Tsugaru-nuri

With layers of urushi (lacquer) and a polished surface, Tsugaru-nuri has a gorgeous look.

Japan has a rich urushi-nuri lacquerware culture that includes regional specialties, one of which is Tsugaru-nuri. This style of lacquerware has distinct identifying features and is probably the most elaborate and grand. A beautifully polished surface reveals elaborate, random geometric patterns in multiple colors, giving it a gorgeous look. The name comes from a region called Tsugaru, in Aomori Prefecture, which is located in the northernmost part of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The region’s climate is not really easy for living––Tsugaru has long, severe, and snowy winters and short summers. This climate has affected life in the region: the food there is thick and salty, locals are traditionally thought of as both patient and stubborn, and Tsugaru’s crafts are sturdy and layered. The development of Tsugaru-nuri makes sense given these regional characteristics.

Tsugaru-nuri is believed to date back to the seventeenth century, when Lord Nobumasa Tsugaru of the Hirosaki Domain encouraged the region to develop crafts and industries to support the local economy. Tsugaru-nuri was mainly applied to the tools and accessories of samurai––the sheaths of katana (swords), armor, bookcases, ink boxes, and kitchen utensils, for example. By the mid-eighteenth century, Tsugaru-nuri was known in other regions, including Edo and Osaka, and had become esteemed as one of the highest-quality crafts.

The sturdy texture and elaborate patterns of Tsugaru-nuri come through layers of lacquering and about 40 processes that take more than two months to complete. The basic steps include: applying several coats of urushi (lacquer) over a wooden object; polishing the surface several times, applying urushi again to complete the foundation; creating patterns by applying urushi so that there is an uneven surface; applying different urushi colors repeatedly; and repeating the process of polishing and applying urushi several times until arriving at the desired look. After these laborious steps, the topography-like, signature pattern of Tsugaru-nuri is revealed.

There are four major patterns. Kara-nuri, the most common Tsugaru-nuri pattern, is produced by a special spatula, called a shikake-bera, that can create a series of random, deformed dots. The dots are three-dimensional, and after applying different colors of lacquer over them and polishing the surface, dots surrounded by rings of color emerge. The second-most common pattern is nanako-nuri. This is created by sprinkling rapeseeds over a wet lacquer base, letting it dry, and then removing the seeds, leaving a rough surface with tiny dots. After applying a different color of lacquer over the first layer and polishing the surface, the artisan reveals rings of tiny dots. Monsha-nuri is interesting in the way it uses the same color, usually black, to create patterns rather than using different colors. The artisan draws patterns with black urushi over a black base, sprinkles charcoal powder over it, and polishes it, revealing patterns created with two different textures. Finally, nishiki-nuri is the most elaborate Tsugaru-nuri style. It’s made by drawing patterns over nanako-nuri and then sprinkling tin powder over the lacquer. This requires a higher level of skill, and there are only a handful of artisans who can make lacquerware with this pattern.

There are no suits of armor and swords being made for samurai anymore, but today, Tsugaru-nuri decorates items like chopsticks, soup bowls, and plates, as well as pens, accessories, and utensils used in tea ceremonies.

Over forty processes are required to reveal the beautiful patterns created by different colors of urushi.

Tsugaru-nuri can also adorn small, thin items like chopsticks, dessert spoons, scoops, and compact mirrors.
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