June 15, 2023

Kyoto Seasonal Diary: Rainy Season and the Art of Lacquer

As we pen this article, the city of Kyoto is in the embrace of the rainy season, known in Japan as ‘tsuyu’. Japan’s seasons are distinctly divided into spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The rainy season signifies the advent of summer, typically a period from early June to mid-July, characterized by an abundance of cloudy or rainy days. While this meteorological phenomenon is not unique to Japan but rather widespread throughout East Asia, it does not affect Hokkaido and the Ogasawara Islands in Japan.

This year, the onset of the rainy season in Kyoto was earlier than usual, and it was declared at the end of May. Despite the gloom that continuous rainy days may bring to many, it is a season ideally suited to the blooming of hydrangeas. Along one of Kyoto’s main streets, Oike-dori, a burst of hydrangeas in various colors blossoms in full glory, delighting the eyes of passersby.

Kyoto Seasonal Diary: Rainy Season and the Art of Lacquer
Kyoto Seasonal Diary: Rainy Season and the Art of Lacquer
Kyoto Seasonal Diary: Rainy Season and the Art of Lacquer

Japanese culture still strongly upholds the tradition of outdoor laundry drying, and the wet weather can be troublesome, making it harder for clothes to dry. But there’s one thing in Japan that dries faster with higher humidity: lacquer.

Lacquer, known as “urushi” in Japanese, is a resin extracted from the trunk of the lacquer tree, or refined from it. It has been used as a coating material in Japan since ancient times. Thanks to its robustness, durability, and ease of decoration, it has been widely used for daily utensils such as soup bowls and tiered boxes used for celebrations, as well as buildings, Buddha statues, and artwork that symbolize each era. Even today, it continues to support Japanese life and culture.

Lacquer kneading

In the process of applying lacquer, the ideal conditions for the applied lacquer to dry are a humidity of 75% to 85% and a temperature of 20 to 30 degrees Celsius. If the humidity is lower than this, the lacquer won’t dry. But in an environment with excessive humidity, such as the rainy season, it will dry too quickly and won’t result in a beautiful finish.

With the advent of modern appliances like humidifiers and air conditioners, maintaining constant humidity and temperature has become less challenging. However, during times when electricity was not available, various ingenious methods were developed, such as the “urushiburo” storage box.

As you navigate the rainy days, consider the delicate balance that Kyoto craftsmen and artists are mastering between nature’s elements and their cherished art form of lacquerware. Just like the hydrangeas flourishing in the rain, so too does the beauty of lacquerware continue to bloom in Japan’s rainy season.

Click here to see the artworks of Urushi (Lacquer)