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Preservation trail of the traditional treasure: Wajima-nuri by Kirimoto Wooden Craft Workshop

Have you ever been to Wajima city at the northern edge of the Noto peninsula? Wajima is home to traditional Japanese lacquerware. If you have been there, you have seen the several Wajima-nuri (Wajima lacquerware) workshops across the city. On August 3, 2016, I visited Wajima for the first time, and it presented a great opportunity to visit the Kirimoto Wooden Craft Workshop.

We arrived at the Kirimoto workshop in the afternoon, and Mrs. Junko Kirimoto guided us around the workshop area. Walking past the big woodworking/furniture-manufacturing machinery toward the inside area, we saw a craftsperson making trays, cups, a wooden-foot bath bucket, a wine cooler bucket, etc. There are many steps for making wooden crafts, which require special skills and experiences. For example, to smooth the corners of the tray, a craftsperson applies another piece of wood at the corner and rubs it with the tools. Junko-san explained that they had to make the woodworking jigs before making wooden cups and other wooden crafts. This was for the purpose of providing repeatability, accuracy, and interchangeability in product manufacturing. In the Kirimoto Workshop, there were 19-year-old wooden shape patterns used for woodworking. These were inherited from senior craftspeople and are still used today for accuracy and precision. Before we walked up to the second floor, we saw a craftsperson cutting wood with the wood-cutting machine; this is the process for making a traditional Japanese Chabudai table. After the machining process is finished, the products are meticulously handworked. Many sharpening tools are used for this procedure, such as those for carving spoons, lunch boxes, and rounded chopsticks. Junko-san told us to try holding these rounded chopsticks, which offer more comfort than squared ones.

Aside from the wooden crafts and fittings, Junko-san showed us practices involved in producing Wajima-nuri. She explained the process of Kyushitsu, which is the application of layers of urushi (urushi is tree sap collected from Japanese lacquer trees). Linen cloth is used to reinforce the rims and the parts of the wooden substrate that are most prone to damage; undercoats are mixed with a special powder, Wajima Jinoko—a high-quality baked diatomaceous earth. Jinoko is mixed well with urushi, and this makes urushi ware durable for hundreds of years. Actually, Wajima lacquerware requires half a year for completion, and each piece of lacquerware is handcrafted through a process of more than 100 steps. Junko-san also showed us a Western-style flat plate of the newest design. However, coffee cups and bowls with original traditional designs are the most popular in the Wajima Kirimoto shop. Kirimoto Workshop uses raw manufacturing materials obtained from both local (80%) and foreign (20%) sources. For instance, Japanese magnolia is used to manufacture hollowed wooden cores, and local cypress is used to make buckets, but some wooden materials come from Indonesia. Regarding urushi itself, about 10% is imported from China while 90% uses local Wajima urushi.

There are six craftspeople in the Kirimoto Workshop—four engaged in woodwork and two in painting for the lacquering work. It takes 10 years to become a professional craftsperson. The origins of the Kirimoto Wooden Craft Workshop date to around the late Edo period to the Meiji period. The company began manufacturing and selling Wajima lacquerware. Kyuko Kirimoto founded a business specializing in carving core wooden fittings during the early Showa period. Afterward, Toshihei Kirimoto, as the second generation, improved facilities to facilitate making both Japanese and Western-style furniture, and built a new warehouse and factory. The current and third-generation owner, Taiichi Kirimoto, majored in product design and had experience working in office planning before returning to Wajima. He apprenticed as a wood-core maker for four and a half years. In the meantime, he helped Toshihei with business management, producing wood-modeling proposals, design proposals, and the overall direction of lacquer production.

Taiichi-san is very active; he never stops creating and developing Wajima lacquerware. Currently, he produces the original “Makiji” technique. As we know, using metal eating utensils can cause scarring on lacquerware surfaces. The Makiji technique solves this problem by creating a tougher, stronger lacquerware surface. Another technique is called “Sensuji,” which means “thousand-streak finish.” This is because it uses a newly created brush that yields a thousand bold streaks. This technique maintains an antique look but is also durable. Taiichi-san has also been working with young craftspeople to make lacquer vessels, small articles, furniture, and interior elements, exploring the possibilities of lacquer as a part of modern lifestyles.

I was very impressed by the Kirimoto Workshop, the craftspeople working there, Mr. and Mrs. Kirimoto, and their son, who received a scholarship to study woodworking in France and is passionate about inheriting the family business. What I saw on that day was not just people working to make a living but people dedicating their lives to preserving and contributing to their traditional treasures. I believe Wajima-nuri will not decline as long as the people work hard to preserve it.  (R. S.)

Kirimoto Workshop 2
Kirimoto Workshop 3