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From Fukushima to the world: JAPAN in Aizu-Wakamatsu

From Fukushima to the world: JAPAN in Aizu-Wakamatsu

Dear readers, do you know the meaning of the word “JAPAN”, apart from being the name of the country we all love so much?


In the later part of the 16th century, Christian culture made its way into Japan from Europe, together with other products like wine and castella cake, now a speciality of Nagasaki (長崎県 Nagasaki-ken), as well as guns. At the same time, lacquerware was mass-manufactured in Japan and sent to Europe, and it is said that such exports still continued even during the Edo Period (1603–1868, 江戸時代 Edo-jidai), when Japan closed her barriers to other nations.


To this day, in churches and museums in Europe, Japanese lacquerware from that era is still carefully preserved and exhibited. Personally, I myself have seen examples of such items at the Louvre Museum in Paris—it might seem to some that they appear to be at odds with European scenery and culture; yet, though, the lacquerware pieces are displayed in all their glory, and yet they do not stick out like a sore thumb. It can be seen from how the Europeans handle lacquerware that the beauty of Japanese lacquer, as well as it being the only paint that can be found in nature, are well-understood and appreciated by them.


Aizu lacquerware bowls and a jūbako, a multi-layered box used to hold and serve food on festive occasions. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


“JAPAN”, as mentioned in the opener, actually refers to Japanese lacquerware—though it is termed as such nowadays, lacquer is a symbol of Japan that I feel Japanese people should take more pride in. Even though I say that myself, it is with much shame that I admit that my knowledge of lacquer was close to zero—it was through my participation in the “Fragrance of Lacquer (漆香る urushikaoru)” Project, jointly organized by the ANA Strategic Research Institute (ANA総合研究所 ANA Sōgō-kenkyū-jo) and Aizu-Wakamatsu City (会津若松市 Aizu-Wakamatsu-shi), Fukushima Prefecture (福島県Fukushima-ken), in the summer of 2020, that I came to understand the allure of lacquer, as well as why it was termed “JAPAN” in those early days.


About Aizu-Wakamatsu

Tsuruga Castle in the different seasons. (Image credit: urushikaoru)

Aizu-Wakamatsu City, which I visited, flourished as a castletown under the Aizu Domain (会津藩 Aizu-han) during the Edo Period, and boasts many historical monuments, such as the magnificent Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城 Tsuruga-jō), as well as the Byakkotai (白虎隊), a group of young samurai who sacrificed themselves as they bravely fought to defend the castle in the Boshin War (戊辰戦争 Boshin-sensō). 


Kozuyu, full of ingredients and served hot in winter. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


In addition, it is a land blessed with many other wonderful natural resources such as hot springs, rivers and valleys—the exquisite local brews, as well as local cuisine like kozuyu (こづゆ), a clear soup with many ingredients and served during festivities, are also well-known across the whole country.


Some of the hot springs in Aizu-Wakamatsu. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


Japanese culture and lacquerware

Aizu lacquerware. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


Though there are many craft products from the Aizu region, the most famous of them all is arguably Aizu-nuri (会津塗り), a type of lacquerware produced in the area.


The history of lacquer in Japan dates all the way back to the Jomon Era (14,000–300 BCE, 縄文時代 Jōmon-jidai), evidenced by the excavation of lacquered accessories from several historical sites. Previously, it was speculated that lacquer entered Japan from mainland China—through these discoveries, it is now clear that lacquer originated from Japan, and the technique has been used through the ages on all sorts of items ranging from clothes to wooden troughs and even haniwa (埴輪), ritual clay figurines.


Today, though, the lacquerware that we are most familiar with would be dining ware such as bowls and chopsticks, and Aizu-nuri is one of the three most well-known lacquerwares of this category, the other two hailing from Wakayama (和歌山県 Wakayama-ken) and Ishikawa (石川県 Ishikawa-ken).


Lacquerware left to cure after being coated with lacquer. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


Aizu lacquerware, with a history of nearly 400 years, is still manufactured today through a division of labour, in which the various steps such as the creation of the wooden basis, the lacquering, and the decorating, are carried out by craftsmen in those fields. There are a few hallmarks of Aizu lacquerware, including Aizu-e (会津絵), in which colour lacquer is used to paint distinctive patterns on the lacquerware, as well as shu-migaki (朱磨き), where a black base is painted over with lacquer and sprinkled with vermilion powder before being polished, thereby causing patterns to develop on the surface of the lacquerware.


Lacquerware being painted with an intricate design. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


There are many shops pedalling lacquerware in Aizu-Wakamatsu. Here, I would like to introduce four which I visited.


Shiroki-ya Shikkiten 

The exterior of Shiroki-ya Shikkiten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


An established shop with over 300 years of history, the goods sold here are of the finest quality, and the historical building is well worth a look at.


The interior of Shiroki-ya Shikkiten—note its decidedly Western interior. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


Shiroki-ya Shikkiten (白木屋漆器店)
Address: 1-2-10 Omachi, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, 965-8691
Nearest stations: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅), JR Nanuka-machi Station (JR七日町駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:30 (Irregular closing days)
Tel: +81-24-222-0203


Fukunishi Sōbe Shōten

The interior of Fukunishi Sōbē Shōten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


Located in Nanuka-machi (七日町), an area convenient for sightseeing, the shop carries both traditional and modern lacquerware. The gallery within the store, fashioned from an old storehouse, is worth a visit.


