20/02/2017

Utility Art

This fire hydrant cover in Wajima displays a characteristic brevity that is common in Japanese design.
 A Very Japanese Art and Attitude
It was not long after arriving in Japan in 1976 that I began to notice various manhole covers and other utility service hatches.  They were not simply patterned nor did they have any simple wording claiming their purpose.  Gradually more and more were to appear wherever I went in Japan and the Noto peninsula is no exception.  In fact, the few that I came across while I was there in 2015 are relatively simple and a good deal more utilitarian that those that can be found on the Net.  Enjoy!

No colour but still a masterly rendering of cherry for a water supply hatch in Monzen in the southern part of the Noto peninsula.
In Kanazawa even a lowly drain hatch is beautifully adorned.
A plane and simple cast metal hatch sports a rendering of waves in Togi-machi.
To see more of this utilitarian art go to:


Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright


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11/02/2017

Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Eight

The tumbler is turned zelkova wood and the three small saké cup are made of a type of oak called nara.  In both cases the apply-and-wipe lacquer finish has enhanced the grain to great advantage.
Lacquerware All-sorts Eight—Apply and Wipe
This series of posts continues with a brief look at lacquerware, which has been very simply finished.

The aim of this series of posts on lacquering techniques in Japan, has firstly been to showcase some of the diversities which exist and then to comment on their appearance and special features.

As we have seen, for example, Wajima lacquerware begins with a primer and ground followed by a number of applications of lacquer, culminating in decorative effects to complete what is both a robust and eminently good looking piece of decorated tableware.

Without a doubt, however, the simplest and therefore perhaps one of the most ancient ways of using true lacquer is simply to apply it directly to a lightly primed wooden carcass.  Essentially speaking, this apply-and-wipe technique makes the wood more durable and resistant to most liquids, while still allowing the grain to remain visible and enhanced in appearance.

In Japanese this technique is called either suri-urushi or fuki-urushi.  Respectively the first refers to the application of lacquer with a spatula or stiffish brush, to force the lacquer into the pores of the wood.  And then the latter expression refers to wiping up remaining surface lacquer with an absorbent paper or a cloth, preferably one which is lint-free.  The lacquer is then cured in controlled conditions of humidity—about 80%—and temperature—25˚C.  Usually after at least 24 hours the hard surface can be rubbed down either with an appropriate grit of sandpaper or a scouring pad to provide a key for another application of lacquer.

This collection of coasters and small dishes were turned and lacquered by Yasuhiro Satake.  Several coats of lacquer have served to protect the wood and to enhance the grain.   Combined with the way each one has been turned, the number of coasts and the resulting depth of colour of the lacquer has helped to give each one character.
In some cases this whole process is repeated as many as twenty times, in order to achieve a desired effect and depth of colour.  Generally speaking, the more applications there are darkens the finish but this can also depend on the artificial or natural curing conditions when lacquering.  Old lacquer may also produce a darker finish.

Given that raw lacquer is coloured and not particularly transparent, it might seem as though this technique is somewhat limited.  Nevertheless the colour and grain of the wood and the way it has been tooled can also influence the final appearance of a piece.

This is part of the complex grain of a piece of zelkova wood, a member of the elm family.  The colour is natural.
The finer idiosyncrasies of the way in which true lacquer curers need not scare off anyone from using this simple apply-and-wipe method.  It is more a case of dedication and perseverance to see what can be achieved.  But remember, some people are allergic to true lacquer and it should not be ingested.

I maintain that true lacquer can be used to great effect even on particle board, which is sometimes called chip board.  True lacquer has the power to greatly improve the appearance of what is a very ordinary material.  You cannot hide mistakes however.  Mind you, the colour of lacquer is a little restrictive but there is no reason why pigments should not be added to the true lacquer out of a tube and used in this simplest of all lacquering techniques.  Apply and wipe—try and see!

The wood of this chest drawer front is zelkova finished using an apply-and- wipe technique.  The mythical animal is made of copper which has been coated with true lacquer and warmed, allowed to harden and then buffed.  This was made by Fujisato Woodcraft in the north of Japan.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright


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03/02/2017

Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Seven

The lid of this box looks like a forest floor littered with pine needles.
 Lacquerware All-sorts Seven—Sparkling, Alluring, Strong—Wakasa Lacquerware
So many pieces of Wakasa lacquerware are breathtaking.

