Lacquer for Tea

An abstract rendering of a dove formed in a mould and elegantly decorated with chips of mother-of-pearl.
Father and Son
Just as in many other parts of the world a great many of Japan’s traditional crafts have been handed down from Father to Son.  In the case of the Wakashimas, however, Mr. Wakashima Senior learnt the greater part of his skills as an apprentice.  His son, Hidetaka, on the other hand, took some formal training to top up what he absorbed sitting beside his father watching and learning.  These days this is a common story amongst those engaged in traditional crafts.  In recent times training establishments have been set up in many production centres leading to an increase of those who have adopted a craft rather than having been born into it.

More of a charger than a tray it is used to tastefully display food.

When I visited the Wakashimas, the three of us sat in a bare, dimly lit tatami-matted room with a small cup of green tea at hand and discussed lacquerware in general as well as how it is made in Wajima.

I am lucky.  I have acquired enough proficiency in Japanese to be able to converse, if not like a native speaker, at least well enough so that people feel relaxed when talking to me.  Few hesitate to see if I have understood and many, even diehard craftsmen, seem to be more willing to open up to me, a foreigner, than they would be to talk to another Japanese.  This may be because they welcome the interest I show in their work.

A stationary box decorated with mother-of-pearl flowers.

Of course it was Mr. Wakashima Senior who was holding the floor.  And so the conversation progressed with occasional prompts from Hidetaka when I looked puzzled by a word either in dialect or one so peculiar to the craft that even an uninformed Japanese would not understand.

On the left is a finished natsume, in the middle one reinforced with cloth—the hallmark of Wajima lacquerware—and turned and uncoated one on the right.
Father has often made the kind of tea caddies used in the tea ceremony—or as my on-screen dictionary defines it, “an elaborate Japanese ritual of serving and drinking of tea, as an expression of Zen Buddhist philosophy”.  Simply put that is it in a nutshell but in truth Tea is as deep as it is broad and as complex as any piece of human behaviour could be.

These four natsume represent the seasons from left to right:  spring with shellfish, summer with a dragonfly, autumn with a flowering grass motif and lastly winter interestingly represented by a spiral spinning around the form.  This is fitting as winter in Noto is characterised by dark leaden skies, strong wind, snow and rain.
The tea caddy is a small lidded container to hold the powdered green tea used in the ceremony.  Hidetaka’s Father told me that he became interested in the weight of these caddies, called natsume in Japanese.  He once went to a museum, which holds some caddies actually used by the sixteenth-century Tea Master Sen no Rikyu, to ask if he might borrow one to weigh.  Sadly they refused.

The delicacy of the autumnal design is so appealing.
Anyway natsume do vary slightly in size and the wood from which they are made so there is perhaps no definitive answer.  The small one I have that was turned and lacquered by a very respected craftsman only weighs 25g, about a sixth of the weight of an iPhone.  Incidentally, the ideal weight of the pottery tea bowl used in the ceremony is said to be 300g. This is considered to be the perfect weight for the handleless bowl, which is held in both hands to drink the frothy green tea.

Ideal weights are not the only thing that are given considerable and careful consideration in the tea ceremony.  The choice of items to be used at a ceremony will vary according to the season of the year, the time of day and make-up of the whole ensemble of accoutrements as well as who the guests might be.

Just image how good an ensemble of delicious treats could look in this gleaming, mould-made piece of lacquerware.
It was not long before we began to talk of seeing and photographing actual pieces of Father’s work.  A number of the pieces were one-off studio craft pieces of lacquerware made using a mould and a loosely woven hemp or linen cloth.  The cloth is charged with lacquer and then laid in the mould.  After the lacquer has hardened, more lacquer-charged cloth is added and again allowed to harden.  Once removed from the mould more and more coats of lacquer can be added, then rubbed down, burnished and polished until it gleams or is left with a refined matt finish.  Using this method forms that cannot be turned from wood can be achieved with great effect.

The continued popularity of the tea ceremony means that the Wakashimas have customers for their work, both Father and Son.  Although in Hidetaka’s case it is the continued popularity of saké that he must partly thank for his livelihood.  More of that another day as well as much more one day about the tea ceremony.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Snapshot 14: Forgotten

How could I have forgotten to post this photograph.  When I was in Noto last June I posted a shot from the Ante-room, which has deep brick red coloured walls (Snapshot 5: Unexpected 22nd June 2015).  To see such colours in a Japanese interior was a real surprise, one which still excites me.  So, just how could I have forgotten this place.

The colour is perhaps slightly exaggerated by the fluorescent lighting but, nevertheless, the colour in the photograph is pretty much how I remember it, when seen with the naked eye.

