Nagiso, Nagano Pref. – On the one hand: an ancient Japanese lacquerware technique dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185), famed for its delicate beauty, seasonal motifs and rich heritage. On the other: a 6-year-old girl who finds it hard to sit still and would rather be making “machines” out of twigs, stones and sticky tape.
I admit, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my youngest daughter came face-to-face with the very refined world of maki-e during a children’s workshop in a century-old atelier in Nagano Prefecture.
The art of maki-e has long been treasured in Japan. A clue into the craftsmanship that lies behind the lacquerware decoration technique is found in its name — which translates as “sprinkled picture.”
Typically, the technique involves highly skilled artisans hand-painting a picture onto a lacquerware surface, before carefully sprinkling it with a metal powder, such as gold, and then brushing it to fix the design in place. Not a process that immediately screams “kid-friendly.”
Our foray into the exclusive world of maki-e was arranged by Zenagi, an exquisitely renovated luxury kominka (historic Japanese-style house) located in the lush mountains of Nagano Prefecture’s Kiso Valley, which offers a packed array of high-quality bespoke activities.
In addition to a roll call of high-adrenaline athletics led by Olympic-level sportsmen (from paragliding to — as we tried the day before — river adventures on ducky kayaks and stand-up paddleboards), the hotel also has an impressively deep network of personal contacts with local artisans across the crafts-rich region.
Our maki-e experience unfolds one recent wintry day at family-run Kijiya Yamato Rokuro Woodworks, about 20 minutes southeast of Zenagi. One of Kiso Valley’s few remaining specialist lacquerware artisans, the family’s ancestors traveled through Japan’s forests for over 1,000 years before settling in the region 100 years ago.
After passing through a white noren entry curtain, we are greeted in a spacious shop — showcasing variations of quality wood carvings and lacquerware — where we swap shoes for indoor slippers.
Akari Ogura, the 20-something eldest daughter of the family, guides my two daughters — the 6-year-old plus her big sister, age 8 — past a sleeping dog into a tatami-mat room with light green walls and sliding paper screens dominated by a low central table.
Gentle and friendly, Ogura immediately relaxes the children, who listen as she explains a little about what maki-e is, showing some examples of work, before diving into the fun.
As with all things Japanese, paying homage to the season is key, and it feels apt that Ogura first produces a stack of fine white paper with a selection of mainly winter images, not only traditional symbols such as tsubaki (camellias), but also a snowman.
Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the images have been drawn in calligraphic black on the paper, which is covered in a layer of white chalk on the underside.
My 8-year-old immediately reaches for the snowman, while her little sister ambitiously opts for a more traditional image of rabbits (her favorite animal) gazing up at a full moon.
The children are then presented with a shiny slab of black lacquerware upon which they are instructed to firmly place the paper and press across it with a flat device, just like making a rubbing.
The end result is a faint white outline of the picture on the black lacquerware slab — which the children are then told to paint over using a fine brush and thick dollops of liquid urushi lacquer (it’s a natural nut-based lacquer, to avoid allergic reactions — perfect for kids).
With unusually silent concentration, they set to work, carefully painting on the pictures (nearby, I also decide to tackle a bamboo motif). We swiftly learn it’s harder than it looks to follow the very fine white lines and perfectly replicate the brush strokes of the original images.
Paintings finally complete, Ogura ceremoniously hands each of the girls an essential maki-e tool — a small bamboo tube fitted with a fine-sieve net known as a funzutsu — packed with fine metal powder (in this instance, tin instead of precious gold or silver).
The girls gently tap the tool, causing small metallic clouds to descend on their still-wet lacquer-painted pictures, before using a large, soft brush to remove excess powder. The end result is their very first maki-e artwork, complete in all its sparkly glory.
The fun continues with additional Christmas tree maki-e pictures — placing tape in the shape of a tree on the lacquerware surface enables the children to make their own shapes and patterns inside it.
It’s thanks to Ogura’s patient and relaxed approach with the children — combined with her deep expertise — that the specialist art form, which normally requires years of intense training, is not only unusually accessible, but also fun.
“It normally takes years to master, but this is a very simple experience so it’s perfect for children,” Ogura explains. “I love making maki-e because you can play with seasonal drawings. It’s very Japanese, and I really want to make it more known in the world.”
At the end of the workshop, Ogura carefully places their creations (plus my wonky bamboo work) in paper boxes before wrapping them in a natural chestnut-dyed furoshiki cloth, which the girls happily carry all the way home, alongside precious memories of experiencing a treasured form of Japanese craftsmanship.
Zenagi (zen-resorts.com/en) can arrange an exclusive tailor-made children’s maki-e experience (recommended for children aged 3 and above), at Kijiya Yamato Rokuro Woodworks for guests, one of many available regional activities. A stay at Zenagi starts at ¥145,200/night per adult or child aged 6 and above, or ¥58,870/night for children under 5. Price includes three meals and one activity, plus taxes and service fees.
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