How Japanese students turn lacquer wood into lacquer « Literary Hub

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The mountains can be a dangerous place for people who are allergic to urushiol, an allergen found in both poison ivy and the sumac tree. Toxicodendron vernicifulum, from which Japanese lacquer is made. Most people who choose lacquering as a career are immune-protected or only suffer from mild itching. Even the slightest contact can cause a frothy rash. You may notice a cluster of blisters on your neck or the back of your hands, even though you haven’t been to a lacquer workshop or near a lacquer tree. In this town, where nearly 20% of the population is involved in the lacquerware trade, you can probably find traces of the powerful oil on the doors of convenience stores and the menus of your favorite pubs.

According to my friend Murai, the lacquer residue from the craftsmen’s bodies contaminates the hot spring water, so local children have built up resistance since they were babies. When he brushes the leaves of a sumac tree while playing in the forest, he doesn’t get a red, foamy allergic rash. The craftsman tells us that he put a drop of lacquer in the baby’s birth bath. Students at woodturning schools claim that their skin gradually gets used to the lacquer until it no longer reacts.

I went to see the lacquer harvest with some trepidation. Approximately 800 trees, which were planted about 15 years ago, have been planted on a southeast-facing slope above a bend in the Daishoji River. The same type of trees grow naturally in the forest, but the climate in the mountains is too warm to make high-quality lacquer. Students at the Ishikawa Prefecture Yamanaka Lacquerware Training Institute (locally known as the Potter’s Wheel Training Institute) collect sap from trees to better understand the material.

Students gathered from all over the country to learn how to make Yamanaka lacquerware. Most lacquerware artisans specialize in some process. There are craftsmen who cut rough blanks. Craftsmen like Nakajima transform the materials into tables and tea utensils. A craftsman applies lacquer to a smooth finish. Then there are the maki-e artists who apply pictures and patterns to these vessels. During her 2-year to 4-year course, students practice every part of the process.

Colloquially, lacquer has come to mean a glossy finish, and Japanese products finished with lacquer are advertised as lacquerware in English. However, the word “lacquer” (as in “shellac”) is associated with a finish made from the secretions of the lac insect, and lacquer is made from tree sap. Lacquer does not coat the wood like synthetic finishes. It joins together and becomes part of it, and the material of one tree strengthens the material of another.

One morning during summer vacation, I met four students, two young women and two young men, in the parking lot of Rokuro Training Institute. One of them, named Naiki, wants to become Nakajima-san’s apprentice next year. She invited me to come and watch her collect lacquer.

We wore long pants, long sleeves, and hats to protect ourselves from urushiol and the strong sun. Beads of sweat were already seeping into the towel and washcloth around his neck. A man wearing an old mountain fireman’s hat (the teacher) and a friendly, round-faced woman (the administrator) guided us by car, past the 2000-year-old Kayano Osugi and its shrine, and into an almost abandoned village. I headed to Kazatani Village. I parked my car on top of a slope where lacquer trees were planted.

Before we started harvesting, we drank water from paper cups that smelled like turpentine that had been stored with the harvesting material. Wear gloves and a cloth sleeve cover. Like a beekeeper or jungle explorer, I lowered the mesh on my hat to protect my face from splashes and droplets.

I saw a student named Raku knocking on a lacquer tree. The torso was straight and slender, no thicker than a runner’s thighs. He cut horizontal strips of bark using a channel knife-like tool that bartenders use to make coils of citrus peel. A pale tree was exposed. He cut into the tree with a sharp blade, releasing the sap running between the bark and the tree’s inner core. The incision beaded a milky liquid, which he scraped into a bamboo cup. The tree can withstand five cuts in his one session.

The trunk is tagged with a number and nickname. Each student is responsible for their group’s tree. They moved from one to another, making new cuts over the areas where the last had scabbed and turned black. From July to August, students harvest lacquer every five days (allowing time for the trees to recover). There are less than 30 mature trees from which lacquer can be harvested starting this year.

A canopy of sparse pinnate leaves did little to relieve the heat. Sweat dripped down my forehead, but I was afraid to wipe it, lest I get the irritating oil on my sleeves or hands. Cicadas were singing, and a ruddy kingfisher was calling from the high, densely forested hills.

The white lacquer sap turned yellow-brown in the bamboo collection cup, and by the time we put it all into one big bowl and took it back to school, it was a nut-brown foam. When I weighed it, it was 56 grams. Usually in one session he gains 80 grams, and sometimes even 200 grams. It’s been hot for several weeks without rain, which has put a strain on the trees.

There are probably traces of the strong oil left on the door of your convenience store or the menu of your favorite pub.

It was before noon, so two young women showed me around the school. They showed us the lacquer room. There, the lacquer is squeezed through a paper filter to remove the sediment, which is then painted or rubbed onto the woodwork. There is a large wooden chamber that is a humid cabinet for curing lacquered products. Lacquer does not actually dry, but rather undergoes a chemical change that neutralizes its skin aggravating properties and hardens. It combines with wood to create a strong yet flexible finish. Like skin, it has excellent durability and elasticity, but is susceptible to deterioration due to ultraviolet rays.

We wandered through a large workshop full of hand carving rooms, a forging room for making tools, and a lathe where they spent most of their time learning to turn tableware and tea utensils from the native elm, Zelkova. Ta. The gallery exhibits soup bowls, tea boxes, sake cups, and sweet trays, all of which are finished with smooth lacquer. They showed me the Makie room. There, they practice creating intricate illustrations using lacquer sprinkled with glittering mineral powder. Makie literally means scattered pattern.

The school offers training for the first few years in lieu of a traditional apprenticeship, but most students wish to spend an additional five years working with a master master as an apprentice. During the year leading up to graduation, they court mentors who they hope will guide them. When you join a master’s workshop, you help with production in exchange for guidance and experience.


water, trees, wild things

Excerpt from Water, wood and wild things: learning crafts and cultivation in a Japanese mountain town. Used with permission of the publisher, Viking, a print publication of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Hannah Kirshner.

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