While not being in the slightest bit gaudy, the surface decorations are complex, tasteful and alluring as well as intriguing and timeless.

While many of the items used in a tea ceremony do not demand attention, the natsume—tea caddy for the bright green powdered tea—strikes an air of magical splendour.  Just imagine how much it would glitter in the subdued light of a tearoom.
Just as in the way that a camera can capture in closeup the glittering drops of dew clinging to blades of grass on a misty morning, the overall effect of this ware is often one of natural beauty.

Sadly I do not own any Wakasa lacquerware—very expensive.  Photographing pieces is the closest I have come to the ware.

Although the finished effect is stunning, the techniques are relatively simple while still requiring great skill and more that a little patience.

Such materials as small chips of eggshell, mother-of-pearl, pine needles, rapeseeds and small leaf sprigs of Japanese cypress are used to produce multilayered decorative effects, which rely heavily on the properties of natural lacquer.

Is this lid a reflection of a starlit sky or a beach exposed by a receding wave?
Archeological evidence tells us that in ancient times lacquer was used as an adhesive and later became a coating.  It also has distinctive physical properties—a viscosity unlike that of paint and hardens under controlled levels of humidity and temperature.  It can also be polished and buffed to produce a glass-like quality and brilliance.

Explanation of the decorative techniques used are far more complicated than space allows or warrants here.  So, simply speaking, the adhesive properties of lacquer are utilised to stick pieces of eggshell or mother-of-pearl to a prepared surface before more lacquer, polishing and even more lacquer is applied.


Placing “foreign bodies” such as pine needles or rapeseed on wet lacquer inhibits the hardening of the lacquer under them.  While the blank areas of a design harden, the lacquer under such foreign bodies remains tacky.  The lacquer around the negative spaces appears to cling to the areas from which pine needles or rapeseeds have been removed.  Ultimately this produces an effect of shallow relief that is sometimes expressed by the use of gold powder colour.

Given that some pieces may take a year to produce, the high price of Wakasa lacquerware is inevitable.  Having an enduring beauty and toughness, however, makes it something to be treasured as it was, is now and hopefully will be in the future.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright


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27/01/2017

Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Six


These small platters are interesting for there design.  One corner having been made to look as if it has been turned over, like we might fold over the corner of a page in a book for reference.  Plain, simple light and highly engaging.  It is interesting how the lacquer pulls back from an edge.
Lacquerware All-sorts Six—See Through—Shunkei Lacquerware
This series of posts on lacquerware continues with a brief look at Shunkei lacquerware, the making of which is centred on the city of Hida Takayama in Gifu Prefecture.

I first visited Takayama in 1974 when my wife, Lou and I were making our way from Osaka and Kyoto back to Tokyo via a mountain route.

Although I had already seen examples of highly decorated lacquerware in books and in museums, this was my first encounter with items which were light, simple and highly appealing because of their colour and the transparency of their finish.

The effect of using an almost clear true lacquer is augmented by the addition of perilla oil.  This oil makes the lacquer more transparent, thus making the grain of the wood more visible, while not inhibiting the drying or hardening of the lacquer.

The sides of this soup bowl are extremely thin—about 1 mm at the lip and 8 mm toward the foot.  It weighs 53 g.   A reddish dye has been used under the final top coat of true lacquer.  The wood is chestnut.  Behind is the box and handmade paper bag it came in.
The oil is extracted from the seeds of the beefsteak plant, the leaves of which are used in Japanese cuisine.  I have not tried to use perilla oil yet.  It is supposed to be a drying oil.  In theory, therefore, other drying oils might work.  I did try olive oil.  Silly me!  It inhibited the curing process of the lacquer.  After waiting several days in the hope of it drying, I finally wiped off the oil.  The lacquer did then curer but with a dull sheen, so I learned something.

The timbers used for Shunkei ware are air- and kiln-dried before being allowed to find a realistic, ambient moisture content.  The whole process takes about 14 months.

Sawara (Chamaecyparis pisifera) or Boulevard false cypress is one of the timbers most commonly used along with Chestnut, Yellow cedar and some hardwoods.  The timber is sometimes split or even peeled apart.  The latter technique produces an interesting effect but the timber needs to be of a variety to allow this to happen.

The wood is primed with the juice from boiling soya beans and is sometimes coloured with red or yellow stains, which in the past were natural—cochineal and turmeric respectively being commonly used.