The walls are finished with a coarse plaster-like render and, as far as I know, a pigment is mixed in to produce this shade of ultramarine.

The cushion, on the other hand, is verging toward a violet or a colour which is either known as shell purple or royal purple.  This is fitting as this room is for the use of a high ranking Buddhist priest.

The tokonoma—the alcove in front of which the priest would sit—is simple in design but still displays remnants of its origins.  In Shoin style buildings dating from the fourteenth-century onwards, a writing “desk” was placed by a window.  The slightly set back alcove to the left of the tokonoma in this room displays vestiges of those original fittings.

The edging of the tatami matts is equally colourful.  Even without writing a treatise on it, I guess we could safely say that certain colours and polychromatic decorations, whether on clothing or buildings, are a sign of status and wealth everywhere.  Subdued colours suggest the opposite.  In the case of the Japanese tea ceremony, however, colour is used very sparingly for fear of breaking a desired sense of universal harmony.

The private rooms at Fukushoji Temple should not be forgotten and I hope to see them again some day.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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On Two Fronts

Art—These saké cups are formed using a mould, Japanese handmade paper and lacquer.  The coloured finish is achieved using tin and pigment.

Kunikatsu Seto—Art and Standard
Craftspeople all over the world consider themselves fortunate if they have customers who will buy one-off expensive items as well as more everyday repeatable pieces of their work with a more reasonable price tag.  Some potters, for instance, are able to exist by only making pieces of “studio craft”, for an exclusive clientele.  Others without the necessary reputation to exist from such sales, do nevertheless manage to produce repeatable tableware of high quality to enhance a dinner table and make a living at it, too.

Art—This champaign cooler is made using insulation and then decorated with Japanese handmade paper.  Photo courtesy of Kunikatsu Seto

What helps to make this possible is the fact that ceramic tableware is almost universal.  For woodturners, however, this is something of a restriction.  Tableware made of wood was the norm in many countries until ceramics became preferred, so that nowadays most turnery is for display and to be admired for its form and interesting grain alone.  It is not used.  This is most definitely the case in the UK.  Of course, I certainly do not want to decry such work but I am sure that many woodturners, be they amateur or professional, would be delighted to be able to turn and sell one-off “art” pieces alongside everyday “standard” pieces of tableware, for instance.

Standard—Nest of three bowls.  They can all be used as bowls, and the smallest one can become a lid to the largest bowl.  Photo courtesy of Kunikatsu Seto
The biggest stumbling block is undoubtedly how to finish wood.  Historically an oil was a common finish for treen—household goods made of wood.  In some cases just using plates gave them a “finish” thanks to the food placed on them.  Nowadays there are suitable synthetic finishes but in many respects none as good as true, natural lacquer.

So, if a craftsperson could make pieces of one-off “art” as well as “standard” pieces of tableware in wood and finish them with lacquer—a durable, food-safe finishsurely this would be the answer to a number of dilemmas that plague such artisans.

Art—This box is made of Ate wood.  The wood was split, left as it was and then coloured to give the appearance of snow settled on a piece of rock.  Photo courtesy of Kunikatsu Seto

Standard—A two tier stacking box made of Ate wood—a type of Hiba.  A coarse cloth provides character by defining edges and corners.  Photo courtesy of Kunikatsu Seto
For Kunikatsu Seto this confluence of the merits of suitable materials and creative drive are more than so many craftspeople could ever wish for, even in their wildest dreams.

Kunikatsu has been designing and making pieces of lacquerware for more than 40 years, an endeavour which started after he met the British potter Bernard Leach (See Snapshot 9: Inspired 7th July 2015).  He clearly has a talent for this work.

Standard—Deep bowls and spoons for thick soups and stew-like dishes.  The thick coats of black lacquer have a matt finish.  Photo courtesy of Kunikatsu Seto

Some of his creations can be seen at his stylish gallery and workshop near the Kawaratagawa river in Wajima.  And he really has been able to produce “art”—with function too—and “standard” pieces of lacquerware, which he exhibits at the gallery and at many other locations all over Japan.  He’s a lucky man!

Gallery QUAI, www. seto-kunikatsu.com/

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A One Day Apprenticeship

Photo:  Shin'ichi Shioyasu
When I was in Wajima last June, I spent a day working in the Shioyasu Kobo workshop (Snapshot 9:  Inspired 7th July 2015).  It was an eye-opener in many ways but extraordinarily satisfying.

In the post about that day’s work I gave a brief outline of my experience but I felt it would be a good idea to explain in more detail exactly what I did and pass on any thoughts that occurred to me at the time and subsequently.

