Japanese traditional craft “lacquer ware”

Long history of red and black colored lacquer ware

The origin of the Japanese lacquer ware is said to date back about 6,500 years, or some say it even goes back further to 9,000 years ago in the early Jomon Era. They refined the sap of the Urushi tree and added red pigments to make red lacquer ware, creating shamanic tools, personal ornaments and burial goods. About 2,300 years ago during the Yayoi Era, black lacquer ware appeared whose color was obtained from the soot of burned pines, sesame oil and canola oil. Black lacquer ware was used for weapons as well as for various Buddhist altar articles after Buddhism was introduced in Japan.

Lacquer coating process
The process of coating the wood with lacquer is one of Japanese traditional craft techniques developed over long history

Luxurious traditional craft: lacquer ware decorated with gold and silver

They started decorating lacquer ware in the Heian Period (794 to 1,185 A.D.). Excellent craft techniques were developed during this period such as “Makie”, drawing patterns using gold and silver powder and “Raden”, decorating lacquer ware by burying sea shells. These techniques are still used today.

Lacquer is a paint and a glue. Makie’s technique involves sprinkling gold and silver powder along a design on the lacquer ware before the lacquer dries and polishing it until the surface becomes almost smooth. Lacquer ware with Makie is a luxurious artifact and was used by people in the upper class in their daily lives in the olden days.

Lacquer ware is a traditional craft
Beautifully decorated lacquer ware completed with a lot of work and excellent craftsmanship is considered to be a luxurious traditional craft today

Lacquer ware spread to the ordinary people and helped to shape the Japanese eating style

While decorated lacquer ware was developed for special occasions, it spread as a tableware for the ordinary people as well. It came into wide use since the Kamakura Period (1,185 to 1,333 A.D.) and became one of the standard Japanese tableware. The spread of lacquer ware helped to shape the Japanese people’s eating style of serving a set of meal for each person (Meimei-zen) and serving a soup and three dishes for a meal (Ichijyu-sansai) which are still practiced today.

Lacquer ware is used in people's daily lives
Even today lacquer ware is used in people’s daily lives

The Japanese lacquer ware developed in Japan surrounded by a lot of trees and woods came into wide use with the backdrop of the food culture where people eat with chopsticks and bowls. It is one of the Japanese important traditional artifacts. In Japan lacquer ware is used for rice bowls, soup bowls, plates and chopsticks even today. 

Lacquer ware is relatively durable and after many years of use it acquires a distinctive luster (deep gloss). It is a Japanese traditional artifact in which with many years of careful handling acquires a distinctive luster and starts to grow on you. During your stay in Japan you will have opportunities to have Japanese food served in lacquer ware at traditional Japanese inns and restaurants. We recommend that you take a close look at it.

There are lacquer ware producing regions all over Japan. Several links are listed down below. Among many lacquer ware producing regions, Fukui Prefecture’s “Echizen Shikki”, Fukushima Prefecture’s “Aizu Shikki”, Ishikawa Prefecture’s “Yamanaka Shikki” and Wakayama Prefecture’s “Kishu Shikki” are particularly famous. When you purchase a lacquer ware, we recommend that you do so at a trustworthy store. If you are purchasing a lacquer ware during your stay in Japan, specialty stores that handle quality goods and department stores are recommended.