Interview: Noritake Satō, expert urushi lacquer craftsman leading restoration work at UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nikkō Shrines and Temples.
The ‘Nikkō Shrines and Temples’ complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising a number of significant religious buildings and their natural surroundings, is currently undergoing large-scale restoration work. This twenty-year project, dubbed the Heisei Restoration, is now in its eleventh year, with repairs on the main hall at Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine well underway.
Much of the work on the massive and ornately decorated timber structures involves restoring the timber and renewing the urushi lacquer coating that protects the wood from the elements.
Manabi-Japan visited Nikkō and spoke to urushi craftsman, Noritake Satō. An expert in urushi lacquer and its use in restoration work, Satō san is currently immersed in this project, which involves researching and using the same techniques used 400 years ago in the Edo Period. As he approaches retirement, Satō san is committed to ensuring that this know-how is preserved for future generations.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikko’ consists of 103 religious buildings contained within two Shintō shrines (Nikkō Tōshōgū Shine and Futarasan-jinja Shrine) and one Buddhist temple (Rinnō-ji Temple). The World Heritage Site also includes the outstanding natural setting in which these buildings are located. The organisation in charge of repairing and maintaining these treasured cultural properties is the ‘Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples’.
Traditional urushi, a natural and extremely durable lacquer obtained from the sap of the Japanese sumac tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), is used to safeguard the heritage timber structures from the elements; protecting the wood from wind, rain and damaging ultraviolet rays, as well as preventing decay and strengthening the timber against splitting.
Above: Under the eaves of the main building at Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine. Base coats of lacquer are applied and then painstakingly sanded. This process is repeated over and over to form a durable and impermeable coating which can then be beautifully finished.
The work of Edo Period craftsmen revealed in the layers
Wherever possible, the lacquer is applied using the same methods as those used by craftsmen almost 400 years ago in the Edo Period, when the buildings were first decorated. Edo Period methods are analysed by sanding through the layers and examining them under magnification. In the same way that the growth rings of a tree offer a window into the past, the work of Edo Period craftsmen is visible in the layers that are revealed. Information is also gleaned from old documents such as bills and accounts.
Satō san explains why the work is done so painstakingly. “These cultural assets will be preserved for future generations and my own work will still be seen by people in a hundred years’ time. I’d like to think that I’m leaving behind something that has been done with care.”
At one time, the urushi lacquer industry, which is mainly concentrated around the town of Jōbōji in Iwate Prefecture, faced serious issues. Low demand coupled with a shortage of young people willing to enter the industry threatened its viability. Now, however, Japanese urushi has really begun to attract interest. The number of urushi-kaki (sap collectors) in Iwate has increased. While Jōbōji is still the main production area, other prefectures have recently begun producing urushi of excellent quality, and more people are planting Japanese sumac (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) trees whose sap yields the precious lacquer.
Above left: Craftsmen apply base coats of lacquer to the handrails at the Tōshōgū Shrine in winter. Winters in Nikkō are harsh. Urushi becomes brittle if it freezes before it has a chance to dry, so from November the area being worked on is shrouded in plastic to insulate the lacquer from the cold. Above right: Once the base coats have dried, urushi is used as an adhesive to bond layers of linen fabric to the timber. Much like fibreglass-reinforced timber in marine construction, the layers of cloth and lacquer strengthen and prolong the life of the underlying timber, protecting it from moisture and preventing splitting.
All the lacquer used in the current major restoration is domestically produced, in contrast to the previous restoration project, which was carried out from 1951. Satō san tells us that there was not enough domestically-produced lacquer in Japan to complete the work at that time, so lacquer had to be imported from China.
Japanese lacquer is sourced from different areas, which, according to Satō san, adds its own challenges. The natural properties and drying time of the lacquer vary, depending on where it was produced, how the sap was extracted from the tree and how it was refined. The craftsman needs to understand these properties and know how to handle the various types of urushi. However, the finished result is beautiful and extraordinarily durable.
Satō san is determined to preserve his accumulated knowledge and skills. “I’ve been working with Japanese urushi ever since I started out in this profession and it’s taken me years to master it, building up my experience on the basis of trial and error. Now that I’m approaching retirement age, I feel that I really have to pass on my knowledge of Japanese urushi to the next generation, while I still have time.”
Above left: Urushi from Jōbōji in Iwate Prefecture. Because Japanese urushi is very thick, it has to be applied with a wooden spatula, rather than with a brush. Above right: Detail of work on the decorative carvings. Damaged parts are replaced with new wood.
Passing on valuable knowledge to the next generation.
Noritake Satō heads the team of urushi lacquer craftsmen working on the project, under the banner of the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples. He explains that external sections of the building and its decorative work receive seventeen coatings of lacquer. This is a forty-step process, once each of the seventeen coats has been applied, allowed to dry and then sanded before the finishing coat is applied.
The large-scale Heisei Restoration project began with Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine in 2007, and is now well underway. The Yōmeimon main gate, as well as the San-zaru (Three Wise Monkeys) and Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carvings have already been completed. Much of the main hall at Tōshōgū is nearly done, with a planned completion date of 2018-2019.
Top: Carvings on the Yōmeimon Gate, a designated national treasure, depict sages and saints, and scenes from ancient tales. Bottom left: The San-zaru (Three Wise Monkeys) carving, an important cultural property. “Mizaru (see no evil), Iwazaru (speak no evil) and Kikazaru (hear no evil)”. Bottom right: The Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat), a national treasure, is often attributed to the legendary sculptor, Hidari Jingorō.
An environmentally friendly and sustainable material worth preserving for future generations.
Japanese urushi lacquer is a sustainable, natural product with many uses. “Urushi is also used as an adhesive for gold leaf”, Satō san tells us. “It is one of the few natural lacquers that does not need to be mixed with a solvent. If the urushi tree is left to rest for a few years after a period of sap harvesting, it will recover enough to be harvested again. Even if it is cut down, it sends up new shoots from the base to replace the fallen trunk. It’s an environmentally friendly and sustainable material. I’d like to make sure these techniques are preserved for future generations. We’re using the same methods that have been used since the Edo Period for the Nikkō Shrines and Temples restoration work. We hope that our work will also support the continued production of urushi in Japan.”
<These videos shows behind-the-scenes footage of Satō san and his team’s work. They are in Japanese, but reasonably easy to follow: Part 1: Restoring the timber and lacquer. Part 2: Painting the carvings.>
Interview Guest Profile
Noritake Satō – Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples.
Noritake Satō, from the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples. A technical expert in the use of traditional Japanese urushi lacquer, Satō san heads a team of five lacquer craftspeople. He started out in commercial interior design, but became a lacquer craftsman when he realised he wanted to work on projects that would endure.
Writer & Editor
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.