Arts & Entertainment

Aizuwakamatsu: Fukushima’s unnoticed Japanese crafts jewel

By Maria Roldan

Aizuwakamatsu, Japan, Apr 1 (efe-epa).- Tucked between the Fukushima mountains, Aizuwakamatsu is a bucolic and unnoticed city in northeastern Japan with an artisanal tradition of lacquers and ceramics dating back more than 400 years that languishes because of depopulation.

Surrounded by rice fields and natural landscapes such as Lake Inawashiro or Mount Bandai, a stratovolcano, the town is known for its legacy linked to feudal warriors. It’s also famous for having been the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war that faced supporters of the shogunate and the emperor in the 19th century, the Boshin War, which marked the decline of the samurai.

It was protected by a feudal lord, Gamo Ujisato, who ruled Aizuwakamatsu (or Tsuruga) castle after being named lord of Aizu by the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi, when the city began producing lacquerware in the last decade of the 16th century.

The people of the region embraced lacquer as part of their culture and it soon became one of the most important production centers, with the process managed entirely in the area, from the cultivation of trees to the elaboration of the final product.

The so-called Aizu-nuri is characterized by its glossy black and red lacquer, obtained from iron oxide and mercury; and the decorations with the maki-e technique, which highlights parts of the lacquer with powders formerly gold and currently in various colors obtained from tinted aluminum, master Kousai Nakamura said.

Although the main base of the utensils and furniture that are used is still wood, Nakamura recognizes that plastic is used more and more to lower costs and products.

The masterful strokes by hand have also given way to the use of prints to speed up the decoration.

Nakamura, 65, has more than four decades of experience in the art of lacquering and is part of the Suzuzen company, founded in 1832 by Suzuki Zenkuro, the supplier of lacquer to the clan that ruled the fiefdom at the time.

But, as he told EFE, he was not trained in Aizuwakamatsu, but in Kanazawa, on the western coast of the country.

Despite there being hundreds of businesses dedicated to the lacquer business in the city, they have been drastically reduced. In 1987 there were 183 and today, 34. The drop in demand and the lack of successors at the helm of the companies are the main reasons.

The town, with 118,500 inhabitants, is going through a delicate depopulation situation, with an annual reduction of about a thousand people. 60 percent of Aizu University students are from outside the territory and 80 percent find work abroad.

With the aim that the centuries-old techniques of Aizu-nuri would not be forgotten, the local union that manages the lacquer business established a committee in 1971 to welcome people who wanted to learn them and pass them on to new generations.

In addition to mastering the art of lacquer, the inhabitants of Aizu found another sector of development in ceramics.

That’s where the Aizu Hongo was born, the oldest type of pottery in the Tohoku region that, once again, settled in the municipality at the hand of Ujisato, when he had the tiles made for the renovation work of the Tsuruga castle.

This led to the subsequent manufacture of everyday ceramic pieces such as cups, teapots, vases or sake jars, up to the most modern electrical insulators.

At the time of greatest popularity there were more than a hundred potteries in the city, but today there are 13.

One of them is Ryumonyaki. Founded in 1902, today it is the main supplier of electrical insulators for poles to the largest electricity company in Tohoku and Kanto, where Tokyo is located.

An average of between 1,000 and 1,500 pieces a day come out of its ovens made from a precious stone extracted from Mount Okubo, said Manager Junichi Watanabe, who keeps the business open to visitors.

But the artisan charms of Aizu, popular with hikers and skiers, continue to go largely unnoticed by travelers.

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