This tray too has been stained but the grain still shows through.  The wood is probably a cypress and the detail of the bent corners is not hidden but unashamedly exposed.
The cost of this ware is a good deal less than other highly decorated wares.  The grain of the wood is also visible and enhanced—for many people hiding the grain of the wooden carcass of a bowl or other pieces of lacquerware is totally unacceptable.  People say that it is a "shame" that the wood is not visible.

The simplicity of Hida Shunkei lacquerware somehow matches how light in weight it can often be.  This is also true of the Kiso lacquerware saké cup and tumbler made at Chigiriya (see post 12/01/2017 Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Five).  To me the simplicity, lightness as well as the transparency of the finish of Shunkei lacquerware are all attributes that make it particularly desirable.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

See more Shunkei lacquerware at:



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22/01/2017

Exhibition Notice—Ishikawa Traditional Crafts Fair


Ishikawa Traditional Crafts Fair

This fair will be a rare opportunity to see some of Ishikawa Prefecture’s traditional crafts in Tokyo.  The fair will be held on 3rd, 4th and 5th of February at the Tokyo Dome Prism Hall located near Suidobashi station in central Tokyo.  Opening times are 10am to 6pm and until 4pm on the last day.

Some 30,000 items on 50 craft makers’ stands will be featured along an Ishikawa Craft Street.

As well as featuring a number of lacquerware items from Wajima, Yamanaka and Kanazawa, many other crafts made in the prefecture will also be on show.  There will be handmade paper, bamboo work, gold leaf and other crafts representative of the history and culture of the area.  Ceramics, too, are well represented with wares from Kutani, Suzu and Ohi kilns.  Textiles from the region such as Kaga yuzen dyeing along with examples of local embroidery, pongee and linen cloths will also be exhibited.

Less well known crafts such as the making of Buddhist house altars, toys, musical instruments and traditional umbrellas will take their place alongside Noto Fireworks that often light up the summer night sky of the prefecture and other venues across the nation.

The cuisine of the prefecture will also feature alongside craft workshops and a display of kimono featuring cloths made in the region.

Don’t miss this opportunity to experience some of the cultural splendour of Ishikawa Prefecture.


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12/01/2017

Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Five


Lacquerware All-sorts Five—Beyond Civilisation
I was born and brought up in the UK.  From an early age, therefore, I was used to cups, mugs, glasses and other pieces of tableware being heavy.  Not so heavy that they could not be picked up but nevertheless heavy.  And in many cases they were thick, too.

Bone China was an exception.  Being a type of porcelain, cups especially were thin and good to drink from.  Nevertheless a handle was essential—the body of the cup was just too hot to handle.

A certain weight and thickness of ceramics and glass were almost a give requirement and something completely normal.  For one thing it also signalled value.  I believe I have noted before that for many people in the UK, weight especially is important as it indicates value not only in financial terms but also in terms of worth and merit.  Simply speaking heavy=good, light=cheap and poor in quality.

But it was not until I went to Japan that I began to notice just how light some pieces of tableware were.

The lightness of some bentwood tumblers and saké cups, however, come as a real surprise.  They were made by Hideaki Tezuka in Narakawa.  This small community in the district of Kiso, nestles between densely wooded hillsides on the Nakasendo route that once bustled with travellers making the inland journey between Edo and Nagoya or beyond to Kyoto and Osaka.

It was the total impression of these vessels that intrigued me, an impression that is greatly enhanced by the thinness of their walls, the simple black ink decorations and semi-transparent, high gloss finish.  Handling one for the first time was more akin to picking up a piece of fine quality, and very light glass.

The bottom of the saké cup is also so smooth and flat that if an empty one is given a nudge, it will slide across a flat shinny tabletop like a puck on ice.

Chris, a good friend of mine, was especially struck not only by the lightness of the saké cup but also by its finish.

When I handed one to him, he was silent for a moment as he turned it around in his hands and studied it in some detail, before stopping momentarily to weight it in one hand with a characteristic up and down motion.

“Bill, this is beyond civilisation!”

Chris was not the only person to respond to this fine piece of bentwood lacquerware.  Nevertheless, some people dismiss it for being too light.  A slight sneer gives away the fact that they feel it to be cheap and not worthy of any verbal accolade, simply I suppose, because it is not heavy.

One of the saké cups weighs 23 g.  If you are wondering how heavy that is, it is roughly equivalent to four and a half A4 sheets of 80 GSM copy paper.  Try it and see.

