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Urushi Lacquer Refiner ,Takuya Tsutsumi : Cruising the Streets on a Lacquered Skateboard

People

Urushi Lacquer Refiner ,Takuya Tsutsumi : Cruising the Streets on a Lacquered Skateboard

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KYOTO CRAFTS MAGAZINE was established with the aim of observing, reporting, and archiving the current and future aspects of lifestyle, culture, and industry of the locally rooted crafts and the people involved with them.

Content Partner

KYOTO CRAFTS MAGAZINE was established with the aim of observing, reporting, and archiving the current and future aspects of lifestyle, culture, and industry of the locally rooted crafts and the people involved with them.

Takuya Tsutsumi was born into the family that runs the Japanese lacquer shop Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi founded in 1909, and he joined the family business in 2004. Takuya is both an expert in, and a passionate admirer of, urushi  (Japanese lacquer). He has launched a project aimed at teaching kids about the fun of urushi, urushi no ippo, and he even painted items that he enjoys using in his leisure time such as skateboards and bicycles in urushi. Hearing about the reputation of those skateboards looking amazingly stylish, and not a bit tacky, Takeuchi Atsushi (culture writer) visited him.
 
Takuya Tsutsumi / Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi Co. Ltd. Managing Director
Takuya Tsutsumi graduated from the School of Agriculture , Hokkaido University , and after experiencing work in other fields, he started working at Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi Co. Ltd. in 2004. He is mainly involved in the filtering, refining, and compounding of urushi lacquer to create products suitable for specialized usage in traditional industries, and in restoration work. In 2016, he started an activity project that introduces the appeals and potentials of urushi to the next generation, called urushi-no-ippo (A First Step in Japanese Lacquer), and is organizing workshop visits as well as pamphlet productions for students. He is also currently creating signs for two shops that opened this February(2017) on Ebisugawa Street near Teramachi Street(central Kyoto), NEEZA (beauty salon), and LAMP (skateboarding shop), using urushi-lacquered skateboard decks.

-----I think many people, including myself, think of urushi-lacquered items as things that need to be handled with extra care, so it’s a little surprising to see that the lacquered skateboard you’re holding is covered with scratches.

I myself like the way things get scratched or rusty by being used over time. This scratch-covered skateboard is the one my friend Inada is using. I painted urushi on a deck that was out of use because it got a crack in the nose, but now it’s getting pretty scuffed up again.
I think it would be nice to try lacquering this over again. Then, the urushi would penetrate deeply into the scratches, resulting in a darker shade there. As a result, I imagine that the scratches might look like designs. That would make the continued use for many years an even more meaningful experience.

-----That sounds like the way we enjoy worn-out jeans. I don’t know much about the world of urushi, but is that way of thinking common?

No, it’s not acceptable in the urushi business. In fact, many lacquerware products are treated with gloves, so they don’t even get fingerprints on them. Of course, there’s nothing wrong about that, but as a result, I also feel that there’s a growing distance between ordinary people and urushi. One of my friends even misread the kanji character for urushi: he read it as “tatami” instead of as “urushi” (laughter).
Takuya’s friend, Mr.Inada’s skateboard. Takuya says, “These scratches make me happy!” He feels joy in the transformation that has occurred. It’s not kept looking brand new, and instead, the signs of use have become visible.

----- I can relate to what you said about urushi becoming distant from our everyday lives.

To me, skateboarding is a part of my everyday life, and it’s something that I am greatly influenced by. That’s why I happened to come up with the idea of lacquering skateboards, thinking that it might help others feel that urushi culture is closer to everyday life. Also, my instinct has always told me that urushi is something cool, even before I had knowledge about it.

----- I see, so the urushi-lacquered skateboard is the natural result created by linking the two worlds that are important to you. By the way, when was it that you started thinking of urushi as being “cool”?

My great-grandfather founded the Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi, so I’m the fourth generation. But I was never told to take over the family business, so I went to a university in Hokkaido without knowing anything about urushi, and I intended to stay there and never return. However, when I was about 27, I was asked to come back because they needed help in the workshop. Until then, I didn’t know anything more about urushi than the fact that it’s a kind of tree sap. Even so, I always thought that my Grandpa was cool, ever since I was a small child.

