Among the winding historical streets of Aizu Wakamatsu City lies Miura Woodturning Workshop (三浦木工所). Miura Woodturning Workshop is run by Keiichi Miura, a fourth generation artisan who has been practicing woodturning for over 40 years. The Miura family is one of the few remaining families who shape wood to be used in producing Aizu Lacquerware.
The use of lacquer to coat and protect plates and bowls in Aizu dates back to the Jomon Period (14,000-300BCE) – yes, you read that right! – and its production usually involves 3 artisans with very different skills: a kijishi (an artisan to prepare and shape the wood), a nurishi (an artisan to coat the wood in layers of lacquer), and a third artisan to paint intricate designs on the piece (known as makie or urushie) to complete it. Unfortunately, the number of artisans who currently practice each of these professions has been declining rapidly in recent years.
Not only is Miura san a master kijishi, he also began training as a lacquerware artisan 15 years ago. He has produced a wide variety of original pieces – many of which are on sales in the gallery attached to his workshop.
This gallery is definitely worth a visit – you’ll be surprised at the light-weight & high quality of the tableware – but what really stands out about this place is the incredible chance to step inside Miura san’s workshop as part of a guided visit!
Miura’s workshop is filled from floor to ceiling with woodworking tools and machinery that Miura has collected over the decades. In places the floor is caked in wood shavings. It is like stepping into a whole different world.
Miura san often demonstrates his carving technique to visitors, and I was lucky enough to get to see him in action. Miura san sculpts tableware effortlessly from blocks of wood that are chopped to roughly the correct size. Each block is air-dried for decades – yes, you read that right! – before it makes its way to the main workshop.
After Miura san selects the right shape and size block of wood, he attaches it to a rotating device, and uses a variety of shaped tools to shave off the layers as he rotates it via a pedal.
The final shape is revealed slowly as slivers of wood are removed one by one.
When one side is finished, Miura turns it over and shaves down the opposite side.
The finished feel of the bowl he made when I visited was unbelievably soft and smooth – so different from wooden cooking utensils I’ve used back home.
I was really impressed to learn that Miura has hand-crafted most of the plethora of tools in his workshop, in order to get the very precise finish that he plans in his head.
Once we had finished seeing Miura san in action, we ventured even deeper into his workshop, through an impossibly narrow corridor filled with wooden blocks of all shapes and sizes piled up to either side. It felt like being in a wooden cave!
At the end of the corridor there was a flight of stairs that took us into the attic – personally this was my favourite and most enchanting part of the tour.
The attic was filled with wood as far as the eye can see; each piece of wood separated from those surrounding it by sheets of newspaper.
Some pieces were wrapped in newspaper pages dating back to 1981! This made me wonder how many years it had been since the little bowl Miura san shaped early first arrived at Miura’s workshop.
As with most traditional arts in Japan, there is no rushing when it comes to Aizu Lacquerware. After a lacquer tree is planted, it takes 15 years for the tree to be mature enough to collect lacquer from, and even after that 15 year wait, only a few hundred milliliters can be collected from each tree.
Add to that the 15+ years needed to dry wood before it is shaped, and the time spent between painting layers of lacquerware, and the pricetag attached to pieces of Aizu Lacquerware becomes more understandable.
There are a number of ways to reduce the amount of time necessary to make lacquerware – for example, using artificial methods to speed up the drying process, or importing lacquer from other countries. Although the quality of the lacquerware does tend to suffer if these methods are used, it does allow the whole process to become easier and quicker. However, the biggest issue – especially regarding importing lacquerware – is that this local tradition stops being produced locally.
After lacquer trees were wiped out from Fukushima Prefecture, the has been a movement in Fukushima Prefecture to start growing them again, and lots of effort is being made so that future generations in Aizu can experience making and passing on the tradition of making locally-sourced Aizu Lacquerware. I actually got a chance to volunteer at one of these lacquerware tree fields last year.
Visitors to Fukushima are likely to spot ‘Aizu Nuri’, which looks pretty similar to Aizu Lacquerware at a first glance. Aizu Nuri is decorated by painting a thin layer of lacquer directly onto wood, and then using a powder varnish as a top layer, instead of painting layer upon layer of lacquer onto the wood. This is why there are so many seemingly too cheap to be true lacquerware out there!
I will write more about this process & the history of Aizu Lacquerware at another time, but I’m sure you can now appreciate the time, effort, training and labour that goes into making pieces of Aizu Lacquerware.
Visiting Miura Woodturning Workshop
Miura Woodturning Workshop’s Gallery is free for anyone to visit.
If you’d like Miura san to show you around the workshop, please contact him in Japanese (the workshop’s phone number is listed on his Facebook Page here). Please note that he can only conduct tours in Japanese.
It may be possible to have a private tour in English through a certain organisation called Tema Hima Trip. Please look at their Facebook and contact them directly through it for more information here.
For information on travelling to Aizu Wakamatsu – including info on where to stay and how to get around the city – please read my travel guide here.
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