To be honest, I am happy with plastic chopsticks and bowls. I never understood why people would be interested in paying a small fortune to get good quality wares when the plastic ones look exactly the same (and sometimes, much better)! Hence, when I had the opportunity to paint my own chopsticks by lacquer I was more curious than thrilled.
The sap of the lacquer tree, also commonly known as the “urushi-based lacquer,” has traditionally been used in Japan. The lacquer has been widely used in prints and paintings – from the elegant looking chopsticks to finely carved Buddha statues.
Since the urushi-based lacquer is poisonous to the touch until it dries, the creation of lacquerware has long been practised only by skilled dedicated artisans.
We stopped by at the ‘Appi-Nuri Lacquerware’, Hachimantai, in Iwate Prefecture to try our hands at painting our hashi (chopsticks).
We met Ms Fujimori-san who taught us the basics of the painting. She quickly ushered us towards the seating which was arranged neatly (as expected from the Japanese).
We were told to put on gloves since lacquer can cause allergic reactions when it comes in contact with the skin. After we put on our gloves and sat comfortably, we were given pre-painted chopsticks as our base. I chose black!
Three base colours – Blue, Yellow and Red were given to us. We could mix these colours and create our own unique blend of colours to design the hashi!
There were few samples from which we could be inspired from. I was surprised to see different kinds of designs.
Designing hashi was fun! It was challenging to design the tiny patterns. I tried to be minimalistic after my disappointing Simpson’s-look-alike-Manuki-Neko painting experience.
As we were painting, I asked the difference between lacquer painted crockery and the regular plastic ones. Fujimori-san said, using lacquer-painted wares are extremely thermo-insensitive; putting a hot miso soup in this bowl does not cause it to heat up like plastic ones.She also added that these wares can be passed from generation to generation, unlike synthetic crockery.
I asked Fujimori-san about the reason behind the high prices of Lacquerware works. Apparently, it is the rarity of lacquer, used to paint the wares, that makes the final product so expensive.
Lacquer is extracted from a tree called Urushi, which takes 10-15 years to grow. From each tree, only 200cc of urushi-based-lacquer is available. Fujimori-san says that a place called Jobuji machi has Urushi trees in a vast area from where lacquers are extracted in summer each year. However, surprisingly, as soon as the extraction process is completed, the trees are cut down. Later, on spring, new shoots arise from the very tree which again takes 10-15 years to grow to be able to produce a miniscule amount of Urushi!
After we were done painting the hashi, Fujimori-san stored it in a small drying cabinet, where a temperature of 20-25 degrees and humidity of 70-80% is maintained to dry the freshly painted wares.
And do you know how long does it take to dry?
No wonder this thing is so expensive! It requires time, effort and patience!
Visiting this place made me think deeply about how far Man goes to relish art and fulfil his wistful desires. To use a paint that takes more than a decade to get ready for a normal day-to-day object and sell it for an extremely high price was inconceivable to me. But now, I can appreciate why it may be worth for some! I respect the art, the patience and the effort used to create these beautiful lacquer-painted wares.