Back in March, I participated in a writing competition through Writers in Kyoto. While I didn’t win, I was invited to take part in a local cultural event of some sort. There were two options to choose from: paper lantern-making, and gold paperweight-making. After choosing the latter, I arranged to meet a woman I’ll call Ms. S from the Kyoto Convention and Visitors Bureau at JR Yamashina Station. From there, she would make sure I made it to the workshop and, if necessary, provide translations.
While it was meant to be a group outing, it turned out to be just the two of us on a search for the home of an うるしさん (Urushi-san, someone who works with lacquer/gilding). Urushi-san are the people responsible for things like the gold you can see on Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto; they affix things like very thinly sliced gold to various objects (whether it’s magnets, toy cars, or anything else you can imagine). Of course, they do many other jobs as well, but this was particularly pertinent because the workshop centered around gold leaf stamping.
This was both my and Ms. S’s first time heading into this particular neighborhood of Yamashina. While only ten minutes by taxi from the JR station, we were in a very residential area where the streets had no names listed and the house numbers were all out of order. After the taxi drove off, we had no idea where to go, and unfortunately, neither did the neighbors we asked for guidance. Fortunately, Ms. S had a phone number, and after calling it, my teacher for the day came bustling out of a building from the end of a dead-end street.
Mr. Fujisawa is an older gentleman with a kind smile and a pair of small glasses that ushered us into a tatami room, where we got to sit and admire some examples of his work. He had a gundam, a toy car, magnets, and several other seemingly random objects covered in gold. He got us settled in while explaining what it is that Urushi-san do, and pointed out that we were in a neighborhood with other folks with the same profession. We were given a piece of the gold he uses to play with. When he deposited it into my hands, using a pair of chopsticks, I couldn’t believe it–it was so thin and so light that I felt like I was holding nothing at all. Lighter than tissue paper, it was delicate enough to crumble under just one touch of my finger, and disintegrate entirely into little sparkles on my skin soon after.
As we played with the scraps, Mr. Fujisawa asked me what my products were. Confused by the question, I looked to Ms. S for help. “Uh,” I said eloquently. “I’m a teacher. And write blog posts.”
He shot me a politely quizzical look. “Why would you be interested in this, then?”
What a question.
This led to the discussion of what exactly Ms. S was doing there. She and her organization work with Kyoto Artisans Concierge, in an effort to preserve dying traditions. “Due to the decline in population and lack of interest in these old arts, we’re trying to get the word out about them as much as possible,” Ms. S said. “Stefanie-san is here because she won a writing contest and wanted to learn about your job.”
Not entirely true, but I went with it and nodded when Mr. Fujisawa looked to me for confirmation.
“I see,” was all he said to that, still sounding puzzled. “Well, if that’s the case, shall we start?”
The lesson is meant to take about one hour and costs about 2,000 yen. However, due to our getting lost and then getting lost in chattering, it was already 10:40 (when we were meant to have started at 10:00). Surprised at the time, Ms. S apologized and took her leave, citing a need to get back to her office. Mr. Fujisawa asked if I had time and I confirmed I did, so the lesson began.
Step One: Choose your object
Mr. Fujisawa had a small straw basket of stones sitting on the table between us, and the first step was asking me to choose whatever I wanted to stamp from said basket. I had no idea what to look for, so I picked a small, round stone with a crack down one side.
Step Two: Cover it in stuff
There are multiple ways to lacquer things, and I do not claim to be an expert. Nor do I claim to be an expert in Japanese, which was the language this lesson was held in, so some terminology and explanations admittedly flew over my head. However, the lacquer material that Urushi-san tend to use, my teacher explained, is something you need to have experience to safely use. He gestured to his arms, where I spotted several dark patches- presumably from the tube of うるし in his hands. “You have to be really careful with this stuff,” he said ruefully, “because it’s no fun dealing with it once it gets on you.”
(Looking it up later, the real lacquer substance is apparently poisonous to the touch until it dries. Yikes!)
Thankfully, he suggested we use another tube, this one based from cashew nuts rather than being the genuine lacquer stuff. I agreed.
He deposited some of the goop from said tube onto a paper plate, then produced a traditional wooden brush for me to admire. The bristles were short and incredibly stiff, while the handle was very long. “Normally I use this for my job,” he explained. “But, this is your first time, and these are quite expensive. So, today, we’ll be using… toothbrushes!” He produced them from behind himself, beaming.
I put on some plastic gloves, and then proceeded to scoop up the goop with the bristles on the toothbrush. I was to apply a liberal coating of the stuff to every inch of the stone, trying to do so evenly.
Once done, I was instructed to set the stone down and grab a cloth.
