Tohachiya—Lacquerware manufacturer and distributer

Past, present and future
Tohachiya is a manufacturer and distributer of lacquerware.  I say “manufacturer” with a degree of caution as it may give the wrong impression.  Although it is one of the larger firms in Wajima, it would be a mistake to imagine lines of skilled employees working to produce fine matchless products in the way in which Wedgwood does, for instance.

It is the overall scale of production rather than the number of employees, which sets the firm apart.

Tohachiya is, however, using the same materials and techniques as the smaller workshops.  To satisfy their loyal customer’s needs, however, they must do things differently.

Tohachiya supplies a number of Michelin starred restaurants in Tokyo.  Some are the most elegant and exclusive style of ryotei restaurants catering for an equally exclusive clientele.

In one case this means that they have supplied 100 lacquered boxes for set meals.  Some get damaged and need repairing.  Others may just be beyond repair and need replacing.  After a number of years in service the basic 100 all need replacing.  To be able to do this some have to be held in reserve.  And after being made they need to be allowed to “rest” for some time before being handed over to the restaurant.  Although it wears off in time, new lacquerware can have a distinct odour that customers would find disagreeable.  Despite this restaurant owners would settle for nothing less than pieces of true lacquerware with its distinctive feel and tenor of quality.  That may be difficult for those who have never handled a piece of true lacquerware to really understand.  But it is true.

Checking on the needs of their customers falls to the managing director, Mr. Shioji, who may spend a week or two every month in the capital visiting restaurants which use their fine lacquerware.

Tohachiya has been in business since the latter part of the nineteenth-century.  Since then they have built up a dedicated customer base.  As a consequence they have also produced hundreds of different items and designs for their many clients.  Their archive of soup bowls and lids is staggering.

Much of their business is of a traditional nature and pieces of black or red lacquerware predominate.  Black is more or less a constant colour but red can vary from vermillion through to a browner hue.  Fashions change and Tohachiya makes a considerably effort to keep up with current trends.

Junei Shioji showed me some of their newest colours and styles of bowls when I visited the showroom.  The low, elegant lidded bowls in eye-catching colours were particularly exciting.  They may as yet be too avant-garde for some of Tohachiya’s customer but young people are finding them attractive.

The table setting with a black stacked lunch box, restrained purple napkins, elegant glasses and black bowls is stunning.  However to many people it might appear funeral (see first photo).  Nevertheless in Japan it is seen as an elegant assemblage of colours.

Like many other firms and workshops in Japan, Tohachiya is making some items that have a long, honoured tradition.  And yet somehow they do not necessarily look dated.  If I’m honest they don’t look contemporary either.  It is something of a conundrum.  In some cases pieces are only slightly different in design or colouring from traditional items.  What Tohachiya is striving to do, however, is to find a new direction, one with a more contemporary feel while still maintaining a sense of style and quality whatever the future brings.

http://www.tohachiya.com/輪島塗について/index.html will take you to a page where you can access an English or French site.  To view the online gallery, look at the fifth drop down tab from the left marked オンラインカタログ. You will find information about the items in English.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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