Masahiko Sakamoto, sitting at the back of the picture, explained what I was to do and showed me how to do it.  He also suggest that I might use a flat lacquer brush to begin with but to try using a spatular when I was ready.

Flat boxed hair brushes are used a good deal.  They can cover a wide area with one sweep and the lacquer is forced into the pores of the wood, but this is something which a spatular does perhaps better.

Brushes made of horse hair are also used, especially for the technique known as tsuri-urushi or fuki-urushi, literally a “brush on” or “rub on wipe off” application method.  This technique can be used on small items like soup bowls just as easily as on large pieces of furniture.

That day, however, I was going to apply a flexible, openly woven cotton cloth to the back of a small hand mirror.  This is done to make items with a wooden core more robust and is a feature of Wajima lacquerware.

Top:  Finished blanks waiting to be put in a curing cabinet for the lacquer to harden.
From left to right:  Sprung reverse calipers with a mirror blank attached.  Some blanks.  A finger stall used wet to smooth out any wrinkles in the cloth.  A pool of lacquer from which a spatula can be charged.  Two wide spatulas for spreading lacquer and one thin narrow spatula used to lift a piece of cloth onto a mirror blank. Foreground:  Reinforcing cloth cut to size to cover the back of the mirror.
The equipment I used is consistent with the job of preparing a ground, onto which a number of coats of lacquer are subsequently applied.  At this stage the first thing to do was to cut some pieces of cloth to cover the back of the mirror.

Spreading a patch of lacquer to roughly match the size of the cloth.
The cloth is ready to be placed on the patch of lacquer.  A mirror blank attached to the sprung reverse caliper or clamp awaits the cloth.
Then, I spread out a patch of lacquer on the glass-topped workbench to roughly match the size of the cloth before placing the cloth on the patch of lacquer.  Next I applied more lacquer to its upper surface.

The cloth is laid on the patch of lacquer and charged with more lacquer until the blue of the cloth is hidden.
The next stage proved a little difficult to master at first.  I had to lift the lacquer charged cloth off the glass worktop with the thin narrow spatular and place the loose end of the cloth on one end of the back of the mirror blank.  It was then possible to lower the cloth gently down.

The cloth is laid on the back of the mirror and pressed down with a spatula and then smoothed out with the wet finger stall.  Excess cloth is then trimmed off following the shape of the mirror blank.
The cloth, of course, overlapped the mirror back and any wrinkles could then be flattened out with the narrow spatular.  Next, I wet the finger stall, which was on the index finger of my right hand, and smoothed out the cloth while also applying some pressure to make sure the cloth had completely adhered to the lacquer charged back of the mirror.

When lacquer is tapped from a tree it is a milky-grey.  After being refined it is a dark caramel colour but when disturbed, it turns the colour of a creamy caramel.
Finished blanks waiting to be placed in the curing cabinet.
After roughly trimming the cloth to the shape of the mirror back, it could be released from the reverse sprung calipers and laid on a board ready to be placed in a curing cabinet.  With a temperature of 25˚C and roughly 80% humidity in the box, the lacquer would harden.  And this is where my work finished.

While I was working I puzzled over the fact that true lacquer in its raw state contains some moisture and yet repels water in both its liquid and hardened state.  It can be diluted, however, with pure turpentine and some other spirits.  I am no chemist and there is much I still do not understand about this natural product.

The use of a reinforcing cloth seemed to me to be rather like a mordent, which is used when dyeing cloth.  In simple terms a mordent provides a bond between the dye and the textile.  Although lacquer will adhere to a piece of wood, the reinforcing cloth strengthens the carcass and provides a key for the subsequent layers of lacquer.

Making batches of items may be a little monotonous but it does have its advantages.  It is perhaps obvious to say that repeating a process means that we become better at doing it, and can as a consequence correct any mistakes or inconsistencies.

Working as a photographer for a Japanese magazine, I was seldom afforded such a luxury.  Sometime I had to resort to taking many photographs to be sure of producing a useable and pleasing shot.  Although I was completely familiar with the equipment, each location was a “first” and quite often the circumstances were never to be repeated.  I was required to get it right and experience gained at one location could not necessarily be reused at another.  I was in a sense always flying by the seat of my pants.  An unenviable situation really.

Having visited many craft workshops in Japan I have always been impressed by the ingenuity of craftspeople.  In many cases they “invent” something—like sprung reverse calipers or clamps—on the spur of the moment to deal with a situation.  Mind you, this may actually be a common factor amongst all kinds of creative people all over the world.

The Shioyasu Kobo was no different to others I have visited over many years, in that the staff display an unpretentious dedication to their work and have the kind of work ethic that many would say is envied the world over.

