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

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