perhaps more likely to associate such delicacy and complexity in a design with a computer generated pattern.  Knowing that it was hand painted only serves to increase our sense of wonderment at what a skilled person is actually capable of doing.  It is beyond civilisation and worthy of every superlative in the dictionary.

Both of these examples were made with top-notch restaurants and inns in mind.  Dating from the late 1950s or early 1960s it was a time of economic growth in Japan and followed a period after the Second World War when those establishments that were able, sought to replace much that had been lost as a result of the war.  The decoration on the black lid and bowl follows a traditional pattern found amongst the treasures in the Shoso-in, the repository associated with Todai-ji temple in Nara.  Taking inspiration from the past is nothing unusual in Japan or anywhere else for that matter.  All designs, after all, need a starting point.  The decoration of the other bowl and lid is, however, much more contemporary and even abstract, although probably based on apricot or plum flowers.

Dating from the late 1940s, this piece was made for exclusive restaurant use or for domestic customers, too, and is finished with silver powder.  Like all the others shown here this lid and bowl are reproducible today.  For most people the cost to reproduce some of these pieces would be prohibitive.  Nevertheless, each combination of lid and bowl is a treasure in its own right and is waiting to grace a table or to be the starting point of something completely new.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Osaki Collection 3

The front windows provide necessary light and ventilation.  The decorative window above delivers a sense of quality and style.
Fine and Finer
The building housing the Osaki workshop and home was begun in 1925.  The layout is typical for such premises—the dwelling incorporating receptions rooms opens off the street and the rooms are accessed from a corridor running through to the back where the workshop and storehouse can be found.  The corridor is treated as part of the outside and shoes are only removed when stepping up into one of the interior spaces.  The corridor is lit from windows placed high up and smaller spaces have individual windows providing light and ventilation when opened—the summers are hot and humid so encouraging the movement of air is essential.  Exposed structural timbers and wooden floors glow as they are all finished with true lacquer.  The detailing of screens is as fine and as refined as you will ever see in Japan.

Although covered, this passageway runs from the front to the back of the lot and is treated like part of the outside, as shoes remain on.  The exposed timbers are finished with true lacquer.
The stairs rise behind this wall but are expressed as a kaidan-tansu, a traditional space-saving style of chest built like stairs.
The screen work is delicate and refined.
The workshop is toward the back of the lot along with a plastered storehouse, which has a substantial timber framework.  Such storehouses have for many centuries traditionally provided protection for rice and other agricultural produce and especially in towns protection from fire.

The monastic air of the workshop is heavy with the smell of true lacquer and concentration.

Most true lacquer craftspeople seem to prefer to sit on the floor with everything they need within arms reach.  Such spaces both large and small are characterised by the smell of true lacquer and the air of dedicated concentration is unmistakable.  It’s monastic.

Some of the most delicately rendered work in the Osaki collection seems to match the fineness of the detailing of the interior fittings.  Many pieces of decorated true lacquerware are painted using a makie technique involving the use of coloured true lacquer, gold and silver powders as well as chips of these precious metals.  Other fine decorative work is, however, done by chasing the surface of true lacquer, a technique called chinkin in Japanese.

A curl of true lacquer is released by the engraving tool.  (Example of chinkin by Kazutaka Furukomi.)
In some respects this technique is similar to how scraper board is used.  This art board is finished with a fine white clay that is then coated with black ink.  Scraping away the surface reveals the white below and produces an effect similar to engraving.  With chinkin the hard surface of true lacquer is skilfully engraved with a sharp tool before some true lacquer is wiped over the design to fill the engraved lines.  The excess true lacquer is then removed and the application of very fine gold powder, for instance, will expose the design.  It is therefore possible to produce a design with hairline delicacy.

The two examples of chinkin from the Osaki collection here are unusual.  The red bowl and lid are decorated with a delicate design of fine leaves that are expressed in black.  It was made as a sample sometime during the middle of the 20th century for domestic use as well as for inns and restaurants.  It is still in production and very popular with certain customers.

The black bowl and lid, however, were probably first made toward the end of the 19th century.  The design is rendered with a fine tool and not immediately discernible.  This refined piece of decoration does not shout at us to be appreciated.  It is as if the cicada is quietly waiting to be discovered in the dark—it is something else fine and refined to be found at the Osaki workshop.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.