A beginner’s guide to Japanese lacquerware


While ceramic dishes and metal cutlery are standard fare, there’s something very satisfying about having a bowl that will grow and change as you do.

While there are scores of different traditional handicrafts found across Japan, one with the longest history of all is urushi, or lacquerware.

What is urushi?

Urushi, or lacquer, comes from the varnish made from the sap of the urushinoki, better known in English as the Japanese lacquer tree or Japanese sumac. The items made from and with this lacquer are known in Japan as either urushinuri or shikki.

The history of lacquerware

Lacquer has been used in Japan since the Jomon period, anywhere from 15,000 to 2,300 years ago. During that time, it was mainly used as an antiseptic or adhesive, but over time it became a staple used in both functional and decorative items.


Everything from wooden pencils to everyday use soup bowls, hair combs, and even armor and coffins have been made from lacquerware. It is mainly applied to carved wooden items, but urushi is also used on metal, glass, fabrics and even plastics.

Be careful

The Latin name for the urushinoki contains a hint as to the main problem with lacquer itself — Toxicodendron vernicifluum.

The liquid sap from these and other trees in its family contains urushiol, the same compound in poison ivy and poison oak that cause severe rashes and potentially fatal allergic reactions. In Japanese, the rashes are known as urushi kabure, or urushiol induced contact dermatitis.

While lacquerware products generally don’t cause reactions in users, while taking part in a lacquerware tutorial, my instructor informed me that those who have severe allergies to poison oak and so on might want to appreciate lacquerware from a distance, just in case.

Famous styles

As with most things, there are regional differences to shikki across Japan. Given that the sap is a natural component, knowing when and how to collect it, the quality and viscosity of the substance itself, as well as how long the lacquer will take to dry in a given area varies greatly. This knowledge comes from years of experience — often generations of it — and as such, areas with the longest established traditions of producing urushi tend to also have some of the finest items available.

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I've never forgotten a shop I saw in Kanazawa that had some of the most beautiful things... I'd love to have some quality lacquerware, preferably older, in my house. But then maybe my modern Australian house isn't the right place for it. Too bright, too open. In In Praise of Shadows, his classic book about Japanese aesthetics, Junichiro Tanizaki writes the following about lacquerware:

"Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware… [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived."

If you're into the aesthetic appeal of Japanese art and culture, it's a great book. There are extracts from it in the linked article.

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My father was a cabinet maker and furniture maker using lacquer in his work. Developed his own liquids and styles so it looked like a lacquer but was hard as nails and wouldn't scratch.

I love the Japanese lacquer. We have very beautiful sets of bowls and dishes which we will use on special occasions. Wash and dry very carefully.

My wife has a small black spot on the side of her nose from when she was a small girl and accidentally touched a lacquer tree.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Glorious, breathtaking, created by skilled craftsman.

I wish I could understand the beauty of lacquerware, beyond my philistine lack of appreciation.

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I wish I could understand the beauty of lacquerware, beyond my philistine lack of appreciation.

Well, I'd say you do understand it.

Glorious, breathtaking, created by skilled craftsman.

I don't see any "philistine lack of appreciation" there!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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