Wajima and the Artisans
You love urushi and maki-e pens, but do you know where they began?
You may never have heard of Wajima, but it’s an important place in urushi circles. Many pens on our site have their origins in this ancient place. Artisans have been creating maki-e there for at least 600 years.
Wajima is a small city located in the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan. It has a population of about 28,000 people. It’s on a peninsula and is bordered by the Sea of Japan to the north and west.
According to the book Maki-e, an Art for the Soul, Wajima deserves to be called “the capital of the Urushi World.” This small city is responsible for 40% of urushi wares sold in the entire country of Japan. Nearly one-third of the population is involved in urushi-related work.
There are currently more than 400 urushi artisans in Wajima. Their works account for an incredible 25% of the urushi products exhibited at the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten) and the Japanese Traditional Crafts Exhibition (Dento Kogeiten). These are the two most prominent art exhibitions in Japan.
Besides their long history with the art, there’s something extra special about Wajima urushi work. It’s ji-no-ko, a special powder made of diatomaceous earth.
What’s that, you say? Diatomaceous earth occurs naturally in nature, and consists of the fossilized remains of microscopic organisms called diatoms. Diatom skeletons are made of silica, and over centuries their tiny skeletons accumulated into the substance we now call diatomaceous earth.
The silica in ji-no-ko is very porous, and can absorb a lot of urushi lacquer. This becomes useful when performing the groundwork of urushi, called shitaji-nuri. During this stage, a special cloth called nunogise is coated with a mixture of ji-no-ko and urushi. Once cured, the underlying urushi layers are very durable. It’s this durability that helps Wajima urushi stand out.
The source of Wajima’s ji-no-ko is a hill called “Mt. Komine”. But over time, the available ji-no-ko has steadily decreased. Today, only 10% of the soil on the mountain can be used. The rest is unsuitable for urushi work. According to Maki-e, an Art for the Soul, an alternate source for ji-no-ko has not been found. We can only speculate regarding what will happen when the ji-no-ko runs dry.
Danitrio is fortunate to work with many talented artisans from Wajima.
One such artist is Yuji Ookado, artisan name ‘Yuji’. Unfortunately, we only have a few personal details on Ookado-san. He started learning maki-e from a master artisan when he was 19, and has gone on to exhibit his work at national art exhibitions. Let’s look at a few of his pens.
Katamigawari Birds and Bamboo is inspired by the katamigawari style, which means “half and half.” Katamigawari style features one design on one half of a garment or pen, and a separate design on the other half. It’s a style that is often applied to kimonos.
In this pen, the designs are split between the bamboo stems and the other half showing the bamboo leaves and the birds. The details in the piece are accomplished through skillful maki-e work.
This pen is a continuation of an incredible 1000 years of cultural history. Dojoji Maki-E on Mikado is inspired by an ancient Japanese folk tale. It tells of a girl named Kiyohime who fell in love with Anchin, a Buddhist monk. But the love was unrequited, and she became obsessed with him. Anchin, to escape her advances, ran away to Dojoji temple and hid underneath a bell.
But Kiyohime could not be stopped. She pursued him and, in a rage, turned into a dragon. She coiled herself around the bell with such heat that the monk burned to death. The dragon’s likeness occupies most of the pen cap and body: you can see it wrapped around the bell. The dragon’s fire is a bold red urushi. Don’t be surprised if the pen gets hot in your hand. (Just kidding.)
The oldest extant version of the story appears in Hokke Genki, an 11th century Japanese collection of Buddhist tales and folklore. Over the centuries, the tale evolved and has been the inspiration for much Japanese art, including the Noh play Dojoji. Kiyohime’s Noh mask appears at the base of the pen – a homage to both the story and the play.
We have the perfect gift for the cat lover in your life. I’m a Cat is based on the writings of famous Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume (1867 – 1916). One of his most well-known novels is I am a Cat, a commentary on Japanese society from the perspective of a house cat. The action of the book focuses on the uneasy cohabitation of Western and Japanese culture during the Meiji period (1868-1912).
The barrel of the pen features Natsume hard at work, along with a pretty white cat with dark markings. Another cat on the cap is encircled with delicate raden mother-of-pearl, and even features a tiny bell around its neck.
Yuji’s pens are a beautiful combination of Japanese culture and urushi artisanship. You can explore all of his pens on UrushiPen.com here.
Lyn, Bernard. Maki-e, an Art for the Soul. Win Yuan Enterprise Co., Ltd., 2003.
Wajima Museum of Lacquer (Urushi) Art, “History and Culture of Wajima-Nuri.”
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