Hajime | The Master of Shikki
"Japan has many traditional artisanal crafts, of which shikki is a part. And I want to communicate to, not only Japanese people, but foreign guests as well that such wonderful crafts exist."
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In his studio in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Okawa Hajime, painstakingly creates piece after piece of shikki, the gently luminous Japanese lacquerware originating in the Muromachi period of over 600 years ago. Like many artisans, Hajime's family roots are intertwined with his craft, as his grandfather and father were both skilled lacquerware craftsmen. Although initially somewhat reluctant, Hajime leaned into the craft himself in his 20s, carrying on the family business, reflecting: 'Once you gain more experience and things start to take shape, it becomes increasingly enjoyable' A labor intensive process, it is said that it takes about 10 years to gain the skills necessary to even start out as a shikki craftsman. After the many, many years of honing his craft, today Hajime continues to promote the dying traditional art of shikki, a tradition which his family has helped sustain, and which in turn has sustained his family.
Shining with a glossy, deep finish, the red and black Japanese lacquerware is authentically inspired by nature, with the core of shikki and the lacquer itself both originating from trees. The organic lacquer is made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which is collected by scraping the trees, and refining and aging the sap. After the core wood is shaped using a lathe and dried using various methods, the first layer of urushi is applied to the wood. This only is the first in many layer of patient applications of urushi. Black lacquer is applied second, in the process of irourushi-nuri, and further layerers of black or red lacquer can be applied depending on what color the final product will be. Finally, the final step is kijiro-nuri, where clear lacquer is applied, culminating in many layers of lacquer that eventually render the underlying wood resistant to water, salt, alkali, acid, and alcohol and thus also preventing it from rotting. This completely natural lacquer means that the shikki is completely safe for human use, and the smooth finish and rich, inviting sheen of the lacquer, makes shikki perfect vessels for food as well.
Hajime employs the Odawara Shikki method, a particular lacquerware style that originated in the city of Odawara where he is based. Since its beginnings in the mid-Muromachi Period (1338-1573) when it was born out of the abundant lumber resources of the Hakone mountain area on the outskirts of Odawara, Odawara Shikki is now considered a government-designated traditional craft. Hajime explains that since Odawara lacquer ware is relatively reasonable, and holds up well to everyday use, it's a style of shikki that you might see one or two pieces of in the average Japanese household. What characterizes Odawara Shikki is the usage of keyaki trees (Japanese Zelkova trees), and the semi-transparent lacquer style that draws attention to the natural grain of wood. Rather than any man-made design, Odawara Shikki utilizes the naturally occurring patterns in the wood, creating a subdued product that pays respect to the source from which it came.
In spite of his initial reluctance in his earlier years to become a third-generation Odawara Shikki craftsman, Hajime today is a celebrant of the craft, and was even commissioned to make shikki pieces for a meal for the emperor and empress of Japan. Feeling the realities of the declining number of shikki artisans, Hajime predicts challenges for the world of traditional Japanese craftsmanship, but believes in the enduring, glowing appeal of shikki. "Japan has many traditional artisanal crafts, of which shikki is a part. And I want to communicate to, not only Japanese people, but foreign guests as well that such wonderful crafts exist."
Author: Jeweliann Houlette