The Aizu region refers to the western part of Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan. Sheltered by mountains on all sides, the area’s bountiful forest and water resources and a humid snowy winters have provided ideal conditions for producing lacquerware using the sap of the urushi lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The history of Aizu lacquerware tradition goes back over 400 years.
Born into a family of renowned lacquerware craftsmen, Mr Yamauchi returned to Aizu-Wakamatsu in 1981 after completing university studies in Tokyo to train as a lacquerware artisan. In 1986, he took over the family business, establishing his name rapidly for his unique style and quality of work that has been recognised in numerous awards from the governments of Japan and Fukushima Prefecture. He is a ‘Dentō-Kōgeishi’, i.e. a traditional craftsperson certified by the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry.
Heading the small Onmakie Yamauchi lacquerware workshop in the historical quarter of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Mr Yamauchi specialises in ‘maki-e’ or gilded and painted decoration of lacquerware, in addition to the base lacquering of the turned or carved wood. His colourful, floral style is distinct even among all the variations found in the Aizu lacquerware tradition—evoking imageries of faraway places in central Asia and the Middle East, yet so quintessentially Japanese. The colourful decoration is achieved by mixing lacquer with metal powders and mineral pigments, with the patterns hand-stencilled on paper before being carefully transferred to the lacquerware.
Mr Yamauchi is one of the few Aizu lacquerware artisans remaining who produce their creations using only traditional methods, materials and tools. He uses traditional maki-e brushes made from cat and mouse hair—each costing up to 80000 yen (over AUD $1000), with a lifespan of one month, and with only two manufacturers remaining in the whole of Japan. Another major challenge has been to use locally sourced lacquer for his works—due to the ageing of lacquer harvesters, low yields (after 15 years of growth, a lacquer tree will yield 200 ml of sap before it is cut down), and high maintenance and cost of managing lacquer tree forests. As a result, he has recently been forced to blend cheaper imported (but natural) lacquer with locally harvested lacquer. He makes a point of using as much locally produced lacquer as possible—not only to support the local harvesters, but also to maintain the quality of his works. He is saddened by the trend among some producers toward factory-style production and use of synthetic or imported materials which, in his view, is eroding the true value of the Aizu lacquerware.
Mr Yamauchi is a true believer in upholding the age-old Aizu lacquerware tradition, which has survived wars, falling demand, and the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disasters. He is willing to share his knowledge with anybody interested in learning more about lacquerware. If you are in Aizu-Wakamatsu and interested in traditional crafts, a visit to his studio—situated in a classic Aizu-style ‘kura’ (cellarhouse)—is a must. It is mesmerising to watch him painstakingly decorate a lacquerware bowl (typically taking a month for one average-sized bowl), surrounded by tools and cabinets some of which have been used since his grandfather’s generation. His approach teaches us the virtues of patience and handcrafting—his creations are of higher quality and durability than the cheaper mass-produced wares produced by some producers in the Aizu region. Despite his acclaim, Mr Yamauchi currently does not have any trainees or apprentices. Let us hope that traditions such as his will continue for the sake of future generations.
Please visit our online shop at https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/shop if you live in Australia and would like to purchase Mr Yamauchi's works.