Exploring the ultimate balance between lacquer and wood

Genten kaiki (原点回帰) means something like, “returning to the original starting point,” or “going back to the origin.” It’s an idea lacquerware company Gato Mikio adopted as their guiding approach, a philosophy that goes into each and every bowl, plate, tea canister, vase, or sake cup they design and produce.

Since 1908, the Yamanaka Onsen-based company has been making one-of-a-kind objects, remaining steadfast in their commitment to preserving centuries-old techniques. But while Gato Mikio’s creation process is decidedly traditional, their creative process is markedly unconventional.

Gato Mikio was originally a woodworking plant, and its metamorphosis into one of Japan’s most compelling lacquerware producers took three generations to accomplish. As the business was handed down through the Gato family, the emphasis shifted from pure wood-turning to lacquerware, with particular focus on fuki-urushi, a special kind of lacquering process that highlights that natural grain of the wood.

Photo by Kogei Standard
Natural grain. Photo by TokoSie

Fuki-urushi is a clear lacquering technique, one that uses lacquer’s gleam to accentuate the organic beauty of the wood itself. Urushi (lacquer) is actually a kind of sap – when the trunk of a lacquer tree is cut, it excretes a yellow-grey sap, which is collected and then filtered of impurities. In other kinds of lacquering processes, colored pigment is added to the processed sap.
But in fuki-urushi, the glossy resin is left as-is, without dyes or added color. This permits the wood to soak up the lacquer unimpeded, causing the patterns of the wood to stand out with a healthy sheen. This surface is then polished with sandpaper, and the entire process is repeated five or six more times, to ensure both prime luster and durability.

Today fourth-generation owner Masayuki Gato and his small team of artisans are using time-tested urushi techniques, as well as kashokubiki, a kind of decorative wood-turning distinctive to the lacquerware of the Yamanaka region. Gato Mikio focuses on a particular motif called sensuji, or “thousand stripes,” which involves using a potter’s wheel to create extremely fine lines in the surface of the wood. The creation of these concentric patterns involves a pain-staking precision, as one mistake risks distorting the entire design.

Masayuki Gato’s father, 3rd generation craftsman. Photo by Kogei Standard
Making of the sensuji pattern. Photo by Kogei Standard

While Gato Mikio approaches the physical construction of their products from a highly traditional standpoint, their designs radiate an undeniably modern ethos. They have received a variety of awards, including the 2011 German Design Plus Award, both for design sense and efforts in cultivating an ecologically conscious company. In 2012, Gato Mikio received a German Federal Design Award for Karmi, their series of minimalist tea canisters.

Despite international acclaim, Gato Mikio remains firmly ingrained in the community of Yamanaka Onsen. In refusing to trade their traditional methods for modern mass-production, the lacquerware company stresses their commitment to uplift the region and its craftspeople. This is part of their philosophy of genten kaiki – in staying rooted to the community, and in their dedication to age-old techniques, Gato Mikio is working to recover the origins of a lost ideal, a primordial faith in pure creativity.