Hida Shunkei laquerware

Shunkei lacquerware - rooted in Hida Takayama’s woodwork tradition

Hida Shunkei laquerware

Shunkei lacquerware originated in the city of Takayama, which is situated in the northern part of Gifu Prefecture inside the densely forested Hida region. Commonly referred to as ‘Hida Takayama’, the city and its surrounding area are celebrated for their master craftspeople who have been producing outstanding woodwork for centuries.

One such example is Shunkei lacquerware, which is created by applying a distinct variety of lacquer peculiar to Hida Takayama to wooden objects.

The roots of this technique can be traced back to 1607 CE. During the construction of the shrines and temples in Takayama Castle, Takahashi Kizaemon, a master carpenter, became fascinated by the beauty of the sawara cypress tree's grain (Chamaecyparis pisifera), which he split while working. He utilized the split wood as a baseboard, attached a rim made of bentwood and Japanese cherry tree bark (Prunus serrulata), and created a clamshell-shaped tray. The tray was presented to Shigechika (Munekazu), son of castle lord Kanamori Arishige, who liked it so much that he ordered lacquer painter Narita Sanemon to apply lacquer to the tray in a way that complemented the grain of the wood. Narita applied a transparent lacquer which was given the name Shunkei.

Initially, Shunkei lacquer was mainly used for tea utensils, but during the Edo period (1603 - 1867 CE) the production of household items such as trays and stacked boxes increased, making the items accessible to a wider range of people.

Production methods and techniques

Hida Shunkei lacquerware utilizes different production methods that can be divided into three main categories. Woodworkers choose the technique that best makes use of the inherent properties of the wood they are working with.

The first category, itamono, involves joining boards together to create the form of the piece. Magemano, the second category, entails bending thin strips of wood into a circular or elliptical shape and attaching them to a baseboard. Typically, Japanese cedar (sugi, Cryptomeria japonica) is used for itamono and magemono due to its softness and beautiful grain. Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) is another suitable material for surface work.

The third category, hikimono, employs a lathe to shape the wood. Japanese horse chestnut (Aesculus turbinata) is the preferred material for this method due to the hardness of the white wood, making it easier to carve on a lathe.

Hida Shunkei lacquerware was designated a ‘Traditional Craft of Japan’ in 1975.