On Tuesday, August 27 Ninohe City and the Consulate General of Japan in New York hosted a reception at the residence of Ambassador Sumio Kusaka, newly appointed Consul-General of Japan in New York to present the city’s finest sake, Nambu Bijin, and Urushi (Japanese lacquerware).
Ninohe City is a small town located in Iwate Prefecture in Northeastern Japan and has a population of almost 30,000 people. Occupying the northwesternmost corner of Iwate, Ninohe City borders Aomori Prefecture. Iwate Prefecture was one of the hardest hit areas when Japan experienced the disastrous earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011.
City officials introduced the important products of Ninohe through a pre-reception seminar featuring Kosuke Kuji and Makiko Suzuki.
Kosuke Kuji is the executive director of Nanbu Bijin Brewery, a family-run organization that has been producing sake in Ninohe City since 1915. Kuji showed a promotional video showing the step-by-step process the brewery employs in the making its award-winning sake.
Using only fresh water from Oritsume Basenkyo Prefectural Nature Park and domestic rice, this brand was awarded first place at the inaugural International Sake Challenge in 2007, and the brewery has received several national and international awards. This small business created the first kosher plum sake made from koji rice and locally sourced green plums without adding sugar. Nanbu Bijin also has the distinction of being the sake served in the First Class cabins on international flights of Japan Airlines.
Makiko Suzuki is a lacquer-coating artisan who studied Urushi techniques at Tohoku University of Art and Design. Her company, Tekiseisha, is an Urushi lacquerware factory in Ninohe City, which produces almost 80% of Urushi in Japan. Ninohe City is renowned for its Japanese lacquerware made from the purified sap of the Urushi trees planted by local craftsmen. Known as Joboji Urushi, the particular Urushi found in Ninohe City has been used to preserve old Japanese cultural sites, such as the Kinkakuji (the famed Golden Temple in Kyoto), Chusonji Konjikido (the temple of Iwate), and Toshogu (the shrine of Nikko), which are registered as World Heritage Sites.
The process of creating goods coated with Joboji Urushi requires a lot of patience. Collecting the resin from Urushi trees is done by hand, and one season yields only 200cc, not even one cup. Once the resin is collected, artisans layer items such as sake cups, miso soup bowls, and bento boxes with Joboji Urushi, which takes three months.
Suzuki realizes that due to Japan’s modern lifestyles, her industry is shrinking. While there once were Urushi craftsmen in every region in Japan, the numbers have dwindled considerably, and most Urushi products now come from China.
“This is a culture that’s very kind to people and to things,” says Suzuki, “but [Urushi] is something that Japanese people have forgotten. There are so many things that are cheap and easy. But little by little, we are seeing more young people who are interested in lacquerware. It seems that they can see the value in carefully choosing something that someone has created and using it for a long time.”
At the reception guests sampled cuisine from Iwate prefecture while tasting Nanbu Bijin and cocktails created by Nana, an Angel’s Share bartender and native of Iwate.
Koto virtuoso Yumi Kurosawa, who is also from Iwate, performed for more than one hundred guests in the trade and press.
For more pictures of the seminar and reception, please visit JapanCulture•NYC’s Flickr page.
Ninohe City has been hosting Sake + Urushi of Northern Japan – at latitude 40°N –, a weeklong exhibition and sale of Urushi ware and sake tasting events at MTC Kitchen until Friday, September 6. On Friday, August 30 Sake Samurais Chizuko Niikawa and Timothy Sullivan gave a lecture about Nanbu Bijin, and an Urushi lecture will take place on Wednesday, September 4. MTC Kitchen is open from 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed Labor Day), so stop by to see the beautiful Urushi products.
Lecture about Urushi of Made in Japan
Wednesday, September 4 from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.
New York Mutual Trading Company – 711 Third Avenue (on E. 45th Street between Second and Third Avenues)
Admission: $20 (includes special Urushi Honey gift)
Guided by Takuo Matsuzawa, Joboji Urushi Sangyo, up to 20 participants can learn more about this unique Japanese laquerware.
To RSVP, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.