A Beautiful Harvest: How Students in Japan Turn Urushi Trees Into Lacquer
Hannah Kirshner on an Intricate Form of Craftsmanship
Yamanaka is a hazardous place for someone who’s allergic to urushiol, the allergen in both poison ivy and the urushi tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, from which Japanese lacquer is made. Most people who choose urushi painting as a profession are blessed with immunity or only a mild itch. I break out in a bubbling rash with the slightest contact. Sometimes I notice the tell-tale cluster of blisters on my neck or the back of my hand when I haven’t been anywhere near a lacquer studio or urushi tree. In a town where nearly 20 percent of the population is involved with the lacquerware trade, there are probably traces of the potent oil on the door to the convenience store and the menus at my favorite izakaya.
My friend Murai says urushi residue from craftsmen’s bodies taints the onsen water, so local children build resistance from the time they are babies. When they brush against the leaves of an urushi tree while playing in the woods, they don’t get the bubbling red allergic rash. Craftsmen tell of putting a drop of urushi in the baby’s first bathwater. Students at the wood-turning school claim to gradually become used to urushi, until their skin no longer reacts.
It was with some trepidation that I went to watch an urushi harvest. There are about 800 trees on a southeast-facing slope above a bend in the Daishōji River, planted about 15 years ago. The same kinds of trees grow wild in the woods, but Yamanaka is a bit too warm to be an ideal climate for producing high-quality urushi. Students from the Ishikawa Prefectural Institute for Yamanaka Lacquerware (locally known as the rokuro kenshujō, the wood-turning training center) harvest sap from the trees to gain a deeper understanding of their materials.
These students have come from all over Japan to learn how to make Yamanaka shikki (lacquerware). Most shikki craftsmen specialize in one part of the process. There are craftsmen who cut rough blanks. Craftsmen—like Nakajima—who turn those blanks into table- and teaware. Craftsmen who finish them with a smooth lacquer of urushi. And maki-e artists who decorate those wares with illustrations and patterns. During their two- to four-year course, the students will practice every part of the process.
Colloquially, lacquer has come to mean any shiny finish, and the Japanese objects finished with urushi are advertised in English as lacquerware. But the word “lacquer” (like “shellac”) is related to the finish made of secretions from lac insects, and urushi is made from tree sap. Urushi doesn’t coat wood like synthetic finishes; it bonds and becomes part of it, one tree material strengthening another.
I met up with four students—two young women and two young men—in the parking lot of the rokuro kenshujō one morning during their summer break. One of them, named Naiki, is hoping to become Nakajima’s apprentice next year. She’d invited me to watch them collect urushi.
We were all dressed in long pants, long sleeves, and hats to protect us from urushiol and from the harsh sun. The towels or tenugui each of us had slung around our necks were already catching beads of sweat. A man wearing an old Yamanaka firefighter hat—a teacher—and a woman with a friendly round face—an administrator—drove us past the 2000-year-old Kayano Ōsugi and its shrine and up toward the nearly abandoned village of Kazetani. We pulled over above the slope where the urushi trees are planted.
Before beginning the harvest, we drank water from paper cups that smelled like turpentine from being stored with the harvesting materials. We put on gloves and cloth sleeve covers. I lowered the mesh on my hat—like a beekeeper or a jungle explorer—to protect my face from splatters and drips.
I watched a student named Raku tap an urushi tree. The trunk was straight and slim, no thicker than a runner’s thigh. He cut away a horizontal strip of bark with a tool like the channel knife a bartender uses to make coils of citrus peel. The pale wood was exposed. He sliced into the wood with a sharp blade, to release the sap running between the bark and the inner core of the tree. Milky fluid beaded in the incision, and he scraped it into a bamboo cup. A tree can tolerate five incisions in a session.
The trunks are tagged with numbers and nicknames; each student is responsible for their own group of trees. They moved from one to the next, making fresh cuts above where the last incisions had scabbed over and turned black. From July through August, the students harvest urushi every five days (allowing the trees time for recovery in between). There are fewer than 30 mature trees ready to collect urushi from this year.
The sparse canopy of pinnate leaves did little to break the heat. Sweat dripped down my forehead, but I was afraid to wipe it, in case there were irritating oils on my sleeve or hand. Cicadas buzzed and a ruddy kingfisher sang from the taller, denser forest uphill.
The white urushi sap turned tan in the bamboo collection cups, and by the time we brought it all back to the school in one big bowl, it had turned nut-brown and frothy. They weighed it: 56 grams. Usually they get 80, and occasionally as much as 200 grams from one session. A few hot weeks with no rain had strained the trees.
It was before noon, and the two young women gave me a tour of the school. They showed me the lacquer rooms where they’ll squeeze the urushi through a paper filter to remove sediment and paint or rub it onto woodenware. There’s a big wooden muro, a humid cabinet for curing urushi-painted wares. Urushi doesn’t actually dry, it hardens, undergoing a chemical change that neutralizes its skin-aggravating properties. It bonds with the wood into a strong and flexible finish. Like skin, it’s durable and resilient, but vulnerable to deterioration from UV light.
We walked through the hand-carving room, the forging room for making tools, and the big workshop full of lathes where they spend most of their time learning to turn tableware and teaware from keyaki, an indigenous elm. Their soup bowls and tea boxes, saké cups and sweets trays, are on display in the gallery, all glossed in smooth coats of urushi. They showed me the maki-e room, where they practice painting intricate illustrations with urushi that they dust with glittering mineral powders. Maki-e literally means sprinkled design.
The school provides the first few years of training in place of a traditional apprenticeship, but most of the students hope to spend another five years working under a master craftsman as a deshi, an apprentice. In the year leading up to graduation, they court the mentors they hope will take them on. Once they enter a master’s workshop, they will help with production in exchange for guidance and experience.
Excerpted from Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town. Used with the permission of the publisher, Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Hannah Kirshner.