November 8, 2023

The Art of Urushi – Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure

What is Urushi?

Urushi is a natural sap obtained from the urushi tree, which is found primarily in Japan, China, and the Korean peninsula. This sap changes when exposed to air and moisture, hardening into a durable, glossy coating.
It has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries, in part because Japan’s climate is just right for this phenomenon.

Lacquer tree(Scratch and collect sap)

Urushi and Japan

In Japan, Urushi lacquer is more than just a material. It represents a deeply rooted tradition. The relationship between urushi lacquer and the Japanese people dates back to the Jomon period (ca. 14,000-300 B.C.). Artifacts from this period indicate that lacquer was used not only for its durability and beauty but also for its waterproofing and antibacterial properties. Urushi lacquer has always maintained its prestigious status, being used in Buddhist ceremonies, tea ceremonies, and even on samurai armor.

samurai armor

About Urushi Arts

Urushi artisans carefully apply layers and layers of Urushi lacquer to create pieces that are both functional and exceptionally beautiful. Traditional items include bowls, boxes, and trays, but modern uses extend to furniture and interior decorations. Combining the labor-intensive process with the natural beauty of the art, each piece is both a work of art and a testament to the artisan’s skill.
The high quality of Japanese Urushi lacquer crafts has also allowed them to be exported around the world via the Nanban trade since the Middle Ages.

Lacquer kneading

Lacquer Techniques of Urushi Artwork

Kanshitsu (Dry Lacquer)

This is a technique in which a prototype is made of wood or plaster, and the shape is formed by pasting linen over the prototype with lacquer. It was widely used for Buddhist statues of the Nara period (710-794), including the national treasures Ashura at Kofukuji Temple and Ganjin Wajo at Toshodaiji Temple.


Maki-e is a technique that originated in the Nara period (710-794) and has been highly developed since the Heian period (794-1192) and was perfected in the Edo period (1603-1868). The design is drawn in lacquer and sprinkled with gold, silver, or other metal powder or dry lacquer powder (powdered colored lacquer that has dried) before it dries. After drying, the lacquer is coated, hardened, and polished with charcoal in the same way as in the roiro (wax color) process.

Kenji Omachi image
sprinkle gold powder on lacquerware
The Art of Urushi - Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure
polish with charcoal

Raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)

Raden is a technique introduced by Tang China during the Nara period (710-794) to express patterns by cutting the iridescent pearl layer inside the shells of luminous shells, abalones, butterfly shells, etc. The thickness of the shells varies depending on the purpose. 
The thickness of the shell is adjusted according to the purpose of use. The thick shells (about 1 mm) are cut into patterns and fitted into a vessel, or pasted on a vessel and the edges are processed. Originally, those using thick shells were called raden (sea shell inlay), while those using thin shells were called aoigai-zaiku (blue shell inlay).

The Art of Urushi - Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure
Tamamushi raden


This is a technique of cutting thin sheets of gold, silver, tin, etc. into patterns, pasting them on a vessel, applying lacquer, and grinding them.

Tsuishu (carved lacquer)

Tsuishu” is a technique in which vermilion lacquer is applied 70 to 150 times and a pattern is carved into the lacquer. The lacquer is called “Tsuikuro” (black lacquer) or “Tsuikiyo” (yellow lacquer). In the same way as in Tsuishu, several kinds of colored lacquer are applied and carved to express the beauty of the color layers on the cross-section.

Applied Techniques

These decorative techniques are often used in combination to produce a variety of artistic expressions. There are many techniques that flourish in each region, such as chinkin, konjou, and hennuri, which are called “sheath lacquering” or “Henri-nuri-“ because they are elaborately applied to sword sheaths, and there are 2,000 or 3,000 different techniques.

Urushi and Kintsugi (Lacquer and Kintsugi) 

Kintsugi, literally meaning “golden fittings,” is a philosophy and art form that uses lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum powder to repair broken pieces of pottery. This method not only restores an object but transforms it into a new work of art, celebrating its flaws and history. It reflects the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection and transience.

kintsugi image

↓ Please click here to see the lacquer artists exhibiting at Kogei Art KYOTO.

The Art of Urushi - Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure
Lacquer Artist Koken Murata
The Art of Urushi - Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure
Lacquer Artist Kenji Omachi
The Art of Urushi - Lacquer and Its Timeless Allure
Lacquer Artist Issey Hattori