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Lacquer craftsmen are still displaced by the earthquake in Japan

Lacquer craftsmen are still displaced by the earthquake in Japan
Lacquer craftsmen are still displaced by the earthquake in Japan


A Gibbler spring touches a rapidly rotating piece of wood on a lathe. Sawdust flies in ribbons. The wood is shaped like a bowl, and is the type used to prepare miso soup. Giebler is a German national and came to Yamanaka Onsen about two years ago to study the town's wood-turning technique.

“Yamanaka means in the middle of the mountains. So there’s a lot of wood,” Gibler said.

Spring Giebler turns a wooden bowl on a Yamanaka-style lathe. Hannah Kirshner/The World

For hundreds of years, artisans in Yamanaka have turned this wood into tableware and teaware. Sometimes, woodworkers apply the finish themselves. But more often than not, their products become a canvas for artisans from Wajima, a northern city in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Noto Peninsula famous for its paint.

In Wajima, paint specialists use urushi, a paint made from the sap of urushi trees. Wajima paint — called Wajima-nuri — is influenced by its proximity to the sea: it is particularly strong because the urushi paint is mixed with local diatomaceous earth.

Urushi dyed on Shirota's workbench. Hannah Kirchner/The World

In each of these cities, a specific craft forms part of the identity of that place. These places are part of the identity of their craft.

On January 1, a major earthquake shook the Noto Peninsula, and Wajima was one of the worst affected areas. The earthquake shook the continuity of Wajima-nuri and turned the lives of its creators upside down.

Producing a single piece of Wajima Nori can take five craftsmen and more than 100 steps.

“You'll have someone who makes the base material. You'll have someone who does the base coats, the middle coats, the top coats, and then even someone who will sand in between,” Giebler explained.

The result is a glossy, opaque varnish, usually black or red.

A variety of works by Ayano Konishi, displayed on her kitchen table. Hannah Kirchner/The World

Furthermore, sometimes another craftsman applies the maki-e. Maki-e is the laborious process of drawing detailed illustrations using urushi paint and sprinkling gold powder (or other precious metals) over the design. Small pieces of pearly shell or iridescent insect wings are also used: imagine making a mosaic from individual pieces of glitter.

Ayano Konishi is a maki-e artist, and had her own studio in Wajima until the earthquake earlier this year.

In her kitchen in Yamanaka, Ayano Konishi displays a painted cup decorated with hydrangeas. Hannah Kirshner/The World

Her studio was attached to a family lacquerware shop that had been in operation for about 250 years, since the Edo period. The store was located on the same street as Wajima's famous morning market, where vendors sell fish and produce. Along this street there were lacquerware shops and studios.

The store that was run by Ayano Konishi's husband and father-in-law before the fire. Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

“On December 31, as usual, our store was open,” Konishi said. “I took my children for a walk, and we went to my aunt’s to buy oranges and fruit. We were welcomed by everyone, and the children had a lot of fun.”

But on New Year's Day, everything will change.

Konishi and her family were relaxing in their apartment just outside of town.

“There was massive shaking. I really thought the apartment was going to collapse. I really thought we were going to die,” she said.

Aftershocks continued to arrive, and a fire broke out in downtown Wajima.

Fire engulfed downtown Wajima on January 1. Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

“The earthquake caused the ground to rise, so there was no water anywhere,” Konishi said.

Pipes broke, the river and fire tanks dried up, and firefighters were unable to withdraw water. Wajima Morning Market and all the lacquered shops and studios surrounding it burned down.

Ayano Konishi's view of Wajima morning market, before and after the fire. Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

Six months later, much of Wajima remains uninhabitable. The craftsmen have spread throughout the country, staying with relatives or in temporary housing. Some Wajima craftsmen, especially the older ones, have given up.

But Kazuya and Kasumi Shirota, a maki-e making couple in their 70s, are determined to keep going. After the earthquake, their son urged them to come live with him in Hyogo Prefecture, away from Noto.

Kasumi Shirota at her work table in Yamanaka. Hana Kirchner/The World

“I thought I was already old, so if I went to my son's house, I would get dementia,” Kazuya Shirota said.

Within days of the earthquake, a lacquerware craftsman contacted the Shirotas family from Yamanaka Onsen, a wood-making town. He invited them to come immediately and promised to help them start working again.

Now, the Shirota family lives and works in an apartment complex in Yamanaka. At the desk they share, Kazuya Shirota works on ornate designs that adorn ceremonial objects used in Buddhist temples or during a tea ceremony. On an incense box decorated with a hen and a rooster, each feather is painted one by one, decorated with small lines, and decorated with seven different types of gold powder.

Kazuya Shirota's work in progress. Hannah Kirshner/The World

The Shirotas say they want to return to Wajima. They can get money from the government to demolish their damaged house, but they will have to rebuild at their own expense. It may take years. At 70, they don't think this is realistic.

Ayano Konishi, who had her studio near Wajima Morning Market, also ended up in Yamanaka, just a few doors away in the same apartment complex. She explained that tools are often passed from parent to child or teacher to student. Some types are no longer in production. Even when Konishi bought new tools, she modified them to suit her hands and the way she worked. I lost most of these in the Wajima fire.

Ayano Konesh tools for sprinkling gold powder and other precious metals. Hannah Kirchner/The World

There has been a huge outpouring of support for Wajima artisans. Craftsmen from all over Japan sent tools, and crowdfunding campaigns received donations from around the world. Because of all this interest, Wajima craftsmen who can work are busier than ever. In contrast, Yamanaka's woodworkers are busy making bases for themselves.

“We aim to return to Wajima eventually,” Konishi said.

But clearing the rubble and rebuilding will take years.

Wajima after the earthquake and fire. Courtesy of Ayano Konishi

Throughout her stay in Yamanaka, Konishi wants to gain inspiration from her new environment. Her work is derived from nature and influenced by the people she collaborates with. She recently ordered some wooden bases from a craftsman she met in Yamanaka.

Earthquakes are part of life in Japan. The trades now seen as traditional were events, natural resources and the movement of people. If more Wajima craftsmen start working in Yamanaka, these two cities and their crafts may become more interconnected. Some craftsmen hope that this will strengthen them and allow them to continue to develop throughout history.




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