An Enchanted Expedition In Kyoto

I have just returned from two and a half wonderful weeks in Japan, leading an intrepid, engaged and enriching group of eight travelers through Kyoto and Shikoku. The trip turned out to be full of magic and delight, but as I began the journey, before I knew how it would turn out, I had turned for inspiration and encouragement to the memory of an earlier journey – my very first time as a tour leader, when I had led two American travelers on an autumn tour of Tokyo, Kyoto and rural Honshu. Here is a tale from that initial tour:

On our first full day in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, we began with visits to three back-alley shops where traditional tofu delicacies, delicate fans and tatami mats are made. Then, when the husband of the couple I was accompanying mentioned that his mother used to love lacquerware and had a considerable collection in California, our local guide perked up. ”Oh, then I know just where we must go,” she said, hailing a cab. ”Zohiko!”

From the moment we walked into its hushed confines, Zohiko seemed more a museum than a retail store. Three men and a woman in crisp dark suits greeted us with bows. The ground floor consisted of two spacious rooms elegantly arranged with wooden shelves and mounted display cases showcasing an extraordinary assemblage of lacquerware. There were exquisite soup bowls and small plates, flower containers, round boxes, square boxes, sake sets, green tea cup saucers, large serving trays and small personal trays, multi-layered boxes and decorative plates, all in sleek black, red and gold, adorned with intricate flowers, rolling waves, fluttering butterflies and bending grasses.

I lingered for a long time studying a set of five black soup bowls, each with a different gorgeous rendering of pine, bamboo, apricot, chrysanthemum and orchid. A strikingly simple pure red tray with two soaring gold cranes in one corner held my eye. And if I’d had enough money, I would have bought a spectacular rectangular black container with layer upon layer of gold depicting a glittering seascape with a single, pine-crowned island in the distance and thin-winged birds flocking on the horizon.

The manager noticed me admiring the last and as we were talking, I mentioned that my companion’s mother had been an ardent collector of lacquerware in America and that discovering Zohiko was a special treat for us. ”Well, then you must come upstairs!” he said, and called to two be-suited associates.

Suddenly, we were all being escorted up a discreet stairway in the back of the showroom to another room with further elegant displays and beyond that a small area where 13, 4-inch by 5-inch, wooden trays were laid out, lacquered and polished to different degrees, illustrating the stages in the creation of lacquerware. One of the assistants began to explain in English, but the manager, clearly so gratified and excited to have foreign guests with a real interest in his own passion, couldn’t stop himself and took over, speaking in a mixture of English and Japanese that our guide translated. First, he showed us the trunk of a lacquer tree from which the sap is extracted. Then, picking up each tray in turn, he described the lacquerware-making process: the selection and shaping of the piece of wood, the laying down of a linen cloth to prevent warping or cracking, the numerous applications of layers of lacquer, followed each time by polishing, first with a whetstone and in the penultimate stage, with soft magnolia charcoal. At this point the assistant reappeared with printed one-page explanations in English and pressed them into our hands with a bow. In the final stage, I read as the manager spoke, ”a coat of clear lacquer is rubbed over the surface with cotton and the piece is polished with deerhorn powder and vegetable oil until it takes on a brilliant luster.”

The manager finished with a smile that mixed relief and glee. As we applauded and bowed and began to head for the stairs, he bent to consult with our guide. ”Wait a moment!” she announced. ”We are having a very special opportunity!”

The manager then summoned another assistant, who led us down the stairs, out the shop’s front door, around the side of the building and through a parking lot into a long, low warehouse. As we entered I caught a whiff of wood and paint. He led us up some narrow stairs to the second floor and a cozy room, about 8 feet square, where a man of perhaps 50, clad in blue jeans and a red and white striped shirt, was sitting cross-legged on a cushion. In front of him was a low red-painted stand, as high as his knees and about 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep. Neatly arranged on this stand were a dozen brushes, a bamboo tube, an engraving tool, three blue-and-white sake cups with paints inside and a tiny plastic bag containing gold pellets.

>The artist was cupping a red lacquered bowl in his hand. Taking up one of the brushes, he dipped it in a rectangular silver palette that was looped on his left thumb and began making fine brushstrokes. After a few minutes, he put that bowl aside and picked up another red-lacquered bowl. Inside this bowl was the white design of a flower. He took up a different brush, and began to lightly trace this design with transparent lacquer. When he had finished, he very intently tapped finely pounded gold dust from the bamboo tube onto the lacquered area. He then gently brushed the gold dust off with a clean cotton cloth, studied the bowl and carefully set it aside, then took up the other bowl and red brush. ”Repeating this process over and over again,” the assistant said in an awed whisper, ”he will create the kind of bowls you see in our showroom. It takes many months – sometimes even a year – to make one bowl.”

We watched the artist tip, tip, tip with his brush, careful, unhurried, moving from bowl to palette and back, seemingly at one with the grain of the wood and the flow of the lacquer. I thought about how this artist came to this workshop every day, week after week, year after year, practicing his craft, focusing on a single bowl, a tip of the lacquered brush, a tap of the bamboo tube, an intricate whole of red and black and gold. I thought of the generations of artists who had practiced this same craft before him, an unending stream of tap and tip and gleam. We watched and watched, and journeyed to an ageless place, sharing an unexpected gift from an ancient sage: the concentrated grace of his hands and his eyes, the quick dip of the fine-tipped brush and the slow liquid strokes on the bowl, the sheen of the lacquer, the glitter of the gold, the pungent scent in the air – a precious piece of Kyoto to hold in our minds, then and now and everywhere.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Silgeo]