----- So your grandfather also worked with urushi.

That’s right. The workshop of Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi was also my Grandpa’s house. There was urushi there, and if a wing of my clay airplane would break, then Grandpa would quickly put some urushi on and fix it for me. I remember that scene very clearly. And, he would also do things like painting urushi on an origami crane made out of a large sheet of paper. Urushi can work as both an adhesive and as a structure. At that time, I didn’t know about such things, but I thought that Grandpa was a really cool person.

----- I heard that you also have a child.

I haven’t repaired anything for my child yet, but I did make a cup for him. My son is really into jaguars these days, so I worked hard on carving out the jaguar and applying the urushi. But, he said, “The jaguar is looking at me. It’s scary.” And never uses it ….
This is Takuya’s masterpiece as a father, the jaguar cup. On the back, his son’s favorite phrase, “the all-mighty hunter, jaguar,” is engraved.

-----I wonder if the day will come when your son will reach out to this cup, specially painted with colored-urushi of yellow and green for him, or not……. On the other hand, though, you’re not actually an artisan of the lacquering process, are you?

The Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi is an urushi lacquer shop. We buy the urushi sap from Japan and China, refine it, compound it according to the customer’s needs, and sell it. People often ask me, “So, you do urushi lacquering?” but really, it’s like a hobby for me.

-----When I thought about urushi, the act of applying the urushi lacquer to the final product always came to my mind, but now I understand that there are many more people involved in the urushi industry.

Exactly. Usually, the media focuses on the urushi artists or the final products like lacquerwares. I want more people to know about the parts that take place before that, like about the areas that produce the urushi sap, and the urushi tree itself.

----- This time, on visiting the Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi workshop, many things have surprised me. Firstly, the freshness of natural urushi. I knew that urushi is tapped from the urushi tree, but when I see it gathered in the wooden pails, I think it looks almost like honey. I know it may seem funny to say so, but it looks yummy.

Actually, that’s how it looks to me, too (laughter). But, this is just raw tree sap, so it needs to go through many procedures such as filtering, maturing, kneading, and heating to achieve the desired gloss and dryness. Urushi is a natural material, and as a matter of course, each raw urushi has its own qualities, so it’s very challenging to predict the outcomes and achieve the desired conditions. 
Takuya opened a pail of raw urushi from Chengkou, China, to show me. Impurities such as the gummy matter have precipitated at the bottom, so first, the consistency needs to be made uniform. Then the qualities of this urushi are carefully observed before the refining process takes place.

-----I was also surprised to learn that Urushi products are basically all custom made. Each urushi lacquer as a product is made from raw urushi accordingly to the client’s requests. The procedures themselves are very interesting. When you think about the recent trend of sake brewery tours, it seems to me that urushi refining sites could also be attracting more attention.

Actually, I have a friend who makes wine in New Zealand, and he seems really fascinated by my work. Every time he comes to Kyoto, he stops by at our workshop. However, ordinary people may buy wine and sake, but they wouldn’t purchase urushi.
The site of refining. Until a few years ago, no one ever saw inside the workshop because it was never opened to the public. Takuya uses Dickie’s coveralls as his uniform, but he also owns a pair of Japanese-style work clothes for when he needs to look more “Japanese-like” to the overseas media.

----- I see, so you’re saying that there may be somethings in common with a winery, but it’s not ordinary households that buy urushi. Please let me take advantage of this opportunity, and learn more about urushi.

I learned about the many fascinating and unique aspects of urushi after I joined the urushi business when I was 27, but what I find most attractive about urushi is that it’s tree sap that is tapped from the urushi tree. There are the people that plant the trees, people that grow the trees, people that tap the trees, people that refine the raw urushi like me, people that do the lacquering, and people that use the lacquered products. If this cycle circulates well, then the urushi industry is sure to be sustainable and Earth-friendly. Especially since urushi-lacquered products can be repaired and used over a long period of time. 

-----So it’s a truly organic material. Now, I’m starting to feel closer to urushi.