The tumbler weighs 40 g, or roughly the weight of eight sheets of the same copy paper.

By the way, the wall of the saké cup is around 1 mm thick and in the case of the tumbler a little over 2 mm.  Both are made of split Kiso Hinoko, a locally grown cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa).

A saké cup in close-up
What really interests me is just how much the weight and finish of a drinking vessel influences our appreciation of its contents, be it saké, water, wine or some other beverage.  One thing I can say for certain is that wine drunk from a turned and lacquered wooden vessel does not seem right.  Is it simply due to the unfamiliar combination of wine and wood, the temperature of both or something else entirely?

There is no doubting the fact that I for one am a confirmed fan of Hideaki’s bentwood vessels.  I even feel a little more civilised using one.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

See more of Hideaki Tezuka’s work at Chigiriya:


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06/01/2017

Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Four

These unusually colourful lacquerware trays demonstrate a very competent use of mura-kumo-nuri, a smoky cloud decorative effect found in the Ninohe Archive in Iwate Prefecture.
Lacquerware All-sorts Four—Smoke, Clouds and Tigers
This series of posts on lacquerware continues with a brief investigation of tora-nuri, with the help of the staff at Tekiseisha in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, some 600 kilometres north of Tokyo.

Having first been interested in the tora-nuri style lacquerware in Ninohe, I was anxious to try and at least test the technique for two reasons.  Firstly because it was such an appealing effect and secondly because number of lacquerware professionals in other parts of Japan had never seen it and in most cases had never heard of it either.

The lidded donburi style bowls here are decorated in a very free manner.  It would be interesting to see how a Japanese chef might use such bowls as these, the overall colouring being so bold and startling.
With some funding from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation in London, I set off for Ninohe in 2012.  I had been in touch with the Tekiseisha staff, who were very willing and interested in trying to reproduce the tora-nuri effect.

Some of the best pieces of this ware in the Ninohe Archive either resembled a mist or wispy clouds in shades of grey against an ocher coloured background.

This is perhaps a draw back—the smoky cloud effect seems to scratch easily.
The name tora-nuri had been coined simply because of its colouring—red, black and ocher.  In literature on historical lacquerware decorative techniques, however, it is actually called mura-kumo-nuri (叢雲塗り).  This name in fact is very apt as it loosely means “a group of clouds”.

A lunch box, a donburi style bowl and spouted bowl for saké given the same treatment but completed with far less competence.  It would clearly take a good deal of practice to perfect the use of this decorative technique.
Our experiments with mura-kumo-nuri in 2012 started with the use of a candle to produce the soot.  We were working with wet lacquer rather than a semi-dried application of true lacquer.  The distance between the flame and sample piece was critical.
In the past the smoke was produced by burning a pine root or by using a type of oil lamp called a kantera.

On a bowl the potential of the technique soon became apparent.

This shows that the lacquer was creeping and not at all dry enough to received the soot.
The text says that the lacquer must be semi-dry.  The intention is to allow the soot to actually sink into the still half-wet lacquer.  Then, when the lacquer is completely cured the soot is locked in and will not brush off, thus making the affect secure.

However we all soon realised that a flame alone was too difficult to control, so…..
Our experiments were with a light coloured lacquer which was still wet.  Nevertheless we were able to see how it would be possible to create an interesting decorative effect but only after a good deal of practice.

…..we all more or less said in unison “What we need is a chimney!”  This indeed made it much easier to control the stream of sooty smoke.  A pair of chopsticks made an effective clamp with which to hold a funnel over the candle flame.
We soon learned that the key was to control the stream of smoke.  We improvised by using an upturned funnel.

It would take a good deal of time and effort to  perfect the technique but we had at least shown that it was indeed possible to replicate this historical effect relatively easily.

The examples in the Archive really rely on holding a piece and moving it over the stream of smoke to create the iconic smoky cloud effect.  I immediately thought, however, that it would be interesting to use the technique to produce an overall pattern on an appropriately flat item by using a stencil-like baffle held above the surface of the still tacky lacquer.  In this way it might even be possible to render a scene with a hazy overall appearance.

In whichever case, the technique is of great interest and worth pursuing.

Along with many other traditional crafts, lacquerware is covered in Japan Crafts Source Book, originally published by Kodansha International.

The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, London


Access the Tekiseisha site for more images of products under “Commodity” on the Japanese site.


Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or share 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.  Thank you.