A closer look at the wares in Fukunishi Sōbē Shōten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


Fukunishi Sōbē Shōten (福西惣兵衛商店)
Address: 1-1-45 Omachi, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, 965-0042
Nearest stations: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅), JR Nanuka-machi Station (JR七日町駅)
Tel: +81-24-227-0845


Suzuzen Shikkiten

The storehouse where lacquerware is sold at Suzuzen Shikkiten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


A sprawling complex comprising six old storehouses, one can also purchase sake and enjoy a meal here, in addition to shopping for lacquerware. Maki-e (蒔絵), a way to decorate lacquerware, can also be experienced here (prior bookings required).


Some of the products on sale at Suzuzen Shikkiten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


Suzuzen Shikkiten (鈴善漆器店)
Address: 1-3-28 Chuo, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, 965-0037
Nearest stations: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅), JR Nanuka-machi Station (JR七日町駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–15:00
Tel: +81-24-222-0680



The striking façade of Bikōdō. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


With its façade guaranteed to catch your eye, the shop carries a wide range of other local products in addition to Aizu lacquerware, all curated by the owner.


The interior of Bikōdō. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


Bikōdō (美工堂)
Address: 6-30 Nishi-Sakaemachi, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, 965-0877
Nearest stations: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅), JR Nanuka-machi Station (JR七日町駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–18:00
Tel: +81-24-227-3200


Characteristics of lacquer

A lacquer tree. Note the grooves on the tree trunk, made whenever the sap is tapped. (Image credit: urushikaoru)


Lacquer was once a part of people’s lives as a household product for centuries, but has slowly faded into obscurity over time. However, it is now regaining popularity, and the reasons for this can be found through examining the characteristics of lacquer.


Lacquer is obtained from the tree sap of lacquer trees and, apart from being used as a paint, has also been used as an adhesive. It is unique in that it is 100% natural, making it the only natural paint that is environmentally friendly. In addition, as only 200g of it can be tapped from a lacquer tree, it is also a precious resource.

A board explaining how lacquer is tapped at Suzuzen Shikkiten. (Image credit: Shintani Kenta)


The allure of lacquer lies in how its deep colours exude a glossiness—as it ages, it hardens and becomes clearer, its shininess increasing as time goes by. It is because of this that the beauty of lacquerware is apparent not immediately after application, but after it has been used for a few years. It is also very durable, being capable of resisting strong alkalis and acids such as royal water, or nitrohydrochloric acid, capable of dissolving gold, and hydrogen fluoride, which corrodes ceramics and glass. These properties of lacquer explain why centuries-old lacquerware displayed in museums still maintain their beauty even after all this while.


In addition, as surfaces where lacquer is applied on is said to exhibit antibacterial and bactericidal effects, lacquerware is often used as eating utensils.


Lacquer is therefore an excellent paint that not only gives objects it is coated with a beautiful finish, but also embows it with antiseptic, water- and insect-repellent properties, thereby strengthening utensils and furniture it is applied to. As it is the only natural paint in the world that does not make use of chemical products, I believe that the importance of these characteristics of lacquer can be understood given the backdrop of how modern society is increasingly placing importance on Sustainable Development Goals in ensuring the building of a sustainable society.


The future of lacquerware: marrying tradition with modern sensibilities

A few products from the SISUIhai line. (Image credit: Sanyoshi Shikkiten)


Through my visit to Aizu-Wakamatsu, I was overwhelmed by the mesmerism of lacquer, and was able to gain a deep understanding of the relationship between lacquerware and Japanese culture. That my ancestors created such a product that is at once both strong and beautiful, and environmentally friendly, brings me much pride.


I would like to conclude by introducing an initiative that will, in my opinion, most certainly become a leading example of lacquerware in the future from a sustainable point of view.


Another sampling of a few products from the SISUIhai line. (Image credit: Sanyoshi Shikkiten)


While in Aizu, I came across “SISUIhai” (SISUIhai -紫翠盃-), a new brand of lacquerware developed by SanYoshi Lacquer Ware Co. Ltd. What sets it apart from other brands is how this sustainable lacquerware was developed with the theme of “lacquerware that protects the Earth”, by using biodegradable plastic as the base, which is then lacquered and decorated with maki-e by craftsmen.


Normally, lacquerware is made with a wooden base, but in recent years, there has been a shift to plastic due to problems like the depletion of resources and the lack of skilled woodworkers, as well as to match the needs of mass production. “SISUIhai” is thus a product borne in response to how the use of plastic is viewed as a threat to environmental conservation, an ecological lacquerware that decomposes in the soil, and it is my wish that more of such products that take into consideration the needs of today’s society while still preserving traditional culture will be developed in the future.


SanYoshi Lacquer Ware Co. (三義漆器店)
Address: 1998-3 Dotesoto, Monden-machi Oaza Ichinoseki, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, 965-0844
Nearest station: Aizu Railway Minami-Wakamatsu Station (会津鉄道南若松駅)
Tel: +81-24-227-3456

Writer’s note: Unlike the other lacquerware shops listed above, SanYoshi, being a factory mass-manufacturing lacquerware, does not have a shop at its premises—the SISUIhai series may be purchased at their online shop.


Writer’s note: JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station is served by the Ban’etsu West Line and Tadami Line, and trains on the Aizu Railway operationally end there. The Ban’etsu West Line is the quickest and easiest way to access Aizu-Wakamatsu—take the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Koriyama Station (approx. 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes) and transfer to rapid or local trains (approx. 70 to 80 minutes) on the Ban’etsu West line there. From Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, Tadami Line trains and Aizu Railway trains service Nanuka-machi Station, one stop away, with around 1–2 trains every hour on average. 


Header image credit: urushikaoru

This article is produced in collaboration with "Fragrance of Lacquer (漆香る urushi kaoru)” Project, originally written by Shintani Kenta (新谷謙大) and translated by Kevin Koh.


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