I do feel, however, that the dedication manifested is driven towards perfecting a skill or process per se.  Is this a bad thing?  Of course not.  Nevertheless, it does sometimes seem to stunt avenues of creative advancement, making the creation and development of “new traditions” much more difficult.  Fostering traditions is not a bad thing in itself but is dangerous.  Inevitably people want to see something “new” even though they may applaud tradition.

Kirin Beer Building, Osaka, by Shin Takamatsu.  Heroic architecture.
I must acknowledge, however, that there are a number of out and out avant-garde craftspeople as well as other creative people in Japan, too.  Some of the most “heroic” architecture of the last 50 years, for instance, has been designed by Japanese architects, so that spirit of adventure is there and need not compromise a search for technical perfection.  In truth is should not compromise any search for perfection of any kind.

There are in fact such adventurous individuals amongst the lacquer community working in Wajima, about whom I have yet to report.  Nevertheless, I do not wish to belittle or sneer at all those highly dedicated craftspeople who are maintaining an extremely high level of skill in their work.  Their pieces of craftwork are being used on a daily basis in homes up and down Japan, while also being so highly praised abroad.  As I have said once before, much of the lacquerware produced in Japan is beyond civilisation—it goes far beyond what is required in quality and function.

The National Trust in the UK is adamant about only using materials and skills consistent with the age of a building or monument needing repair.  This is undoubtedly a good thing and completely understandable as long as the materials and skills are still extant.

This approach is totally acceptable and appropriate for the sake of authenticity.  But there are some craftspeople even in the UK who insist on not only using traditional skills, methods and materials but also use traditional designs.  I would say by all means learn from the past but there is no real need to stubbornly reproduce furniture, for example, unless it is for the purposes of authenticity.

Which is the right course to follow?  Of course, there is no absolute answer to this dilemma.  We must believe in what we think is right.  Nevertheless, in the movie Kung Fu Panda, Master Oogway says “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery but today is a gift.  That is why it’s called the present”.  Make your choice.  Enjoy the present and go forward cognisant of the past.

Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto.  The past is the present and a future to be.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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The Year of the Monkey


Happy New Year

It’s 2016.  I have been writing this blog for more than a year and I am thoroughly enjoying it, as indeed I hope my readers are, too.

2016 is the year of the monkey, according to the oriental zodiac, which is followed in Japan.  The image of the monkey is on the lid of a stationery box forming part of Shoemon Osaki’s collection of lacquerware.  It was done by Mae Taiho in the latter part of the 1950s using the chinkin technique.  This is a method of chasing and engraving lacquer and using finely powdered gold to express the design.  (See post Chased, Engraved—Chinkin 3rd December 2015 for more information.)

Up until now I have been stubbornly using the term “true lacquer” to distinguish it from any kind of synthetic finish, which may by some people also be called “lacquer”.  In future, however, I will refer to this natural material simply as “lacquer” as tapped from the lacquer tree.

The monkey is just one of eleven real animals, one imaginary beast and a single bird.  In order and with the Japanese name in brackets they are:  the rat (ne), ox (ushi), tiger (tora), rabbit (u), dragon (tatsu), snake (mi), horse (uma), sheep (hitsuji), monkey (saru), cock/chicken (tori), dog (inu), and wild boar (i).  There is a story to explain that order, which I would ask you to research yourself if you are interested.

The Japanese name is either the word that is in regular use as in the case of inu for dog, or an alternative.  A snake is usually referred to as a hebi  but in the list it become mi.  Similarly a rabbit is usually usagi but is shortened to u in the list.  Doing so allows for a rhythmic pattern to develop when all are recited in order.  At least, that is my interpretation of the use of these abbreviations but I may stand to be corrected.

Here the compass is simply divided into twelve sectors….
These eto as they are known collectively are also used to divide the compass and hours of the day.  The two diagrams are from We Japanese first published by the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone in 1934 (http://www.baxleystamps.com/litho/misc/we_japanese_1950_combined.shtml).  My facsimile publication covers a multitude of interesting facts about Japan and has detailed information about the significance of each year and its creature.
If you are born in the year of the monkey, for example, it is said to be lucky as the samurai warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was born in the year of the monkey rose from humble beginnings to be Shogun in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

Something similar is done with time, except it is divided into twelve sectors based on even number divisions.
But the year of the monkey is also thought to be unlucky.  The word saru, monkey in Japanese, has the same pronunciation as the word for “to part” or “to leave” and is therefore considered an unlucky year in which to get married.

Any further explanation of the uses of the oriental zodiac would take more than one post, so I shall stop now.

I will, nevertheless, wish you Peace, Love, Health and Happiness as well as lots of laughter in 2016.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
Diagrams from We Japanese, Fujiya Hotel

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.