It takes fifteen years for an urushi tree to grow, and once it’s mature, it will yield barely one cup of sap. The urushi’s sap is the key component to the Japanese lacquerware that coats bowls, sake cups, utensils, and more in a durable and beautiful red or black sheen. It is so indispensible to Japanese history that it is used to preserve 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.
Approximately 70% of Japan’s domestic urushi is produced in Ninohe City, a small town located in Iwate Prefecture in Northeastern Japan with a population of almost 30,000 people. Ninohe City is completely dedicated to the craftsmanship of lacquerware from start to finish. Local craftsmen plant the trees, and tappers collect the resin by hand from sunup to sundown during the harvesting season, which runs from spring through autumn. Other local craftsmen manufacture the tools used in the harvesting process. Once the resin is collected and the goods are made by hand, artisans layer items such as sake cups, miso soup bowls, and bento boxes with urushi, which takes three months.
The process requires a lot of patience, and the little amount of materials is precious. But products of that patience are remarkably beautiful. New Yorkers can see the treasures created by skilled craftsmen each year at exhibitions organized by Ninohe City officials in an effort to protect Japan’s cultural heritage and to continue the tradition to the next generation. They first came to New York in 2013, where they had an elegant reception held at the residence of the Consul General of Japan to New York.
This year’s three-day event is at the Green Gallery Room in Midtown, where beautiful works of functional art are on display and artisans are holding traditional craft demonstrations. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty that nature and patience provide.