Echizen lacquerware – how it was started and its 1500 years of history

Urushi (lacquer)

In the early days, Chinese characters such as “潤夜 (meaning enriched night)” and “潤美 (meaning enriched beauty)” were used to express lacquer. Lacquer was deeply involved in people’s life and it was treasured by the people. Such admiration to the lacquer is expressed in the Chinese characters that express the lacquer. Then, the admiration was formed into shapes, colors and ineffably soft and tender glaze not only on the surface but also bringing out the depth of beauty which the Echizen lacquerware is known for today. The people’s life in Echizen is inseparable from lacquer. The soft and tender glaze of lacquer was born in such people’s life of Echizen. Echizen is the elegant and enriched land of lacquer.

Echizen lacquerware

The beginning of Echizen lacquerware was about 1500 years ago during the Tumulus Period (6th century). When the 26th Emperor Keitai was still a young prince, he ordered a lacquer artisan at Katayama village (present Katayama-cho in Sabae-shi, Fukui-ken) to repair his crown.

The lacquer artisan not only repaired the prince’s crown but also made the prince a present of a black glazed lacquer bowl. The prince was deeply moved by the ineffable beauty of the bowl and encouraged to start lacquerware manufacturing in Katayama village. This is how today’s Echizen lacquerware was born.

There were also many urushi-kaki (lacquer collecting) workers in Echizen area. Urushi-kaki refers to the workers who cut the surfaces of lacquer trees to collect lacquer. At its peak, the Echizen urushi-kaki workers counted for about half of the total urushi-kaki workers in Japan. It is said that Tokugawa Shogunate ordered the Echizen urushi-kaki workers to collect a tremendous amount of lacquer to build the Nikko Tosho-Gu Shrine. This proves how highly evaluated the Echizen urushi-kaki workers were. These Echizen urushi-kaki workers played a major role in forming of a great production region of Echizen lacquerware.

As a major lacquerware production region

The bowls made in Katayama district are called the Katayama bowls, and in the Muromachi period, these bowls were frequently used in the Buddhist events such as Hoon-ko which is a memorial service held around the anniversary of the death of Shinran.

In Edo period, maki-e(design drawing) artisans were invited from Kyoto to introduce the skills and techniques of maki-e(design drawing). Chinkin(carving) techniques were further introduced from Wajima. In addition to its durability, Echizen lacquerware started to have gorgeous decorations applied thereto.

In the middle of Meiji period, Echizen lacquerware was greatly transformed. Although the marumono lacquerware was the predominate product until then, the kakumono lacquerware such as trays started to be manufactured. Thereafter, great variety of types of products such as boxes, trays, candy boxes and vases are manufactured. The production region was expanded to the entire Kawada district and the lacquerware manufactured in this region is now called Kawada-nuri lacquerware.

With such background of variety of types of products, the mass-production system was developed and started to open new lacquerware markets for professional/business use such as to be used at Japanese traditional hotels and restaurants. This was a great success. New markets were opened in large cities such as Nagoya and Osaka and Kawada-nuri lacquerware became popular, and people started to call it Echizen lacquerware.


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