Make Your Own Aizu Lacquerware Chopsticks

I had an amazing time making my own Aizu Lacquerware Chopsticks in Aizu-Wakamatsu City so I thought I’d write about my experience on my blog!

What is Aizu Urushi Lacquerware?

Aizu Lacquerware – known as Aizu Urushi 会津漆 in Japanese – has been produced in the 0229-002Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture for over 10,000 years.

Aizu Lacquerware is known for its beautiful, intricate designs. There are 3 stages in the production of Aizu Lacquerware, each stage produced by an artisan with specialised skills.

The artisans involved in this process are Kiji-shi (who carve the wood that will form the base of the product), Nuri-shi (who paint thick layers of lacquer), and Makie-shi (who design the intricate final design on the surface of the products). This whole process takes a long time, and a lot of skill and love.

Originally, Aizu Lacquerware was made

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using locally-produced lacquer. However, due to a decline – and eventual disappearance – of lacquer trees in Aizu, many Aizu Lacquerware products you see for sale nowadays are made using lacquer from other areas of Japan.

However, there is a  recent movement to reintroduce lacquer trees to the region. Read more about this on my blog here.

During my recently trip to Aizu-Wakamatsu City, I visited Yoshii san, who showed me how to make my own Aizu Lacquerware chopsticks.

Yoshii San

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This is Yoshii san. He’s an 81-year old second-generation nurishi artisan.

Despite his father also working as a nurishi, Yoshii san didn’t originally intend to take over his family’s business. He actually planned to continue his education, assuming his brother would take over the nuri-shi profession after his father.

However his father suddenly passed away when Yoshii san was in the final year of Junior High School. Yoshii san was taken under the wing of a friend of his father, and became his apprentice.

As the oldest son, Yoshii san needed to work in order to support his family. He changed paths from a road to further education to working as an Aizu Urushi apprentice.

He became totally absorbed in his job, often working late into the night, wholeheartedly putting passion into every day. After training for ten years, he was able to start producing his own work. Even now, he works hard, with the hope of creating a product which he deems his masterpiece!

Yoshii’s Aizu Lacquerware style has a very stylised design. He specialises in soup bowls, tea cups, plates, trays, small dining tables and chopsticks.

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Yoshii san decorates his work using traditional Aizu style of painting called ‘Kinmushikui‘ 金虫食い, which can be literally translated as ‘As if moths have eaten through gold’.

He paints layer upon layer of lacquer on his products, then uses rice grains to create a very organic pattern.The gold colour that shines through and lines the shapes that appear on the surface is particularly recognisable of Yoshii san’s signature work.

There are actually 48 steps in Yoshii san’s creative process, each of which is carried out with the utmost precision. Just one mistake in any of the 48 stages, and the piece won’t come out as planned.

If you visit Yoshii san’s studio, you’ll be able to see rice bowls in the process of being painted, across 10 stages of his artistic process. He often asks his visitors to try and arrange these bowls in their order of the painting process! You can see these bowls in the photo below.

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Yoshii san says that the hardest parts of the creative process is the final one: filing down the layers of lacquer with sandpaper to uncover the colours and patterns underneath.

You can create absolute beautiful patterns with this technique, but sand too much off of an area, and there’s no way to hit the ‘undo’ button!

Yoshii san has a large range of sandpaper to make sure he can try and keep his final products as close as possible to what he was planning to create.

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Yoshii san is one of the defining artists of this ‘moth-eaten’ design style, and is well-known locally for using bold colour combinations that other artists would shy away from. Although there is a huge variety in the designs of his work, Yoshii san professes to be able to recognise his own work amongst other artists who practice the same style!

 

Design Your Own Chopsticks Experience

When visiting Yoshii san’s studio, you can design you own chopsticks. Pick a pair of chopsticks from a selection that he has painted with multiple layers of lacquer. Then use different thicknesses of sandpaper to sand down the layers of paint, gradually uncovering the bright colours underneath. Finally, polish them off to make them shiny and waterproof!

This experience was so much fun! I was over the moon with the final design of my chopsticks and it’s great to be able to take them home the same day. When I take out my chopsticks to eat my dinner, I enjoying knowing that I designed them myself!

About the Experience

Time: Takes 30 minutes

Price: 2000 yen per person

Please note that at the moment you can only visit Yoshii’s studio as part of a tour. (He doesn’t speak English!) Attending the tour costs a separate amount from the price listed above.

How to book a tour: It may be possible to visit Yoshii san’s studio as part of a private tour held in English through an organisation called Tema Hima Trip. Please look at their website (in English) for more information on how to book.

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* Please note that many people have a mild skin reaction to touching lacquer directly. Plastic gloves are provided when you do this experience, but it is not recommend that people with sensitive skin or a known allergy to lacquer should try it out. If you do have sensitive skin or are worried about it, please speak to Mr Yoshii about it on the day.

 

Other Information

 

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4 thoughts on “Make Your Own Aizu Lacquerware Chopsticks

  1. Fascinating! Every time I enter your thoughts on the blog … I remain speechless and with a little envy!
    As you know, my dream is to one day stay a little longer in Japan, learn the language and devote myself to follow some art courses (for example the Raku or Ikebana … there is so much to learn).
    Thank you very much for sharing
    🙂 claudine

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  2. This article is really awesome.
    When I was a child, lived In Aizu, my grand father used so many kinds of lacquer wares.
    Including some Kinmushikui patterned ones.
    I did not see those ones were fantastic because my grand parents used put some snacks or peanuts in the kinmushikui ones.
    I will check some my mother’s lacquer wares. I’m sure there will be some beautiful kinmushikui
    patterned dishes or bowls.

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  3. Not the same as Urushi lacquerware, but there is another interesting experience at Suzuzen in Aizu Wakamatsu, Chuo 1-chome (Tel 0242 22 0680). Our family of four visited and had a great experience.

    Under Nakamura-sensei’s tuition you can decorate lacquerware using urushi glue and aluminium based powder paint, which is the budget version of historically used gold leaf. Items range from chopsticks to mirrors and Y800 to Y2000. There is also an interesting gallery attached where you can buy designer lacquerware and pottery. Explanations were in Japanese, but as usual with Aizu-jin a mix of my limited Japanese, their English, hand gestures and goodwill made everything understandable

    Our family of four had a wonderful time here and I would certainly recommend the experience if you are unable to visit Yoshii-san.

    PS First post on your excellent blog. Although I have been to Fukushima and Aizu many times over the last 25 years you still find new things for me. Thank you.

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    1. Hi Isolde! I’m very sorry for replying so late to this – thank you so much for your insightful comment. I haven’t actually been to Suzuzen yet, but that experience sounds really fun and definitely something that the whole family can enjoy. Hopefully there will be some English explanations available in the near future!!

      Thank you so much for your kind comments about my blog. I do try my best to showcase interesting stuff. If you have any suggestions for articles, please let me know!!

      Like

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