Yamanaka Onsen (hot springs) is said to have been discovered by Gyoki, a renowned monk of the Nara period (710-794). It is a picturesque town nestled in the bosom of the Hokuriku Mountains (a region west of Tokyo on the Japan Sea side of Japan), with onsen ryokan (inns with hot springs) scattered along a valley with beautiful bridges. The famous poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) visited the area and wrote, “Yamanaka ya / Kiku wa taoraji / Yu no nioi” claims that a bath in its waters is more rejuvenating than a drink from the mythical dew of eternal youth that Chinese fairies gather from chrysanthemum flowers, and praised Yamanaka Onsen as one of the “three best hot springs in Japan” along with Arima and Kusatsu. Another attraction of Yamanaka Onsen is its rich culinary culture, which despite its mountainous location offers fresh seafood from the Sea of Japan.
This environment blessed with nature has nurtured delicate handicraft techniques. Ishikawa Prefecture, where Yamanaka is located, is famous for its wide variety of crafts, as reflected in sayings such as “Wajima of lacquering,” “Yamanaka of woodworking,” and “Kanazawa of maki-e (lacquer decoration)”, referring to distinctive techniques which have been handed down from generation to generation in each region. Yamanaka is currently the largest producer of hikimono-kiji (wooden bases for lacquerware) in Japan.
Lacquerware produced in Yamanaka is called “Yamanaka shikki” or “Yamanaka-nuri.” As mentioned earlier, woodworking is the most important element of Yamanaka lacquerware. “Kijibiki” is a technique to carve round vessels by spinning wood blocks on a lathe using turning tools similar to chisels. Yamanaka’s woodworkers employ unique techniques to produce elaborate thin and decorative patterned carving with stripes and whorls. The craftsmen themselves make the knives that are the tools of their trade, and they work with the tools that suit them best – otherwise, they would not be able to accomplish this delicate work. The “tategi-dori” method, which uses cut along its longitudinal grain, wood makes it robust and resistant to distortion and shrinkage and helps to make the most of the delicate woodworking technique. High-quality wood bases from this process are also supplied to Wajima, Kyoto, and other lacquering centers throughout Japan.
The woods used in Yamanaka are mainly zelkova, Japanese cherry birch, and Japanese horse chestnut. The “fuki-urushi” finish, in which lacquer is applied and wiped off repeatedly to highlight the beauty of the grain of the wood, is also an essential technique for Yamanaka lacquerware. It is no exaggeration to say that kijibiki, and fuki-urushi are the core elements of Yamanaka lacquerware, enhancing the beauty of the materials and revealing the essence of its craftsmanship.
Development and transmission of techniques
Since a group of woodturners from Echizen settled in Yamanaka during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) and began producing hinomono wood base in this area, that technique has developed and reached maturity. Heibei Minoya, a master craftsman of the Edo period (1603 – 1868) said to be the creator of the sujimono-biki woodturning technique, specialized in “sensuji-biki,” a method of carving countless lines evenly. Ryotaro Tsuiki, who was active in the early Meiji period (1868 – 1912), invented new methods of stripe-carving, including ke-suji, uroko-me, and inaho-me, and is said to have laid the foundation for the number of varieties of decorative carving that exist today. Ryotaro was also the creator of the fuki-urushi technique. Since then, many woodturners have emerged from Yamanaka, including Ryozo Kawakita, the first woodturner to be recognized as a Living National Treasure, and many have gone on to achieve remarkable accomplishments.
• Yamanaka-nuri (Yanamaka shikki) official website
• Yamanaka Onsen Tourism Association official website
• Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art official website
• Kaga City official website
• Gato Mikio Co., Ltd. official website
• Mari Kobayashi (Ed.) “Shitsugei no Mikata (How to see Japanese traditional lacquerware)”