The production of Aizu Lacquerware is the beautiful result of the hard work and combined effort of experts in 3 different fields – a kijishi who makes wooden bases, a nurishi who coats each piece in lacquer, and an artisan to decorate each piece with decorative paint – designs referred to as makie.
During the last year I’ve visited a kijishi and a makie artisan, and last week I got to visit a nurishi‘s workshop. Tsunoda san is both a nurishi artisan and also an artist who uses coloured lacquer to create stunning pieces of art – many of which are on display in the workshop. Not only does Tsunoda san include lacquer in his paintings, but he also makes use of decorative gold and silver flakes.
Tsunoda’s workshop is the only place in Fukushima Prefecture where you can try out using gold and silver flakes in combination with lacquer to design your own one-of-a-kind tableware! Tsunoda san calls this style of design ‘Chinkin Taiken’, which I’ve translated as ‘Sunken Gold Design Experience’.
You can try this experience on the lower floor of Tsunoda san’s workshop. It is such a beautiful, open area overlooking his family’s garden. Far from any busy roads, the workshop is very peaceful. While getting stuck into the ‘sunken gold designing’, the only noises you can hear are Tsunoda san busying himself with a project in the corner of the room, and the singing of the birds outside.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. After I arrived at Tsunoda’s workshop, he showed me around, pointing out the pieces of art he’d created himself, before showing me a newspaper from 1968, which included photos of the current emperor and empress of Japan during a visit to Aizu.
During their trip, they visited his family’s workshop. The top left photo shows the emperor and empress watching Tsunoda san’s father and grandfather hard at work to produce Aizu Lacquerware. Seeing the newspaper was incredible – but if I was him I would keep it framed on a wall! I’d be super paranoid about spilling something on it!
Getting Creative at Tsunoda san’s Workshop
There are 2 main experiences you can try out at Tsunoda’s Workshop:
1) Makie Taiken (Decorative Lacquer Painting Experience)
- Chopsticks = 1000 yen
- Dish = 1300 yen
- Small Dish = 1200 yen
- Small Hand Mirror = 1500 yen
- Bowl = From 1500 yen
- ‘Lunch Plate’ = 2000 yen
- Mini Tea Caddy = 2500 yen
- Hand Mirror = 2500 yen
- Tray = 3000 yen
Please note that some people find that their skin is sensitive to lacquer touching it directly. Although you shouldn’t have to touch lacquer directly during this experience, if it does happen to touch your skin, you can avoid discomfort by washing it off straight away with soapy water!
2) Chinkin Taiken (Sunken Gold Design Experience)
After picking the item you’d like to decorate, you’ll use a sharpened tool to scratch at the surface in a design of your choice. After you have scratched the design, Tsunoda san will go over your design with lacquer and gold and/or silver powder, which will attach itself to the fine scratches in the surface.
- Dish = 1300 yen
- Bowl = From 1500 yen
How long these experiences take depends on how detailed you make your designs. The lacquer painting usually takes around 1 hour, whereas the Sunken Gold Painting Experience can take 1.5 hours.
Designing my Dish with Sunken Gold!
I decided to try out the sunken gold experience, seeing as Tsunoda san’s workshop is the only place in Fukushima Prefecture where you can try this out.
After I chose the dish I’d be designing, Tsunoda san guided me down to the lower floor of the studio where I would work on my design.
Tsunoda san presented me with a box filled with many designs of flowers, cute animals and other designs popular with visitors. His wife explained that I could choose a completely different design if I wanted. She spoke about how many of visitors draw designs from images they’ve downloaded onto their phones.
I decided I wanted to include a floral element in my design. I asked Tsunoda san if there was a particular flower famous in Urabandai area. Both Tsunoda san and his wife replied back almost instantly with ‘Mizubasho‘. A quick google search informed me that Mizubasho is the Japanese word for Asian Skunk Cabbage – a white flowering plant that thrives in marshes and wetlands in northern Japan.
I decided to draw Mizubasho flowers alongside Mt. Bandai – which is one of Fukushima Prefecture’s most famous landmarks. I was instructed to sketch the basic outline of the design on some tracing paper which was approximately the same size as the try I would be decorating.
Tsunoda san taped my design to a carbon sheet, which he attached to the dish. He explained that I should go over the design outline once again with a pencil, so as to transfer the design over to the dish.
Once I had gone over my design once again in pencil, Tsunoda san introduced me to the tools used in sunken gold design. One type of tool looked like the pointed ended of a compass. It gave me flashbacks to maths classes at school! The second tool was really unique in shape. It looked as if a tiny rectangle of metal had been cut off and transferred onto a pencil.
Tsunoda san explained that this second tool is unique to Aizu. Aizu Chinkin traditionally makes use of the main spring of watches. This material is very strong and doesn’t bend under pressure; making it perfect for carving interesting curved strokes onto hard surfaces. He provided me with a board and dish so I could using the tools.
Once I started etching the surface of the dish, Tsunoda san basically left me to it, coming over every now and again to check my progress and to give me hints.
After I was happy with the amount of detail I’d brought out in my Mt Bandai design, Tsunoda san took over! He cleaned the surface of the dish with Japanese paper known as ‘washi‘. This washi paper was coated in canola oil being rubbed on the surface, to make sure that no carbon outlines were left. Then Tsunoda san applied lacquer (known as ‘urushi‘ in Japanese’) over the surface of the dish.
Next Tsunoda san used cotton buds to apply gold and silver powder to the design. He actually chose where to put the colours. I’m sure I could have instructed him regarding the areas I’d like him to use certain colours, but I thought I’d leave it to the artist!
He worked so carefully on my design, gradually building up layers and layers of gold and silver powder, all mixing and joining with the lacquer which had filled up the cracks in the surfaces that I had scratched.
After Tsunoda san was happy with how my dish had come along, he wrapped it up between 2 pieces of cardboard with string, adding a wet tissue on top. He then placed all of this in a Ziploc bag and instructed me not to open it for 3 days. This is because, unlike most liquids, lacquer needs moist surroundings in order for it to become solid!
After these 3 days have passed, you can wash your piece with water (using soap if necessary).
Before I left, Tsunoda san also gave me some postcard versions of a couple of his paintings!
I finally opened up this carefully sealed package earlier this week and was very happy with the result:
I’m happy with how it came out! Trying out this ‘Sunken Gold Design Experience’ has given me a greater understanding and appreciation for how artists like Tsunoda san incorporate gold and silver powder applied to etched surfaced in pieces of art. You can see an example of this in the bottom right painting below which was designed by Tsunoda san.
I’m sure attempting to paint with lacquer would give me a better appreciation for the absolutely masterful way that Tsunoda san uses lacquer as if it were acrylic paint, like he has done in the bottom left painting.
This was a fun experience and I really recommend it! Not only is it a great way to experience local culture first-hand and try out traditional Japanese arts and crafts, but lacquerware makes an amazing souvenir, as it’s lightweight and doesn’t take much space. Another great thing about this experience is that visitors are able to take their work home with them on the day, unlike pottery-making experiences.
How to Book Your Own Painting Experience
You can book your own sunken-gold painting experience or lacquer painting experience by email Tsunoda san at [firstname.lastname@example.org]. You can also use the contact form on their website to send an email directly (The website is all in Japanese).
Please feel free to email in English! He and his wife will do their best to teach you even though they don’t speak much English.
Getting to Tsunoda Lacquer Art Workshop
You can reach Tsunoda Lacquer Art Studio by bus from Inawashiro Station. For information on how to get to Inawashiro Station, please check out this page. Also, have a look at the map below for information on taking public transport to Lake Inawashiro area.
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