Odawara lacquerware is believed to have originated in the mid-Muromachi period (1336–1573), when artisans in the Hakone Mountains began applying lacquer to pieces of unpainted wood. This type of lacquerware is set apart by its makers' use of techniques that serve to emphasize the natural grain of the wood, such as by applying numerous coats of unrefined lacquer tree sap to a piece that has been skillfully prepared using methods adapted from the world of pottery.
The main wood used to make Odawara lacquerware is Japanese zelkova. This wood is solid and flat, with little warping, which is one of its biggest strengths. The outstanding skills on offer at the local sawmills are put to great use, allowing the natural grain of the wood to pop from its smooth surface. A transparent lacquer is then applied, which lets the beauty of the wood grain stand out even more.Most Odawara lacquerware products are pieces of tableware that can be used in the course of everyday life. These include bowls, plates, trays, confectionery containers, and saucers. The lacquerware is light in the hands, and even it holds something hot or cold, that temperature does not transfer readily to your hand.
Traditional craftsman Hajime Okawa guided us through the production process.
First, the wood is secured tightly in place and coarsely shaved. It is then kept in a drying room for three to four weeks. The drying process reduces the wood's moisture content from roughly 60 percent to 8 percent.
The wood is then kept out of direct light and dried for another two to three months, which allows it to reabsorb moisture from the air, until the wood has the right moisture content for the next stage of the process. Natural wood continues to breathe even after it has been cut, so if it is made to become too dry, it will not return to a stable, workable state.
With two stages of shaving with a nata hatchet and three stages of grinding, the surface and inside of the wood are finished. The lacquer is then applied. In order to ensure that the lacquer has a glossy shine, it is essential that the surface of the wood is smooth.
Check out this impressive footage of the last cuts being made!
The tamenuri technique, in which multiple coats of lacquer are applied, results in a durable finish with a visual depth.
The appearance of Odawara lacquerware changes gradually with use. A newly finished piece (left) has a deeper color, and the grain of the wood is less evident, while on one that has been around for about three years (right), the gorgeous grain seems to leap out.
In Mr. Okawa's father's era, the sawing of the raw timber was also done here. As he explains, the current location of the workshop is where the sawing equipment was once kept.