Japanese Crafts: A Guide to Hida-Shunkei Lacquerware

Hida-Shunkei is a form of lacquerware produced in the cities of Hida and Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, central Honshu (mainland Japan). Boasting over 400 years of history, this elegant artform uses the natural grain of wood to create sophisticated lacquered tableware, ornaments, cutlery, and more. Hida-Shunkei requires collaboration between two kinds of artisans: a “kijishi” woodworker and a “nushi” (sometimes known as a “nurishi”) lacquer painter. Taking over 20 steps to complete, the beautifully lustrous lacquer and grain of Hida-Shunkei is born from the phenomenal talent of its creators. Recognized as an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan, the final product exudes a tasteful wooden texture and a glistening lacquer sheen, making it a lifelong treasure that becomes more refined the more you use it.

The History of Hida-Shunkei

As indicated by its name, Hida-Shunkei originated in the Hida region of northern Gifu Prefecture (present-day Hida, Gero, Takayama, and Shirakawa). The tradition began in 1607 when a master carpenter from Takayama by the name of “Takahashi Kizaemon” fashioned the wood of a “sawara” cypress tree into a clam-shaped tray while highlighting the natural beauty of its grain. He then presented this masterpiece to Shigechika, the older brother of the lord of Takayama Castle, who, upon being impressed with the work, had it painted in lacquer.

As the coloring of the tray resembled the beautiful “Hishunkei” tea jar of the Kamakura Period potter Kato Kagemasa (1168 – 1249), this new artform was christened “Hida-Shunkei,” soon becoming a common gift presented to the shogun (military dictator of Japan).

A Hida-Shunkei “chataku” tea saucer.

Originally mainly appearing in the form of teaware, Hida-Shunkei lacquerware developed to include trays, bowls, food boxes, and more as the years went on, all of which eventually became everyday objects used by aristocrats and commoners alike.

During WWII, it became very difficult to acquire lacquer, leading to a temporary industry decline. However, during the postwar Japanese economic miracle (1955 – 73), Hida-Shunkei became a popular gift. The Hida-Takayama area soon grew in popularity as a sightseeing hotspot with both domestic and international tourists who often bought Hida-Shunkei products as souvenirs.

The streets of Hida-Takayama.

In order to make Hida-Shunkei lacquerware, both a highly-skilled woodworker and a lacquer painter are essential. Because the skills that they have to master have centuries of history and tradition behind them, it is often said that this craft is the embodiment of Hida tradition itself. The techniques and the very souls of Hida-Shunkei artisans have been passed down over hundreds of years, ultimately culminating in Hida-Shunkei becoming a designated traditional Japanese craft in 1975.

The Characteristics of Hida-Shunkei

Modern Hida-Shunkei goes beyond its sawara cypress roots and today is also made from hinoki cypress, Japanese horse chestnut, and other timbers with exquisite grains. They all differ in terms of firmness and appearance, so handling them properly requires a lot of experience and expert knowledge. Timber processing for Hida-Shunkei is a delicate process done by hand using a multitude of different tools. The kijishi woodworker will use the natural grain of the timber to create beautiful “hegime” lines, which Hida-Shunkei is famous for.

Additionally, various types of kijishi exist specializing in different products, with “hegimeshi” creating rectangular products like food boxes, “magemonoshi” making rounded objects like trays, and the “hikimonoshi” using a lathe to hollow out wood to create saucers and more. 

The characteristic transparent lacquer coating also abides by a set of rigorous standards. Hida-Shunkei lacquer products recognized by the Hida-Shunkei Union Cooperative are required to be hand-painted using traditional techniques without the assistance of machines. Those who respect this condition have their creations affixed with a hand-painted mark confirming their authenticity, so don’t forget to look for it before you buy anything!

The lacquer paint is blended by the nushi to complement each individual piece of wood. In addition to mixing the lacquer, the nushi must maintain a steady temperature and humidity while carefully completing the painting process, including the undercoat, blending, top coat, drying, and more. The captivating luster of Hida-Shunkei lacquer is born through these long, arduous processes, demonstrating the individual value held in each piece. Overall, painting just one piece takes between 3 and 4 months.

Hida-Shunkei Lacquerware Today

A Hida-Shunkei tray.

These days, in addition to traditional food boxes and trays, elegant Hida-Shunkei ornaments like flower vases and more are in high demand. As each piece is crafted by hand, they are all unique and will gradually change and evolve over the years. The lacquerware also exudes a dignified grace that brilliantly highlights whatever is placed inside it, which is a big part of their charm.

To allow everyone to experience the joy of Hida-Shunkei lacquerware, reasonably priced, easy-to-use products are also available, including ballpoint pens, accessories, and clocks, which are sure to become treasured keepsakes. Hida-Shunkei cups, business card holders, and photo frames also make for great souvenirs to impress your family, friends, or coworkers!

You can easily find and buy Hida-Shunkei lacquerware in online stores. Browse through the vast selection, find a product that you like, and use it carefully and lovingly to ensure it lasts a lifetime!

Hida-Takayama Shunkei Lacquerware: Round Tray Shakumaru

Source: Amazon.co.jp

This circular lacquerware tray is crafted in the classic Hida-Shunkei style with a delicate grain and refined lacquer coating. Its φ295×21 mm size makes it extremely versatile and easy to use. With time, its character will deepen, allowing you to rediscover and enjoy the dish anew as the years go by.

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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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