Step Three: Wipe the stuff around on the object
”ふいて (fuite)、” Mr. Fujisawa said.
“Are you… asking me to blow (吹く, fuku） on the stone?” I asked.
“No, no! 拭く (fuku), wipe the stone. Smooth the stuff out over it. Just don’t use too much pressure. You want the stone to be sticky, like scotch tape.”
So I did as directed until sure enough, the stone was ベタベタ (betabeta, or sticky) to the touch. (Looking back, I’m suddenly very glad we weren’t using the real lacquer stuff! I was using my bare fingers for this part!)
We then moved on to…
Step Four: Brush your object
I was given an entirely new toothbrush for this, and told to gently brush the whole stone with it. Again, not too much- we wanted to spread the goop around, not remove it entirely, or nothing would stick. This was a fast process, which took us back to…
Step Five: Wipe again!
I imagine that, depending on the object or your abilities, you may need to do steps 2-5 multiple times. At this point though, it was time for the real tough part- applying the gold!
Step Six: Cut your gold strip
As mentioned before, the gold will crumble the minute your fingertips touch it. To that end, we used chopsticks Mr. Fujisawa called “hakubashi” to pick it up. He set out a square of the gold, covered with a thin sheet of paper, and asked me to cut a piece using a small box cutter. “You can in theory use scissors,” he said doubtfully, “but the end result would not be nearly as clean.” I was asked to measure how much of the gold I’d need and to cut accordingly. Somehow, I managed, which led to…
Step Seven: Drape your gold strip over the object
When handling the gold, you need to move it along with the paper that covers it. I managed to grasp a corner of it with the chopsticks and, after several minutes, managed to drape it accordingly over my stone. It took surprisingly more concentration than it sounds like it needs! You need to ensure the gold completely covers your object on that side, because next…
Step 8: Carefully press the gold in place
…You need to use a handful of cotton fluff to push the draped gold bits into all the nooks and crannies of your object. Use a gentle hand; too hard, and the gold will just break off and everything will be ruined. (Or your object will have character!) Make sure everything is completely covered because you gotta turn your object over (without touching the still-sticky part) and do steps 6-8 all over again.
All done? Great! We’re nearing the end here.
Step 9: Brush off the excess
I was given a wooden brush with a very long handle and soft bristles. “Dust off the extra bits,” Mr. Fujisawa said. “Very lightly though; don’t move your fingers or arm. Just your wrist.”
I watched him do it, then gave it a go myself.
At long last, my first attempt had come to a close. The two of us gave the stone a critical once-over. Then…
“Oh, no. There are black spots. You can see the stone,” I said, pointing them out.
My teacher nodded. “Not too surprising, given you’ve never done this before.” Then he paused and offered a quirky little smile. “Say. What if we said that this attempt was just a practice?”
“Just a practice?” I echoed.
“Let’s do it one more time. Let’s see if we can’t do any better!” he said.
And we did.
I chose a second stone and painstakingly went through all of the steps a second time, under Mr. Fujisawa’s careful watch. It took less time as I knew what to do, but it felt like it took more because I was determined to do things “right” this time. At long last, I had completed step nine. I offered up my work for approval, and my teacher beamed.
“This is much better than your first try! Look, there’s a real difference between the two attempts. Well done, Stefanie-chan!”
We noticed there was still a strip of gold left and, thanks to his generous spirit, I was given a teeny bottle and equally teeny chopsticks to put the gold pieces into the bottle with. It took several minutes of me grumbling at the uncooperative gold strips, with my teacher laughing at me the whole time
This experience was far more interesting than I originally anticipated. My teacher was not only passionate about what he does, but he’s able to explain the hows and whys in clear layman’s terms. On top of that, the experience is normally 2,000 yen for one hour- and after that hour is over you get to take your work home with you!
Now that said, there were some things that would have stopped me from attempting this on my own. The workshop location is a good 20-25 minute walk or a 10 minute taxi ride from JR Yamashina station. I really recommend the latter because you will not find it otherwise. The streets are not marked, and the place is down a quiet, residential, dead-end street. On top of that, not even the neighbors knew what I was looking for!
In addition, if you don’t speak Japanese you will definitely need a translator. My entire lesson was held in Japanese, and although my teacher did use layman’s terms, it was still not words you would recognize without language study. If you want a complete experience, bringing a translator or a Japanese friend is highly recommended.
Overall, I enjoyed this experience and would like to extend my thanks: first to Mr. Fujisawa, for opening his door to me; next to Ms. S. for helping me get there; and finally to Writers in Kyoto for offering this opportunity.
Do check out this experience and others like it at Kyoto Artisans!