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

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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

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Osaki Collection 2

Generations of Work
One of the most commonly used timbers for craftwork in Japan is zelkova (Zelkova serrate).  As a type of elm it is native to the southern part of Europe as well as in areas of southwestern and eastern Asia.  It can also be found in some parts of the United States where it has been planted for its ornamental qualities.

In Japan its wood is also used for building, not only for its structural strength but quite often to take advantage of its distinctive figuring.  The grain of this hardwood is, in fact, its signature, which is easily recognised in this plate made by Shoemon, the first of four generations of true lacquerware specialists working in Wajima under the name Osaki Shoemon.

This thinly turned plate was made from a piece of zelkova and finished using several applications of true lacquer.  It is applied with a spatula or brush and then the excess is wiped off before the piece is set aside to dry hard for at least 24 hours in controlled conditions before being sanded and coated further.  The grain is expressed as it is filled with lacquer and, in the case of this plate, the leaf motifs appear to have been painted on after the application of several coats of true lacquer.  It measures approximately 13cm across.

It dates from the latter half of the 19th century when the Osaki workshop was in its infancy.  Information about how it was made has, therefore, been handed down by word of mouth.  What is not known can be professionally guesstimated.

Measuring about 11cm in diameter and made about the same time, these two smaller plates are for individual portions of food.  If we were to use Western tableware nomenclature they could perhaps be called appetiser or dessert plates.  They are, however, for one-person servings of food and were thinly turned from pine, a timber which can be a little more problematic to finish with true lacquer than zelkova because of its resin.

The one on the left is decorated with what is loosely called Indian ink and signed with a red seal.  Sadly my reading of handwritten characters is not up to deciphering or translating what is written, and that is also true of the other plate.  The bold sweeps of the grain and the hand-painted work, however, would make an interesting accompaniment to any food that was placed on them.

The unpretentious, relaxed delivery and boldness of the design on this plate, too, is its accolade.  Yet another example of Shoemon’s work from the late 1800s, it would have found a place at a dining table and has been treasured ever since by three generations of the same family.  It has now found its place in a collection of lacquerware to inspire not only this generation of craftspeople but many who will follow.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Noto in the News

Bill Tingey, British Photographer, celebrates the charm of the Noto Peninsula

Bill Tingey, who was based in Wajima (on the Noto peninsula, Japan) for a month this year to photograph and report on the culture and natural beauty of the peninsula, is having an exhibition at a gallery in the UK under the title Glimpses of Japan, stating Saturday 7th November.

A number of the photographs are of some of the most attractive aspects of the countryside and coast of the peninsula and through these images, Bill hopes visitors to the exhibition will begin to recognise just what an enchanting place it is.

The exhibition is being held in Hay-on-Wye, the well-know secondhand book town on the borders of Wales and will be on until 21st November.

Bill spent a month travelling around the peninsula visiting many locations and individuals, researching various aspects of traditional culture as well as seeing some of the beautiful scenery of the peninsula and he says he became completely take with the beauty of Noto and the warmth of its people.

Bill says that he wanted to do something to encourage people to take more notice of this wonderful area and decided to have a photographic exhibition to show off the pastoral scenery and the true lacquarework, for which Wajima is famous.  The exhibition also includes some of the photographs Bill took in Kyoto last year when he was there capturing some of the iconographical scenes, so indicative of the beauty of Japan.

Bill lived in Japan for 24 years from 1976 and worked as a photographer and translator based in Tokyo.  He was invited to come to Noto in June by the body that was set up with the aim of fostering redevelopment in the area that became necessary after the earthquake which occurred in 2007.  Coinciding with the opening of the new Shinkansen high speed express route From Tokyo to Kanazawa, the prefectural capital, Bill was asked to come to Noto in order to gather material so that he could write a blog in English—from Noto—that would perhaps encourage more foreign visitors to come to the Noto Peninsula and would generally make people abroad more aware of its attributes.

Bill made a point of showing a map of the peninsula to visitors to the exhibition Private View held on 6th November.  He was anxious to promote the charms of the peninsula through both the exhibition and the blog.

Photo:  Bill is seen here explaining one of his photographs of the Noto countryside to a visitor at the Private View at the gallery in Hay-on-Wye.

Article by Hiroyuki Kitayama published in the Hokkoku Newspaper on 8th November 2015


Osaki Collection 1

Naive Assumption
Before I went to Noto in June this year, I really thought I had already seen all there was on offer in the way of true lacquered soup bowls.  After all, I had lived in Japan for 24 years, I had visited exhibitions of true lacquerware, I had seen numerous examples in books and museums, and I had also been lucky enough to visit a number of fine restaurants and people’s homes for a meal during my stay, so I really thought that I had seen a full spectrum of styles, designs and decorative features, both old and contemporary.  How naive could I have been.

 That was all to change when I visited Shoemon Osaki, who heads an old family of true lacquerware makers.  The buildings and workshop alone were a delight but when Shoemon and his wife, Etsuko, began to show me some of the items in their family collection of true lacquerware gathered over the years by several generations of Osaki’s, I really began to realise just how naive I had been.  Some pieces were acquired for their quality alone, other items were kept as samples from which more could be made.

First of all, I was struck by the great variety of decorative motifs and how they differed according to when they were made.  Just as with many other products there are fashions in true lacquerware, evidenced by colour combinations, choice of motifs, and overall design and shape.  As I began to look through the collection I was overwhelmed by the sheer variety of soup bowls and paired lids.

With help from Shoemon, I began to pick out some bowls to photograph, choosing ones which were simply interesting and others that represented particular periods of recent Japanese history.  Among these was this petal shaped bowl and lid.  Is it mimicking a cherry blossom?  Quite likely.  But what is really interesting is how it was made.

Using a technique known as dakkanshitsu a mould is first made from clay and gypsum.  This of course can be easily fashioned into a desired shape.  Hemp cloth saturated in true lacquer is laid over the mould.  A number of pieces are applied and then the true lacquer is allowed to harden.  Having removed the mould a number of applications of true lacquer are added to the now stiff cloth form.  No trace of the hemp is visible after many coats have been applied.  In the case of this particular bowl and lid the final coat is one called hibire-nuri, a crazed effect achieved by adding some protein (tofu—soybean curd) to the true lacquer (See post Masao Matsumoto—Something Different 22nd August 2015).

This technique was probably first developed in China and was in use in 8th century in Japan to make Buddhist figurines or statues.

Shoemon told me that the petal shaped bowl and lid were probably made to order at the express wish of a customer.  They would, nevertheless, have been used at home, or alternatively at a smart inn or at a top quality restaurant, and originally date from sometime toward the end of the 19th century.

This small collection of shallow dishes were made in the same way but date from the late 1920s or early 1930s.  The motifs are common and were painted in coloured true lacquer and somehow express the blossoming confident culture of the early Showa period.

This first look at part of the Osaki hoard of rather special examples of true lacquer tableware was thrilling and yet made me feel slightly embarrassed at just how naive I had been.  Further explorations of this wonderful collection, however, became an adventure, the excitement of which is still with me.

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.