As the era that saw the peak of the Fujiwara clan’s prosperity, many famous lacquer works were crafted during the Heian period. In particular, the Katawaguruma Makie Raden Tebako (Cosmetics Box with Design of Wheels Half-submerged in a Stream) is truly elegant in terms of both its shape and painting design. It provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of Heian nobility.
With regard to buildings, the Konjiki-Do (Golden Hall) of Chuson-ji Temple, built by Fujiwara Kiyohira at the end of the Heian period, creates a space featuring lacquer artwork, with the entire hall covered in makie lacquering, mother-of-pearl inlay, and thick gilding. The overwhelming impact of this decoration creates a “land of perfect bliss” that is not of this world. As a building that stands at the pinnacle of lacquer art, the Konjiki-Do’s hall continues to dazzle radiantly today following major restorations during the Showa period (1926–1989). In charge of the Showa period restorations was the late Shogyo Oba (who passed away in 2012), a human national treasure who also happened to be my teacher during my university days. Recalling the restorations, he said, “It was a fearsome restoration project we were undertaking,” expressing admiration for the high lacquering skills of the day and awe at the enormous scale of the project.
In addition, Japan’s oldest story, Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter, author unknown) contains a section describing the inside of a house richly decorated with makie lacquering, indicating that at that time in history, there already existed a highly elite group of craftsmen involved in lacquer craftwork, a special group of artisans known as urushibe. The explanatory notes to Taketori Monogatari published by Iwanami Bunko suggest that “the author’s ability to ‘create beautiful rooms painted with lacquer, the walls decorated in makie’, creating a gorgeous fantasy at will, is surely because the author himself was someone with connections to the samurai class that was involved in lacquer work,” inferring that the author was perhaps descended from the nuribe. This is a profoundly interesting inference, and if true, we who are involved in the lacquer craft can be proud to have such a wonderful person of letters among our predecessors.