This artisan who is also an avid skateboarder creates his own lacquer for his skateboards
From skateboards to Bearbrick toys, Takuya Tsutsumi is determined to showcase how urushi or lacquer is relevant in modern times too.
From temples to Zen gardens and Shinto shrines, Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto offers a cornucopia of cultural treasures. It is also where many of the country’s multi-generational traditional businesses are still based.
One of these is Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi, a workshop that refines Japanese lacquer or urushi, a craft which requires years of training and practice to perfect. Takuya Tsutsumi is the fourth generation in his family to run this 114-year-old business and his love for this traditional art form was cultivated from his childhood.
“My great grandfather, Asakichi, started this lacquer shop and the factory was my grandfather’s house. When I came to visit as a young boy, my grandfather used lacquer to make or repair things,” he recalled.
“Once I brought a broken toy plane made of clay here and my grandfather used lacquer to repair the broken wing for me. To me, lacquer encompasses both the kindness of my grandfather and also the fact that many things could be made out of it.”
Urushi is used in a lot of traditional products such as tableware, decorative items, home furnishings, as well as doors and screens. The lacquer coating is made from the sap of decade-old urushi trees and has been used for over 10,000 years.
The sap collection and refining process is a laborious one that requires great skill. Tsutsumi refines the urushi by filtering, stirring and heating it ‒ a process that requires a month to complete.
“Lacquer changes like a living thing and is affected by the humidity and temperature of the day. And of course, the quality of the sap also changes according to the person who collected it,” he said, explaining that the viscosity, colour, gloss and rate of maturation is tailored to meet his needs and purposes.
“What I find attractive about lacquer is the link between humans and nature ‒ it is a material that is recyclable. The material is retrieved from nature and made from nature. Lacquer is the only paint that hardens with moisture and the human body is largely made up from water so lacquer feels good on the human skin,” he continued.
Since many traditional products are delicate and have to be handled with care, there is a misconception that lacquer is a “weak” material. But that is not the case. “It is totally unaffected even if you put acid or alkaline onto it. People forget about such potentials of lacquer,” said Tsutsumi.Even though this material is surprisingly versatile, it has gradually become less popular over the years, with the yearly consumption for lacquer sharply dropping from 500 tonnes to just 23 tonnes in recent times.
This is perhaps in part due to how difficult it is to master the use of this material. In the past, urushi refiners had to mix lacquer by hand under the sun to give it a shiny finish. These days, a machine is used to mix the urushi but it is still no easy task to refine the material. Tsutsumi said: “In lacquer making, controlling the timing is extremely difficult. It’s still difficult for me.”
There are currently only about 10 remaining urushi refining workshops left in Japan that make urushi from scratch. Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi is one of them and the lacquer the workshop produces is used in the restoration of national treasures and precious cultural properties.
To prevent the craft from dying out, Tsutsumi decided that he had to do something to spread awareness about urushi. In 2016, he started a project called urushi-no-ippo (A first step in Japanese lacquer) to showcase the potential of lacquer to the next generation. He collaborates with artists to reimagine how lacquer can be used in a modern way that appeals to younger customers. For instance, he has applied lacquer to kettles as well as trendy Bearbrick toy figurines.
“I hope to reach out to people who find the natural material great but think it is irrelevant to them. I wanted to show that you can use lacquer in a rough manner too, so I used it on surfboards and skateboards,” said Tsutsumi, who is an avid skateboarder.
The lacquered skateboards do get scratched and scuffed up with use but to him, these marks actually add to the appeal of the item, just like how leather acquires character as it patinas over time. He said: “It is the same as leather and denim products. Lacquer is actually very strong and will become more beautiful when used.”
To ensure the sustainability of this rarefied craft, in 2019, Tsutsumi began an initiative to plant lacquer trees in Keihouku, a woodland area located an hour north of Kyoto. These days, less than one tonne of local lacquer is used in Japan, he said. It is a trend he hopes to reverse, although it will take 15 years for a lacquer tree to fully mature.
“The decreasing usage of lacquer results in environmental issues. I hope to create touchpoints between humans and lacquer and between humans and nature and I hope my children can live on a beautiful planet,” he said.
One of the most useful aspects of urushi is how it can actually be incorporated into daily life in small but significant ways. “There are so many wonders about lacquer. I really love it. When an item turns old, you can repair and reuse it. That is what the Japanese have been doing since the past so that you can continue using the same product for a long time,” he said.
From surfboards to skateboards, lacquer coating is applied to a diverse array of products and this dying art of refining Japanese lacquer or urushi is a craft that requires years of training and practice to perfect. Here’s how this fouth-generation Japanese owner of a urushi workshop is continuing this legacy that his family has safeguarded for over a century.
Through his efforts, he hopes to continue this legacy that his family has safeguarded for over a century. “I received loads of love ‒ and lacquer ‒ from my grandfather, that is why I am able to do this job now. I hope that I can pass on to the next generation what has shaped me, while enjoying what I am doing.”
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living (Season 5). Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.