I also go surfing and snowboarding. I’m convinced that the world of urushi shouldn’t seem foreign to the sense of values of people like me who enjoy the ocean, or the snowy mountains. It’s fun to spend time in nature, and there are times when we feel overwhelmed by the power of nature beyond human control, like when a big wave swallows us. I want to share the wonders of urushi with people like that, people that are keen to nature, or people that take actions thinking about nature. I’m on my way with a project which links our precious sea and mountains together to create opportunities for a wide range of people to learn more about urushi. 

-----Your story made me realize that the culture of urushi could exist closely to the lifestyle of enjoying the outdoors and surfing.

I’m glad you think so, but actually, I’ve been told that “it’s a waste of urushi” to lacquer skateboards. I know it’s not making any business for our company, and maybe there’s not much importance in doing it, but still, I’m certain that I should be doing projects like these. Because, although we might be getting enough business now, as a whole, the urushi industry is facing a grave situation.
When he skateboards, he’s usually cruising the streets. When he’s in the mood, he might go from around Senbon-Marutamachi to Kawaramachi-Gojo (central Kyoto).

-----I hear that the urushi industry is continuing to shrink.

First of all, the domestic consumption of urushi is continuing to decrease dramatically, and now it’s only about 50 tons. Even compared to when I started working here, it’s become half. Moreover, 98% out of that is made from urushi grown in China, and only 2% is from domestically grown urushi. The amount of production is small, and the people working on the sites are aging. Although a new policy was introduced to regulate the use of domestic urushi for repairing Cultural Assets, there are very few people working in the production areas of raw urushi. To make matters worse, because of the preconceived negative image of urushi, even the places known to be a producing area of raw urushi sometimes face oppositions against plans for planting new urushi trees.

----- Perhaps they are worried about getting skin rashes.

Exactly. I think that if you see it another way, it could change to a positive image. Firstly, It is a unique feature of urushi that it interacts with the human body. In fact, I often work in the workshop, only wearing a T-shirt. Secondly, if you reinterpret planting urushi trees as a form of agriculture, then it might be possible to find ways to increase the yield. And if the image of urushi changes, then more people might feel willing to start working in the urushi producing areas or other fields of the urushi industry.
This bicycle frame has been experimentally lacquered by urushi. A type of semi-transparent urushi usually used to bring out the grain of wooden bases, called “Aka-ro-iro” is used, but Takuya re-named it “Tetsu-ro-iro (tetsu meaning iron).” The reason is that the iron frame can be seen through the urushi coating.

-----“Urushi is caustic, expensive, and difficult to handle.” That’s the automatic response to urushi, but the truth is that not many people know very much about urushi.

The problem is so big and difficult to tackle by myself. Still, I hope that more people will have opportunities to feel a connection with urushi, and notice that it can be a useful material for us. That way, even if the product costs extra because it uses urushi, people still might choose to buy products that use urushi, like when we treat ourselves to nice clothes. So I want to take the initiative in creating as many chances as possible for people to encounter urushi.

----- The urushi-lacquered skateboards and bicycles are still just one of your experiments. Nevertheless, through interviewing you, I realized that your goal that lies beyond your trial and errors is finding a way to convey how cool urushi is, rather than commercializing the products.

Maybe so. For now, I’m able to continue my business. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t really have to try so hard because at least my generation might get by somehow (laughter). But then, at the next moment, I think that’s no good: If urushi is gone, I will not be able to pass down anything to my son because I will lose the very thing I want to pass down to him, so I should make all I efforts I can to pass this down to the next generation. I repeatedly go back and forth between these two sentiments. 
 
Tsutsumi Asakichi Urushi
Address: 540 Inari-cho, Ainomachi-dori Matsubara-agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel:075-351-6279
URL: www.kourin-urushi.com
urushi no ippo project URL: www.urushinoippo.com
 
INTERVIEW
TEXT BY ATSUSHI TAKEUCHI
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MASUHIRO MACHIDA
 
17.07.26 WED 19:32

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KYOTO CRAFTS MAGAZINE was established with the aim of observing, reporting, and archiving the current and future aspects of lifestyle, culture, and industry of the locally rooted crafts and the people involved with them.