It would be hard to think of anything less threatening than Japanese lacquerware. Unless you’ve read Water, Wood, and Wild Things, Hannah Kirshner’s headfirst plunge into the world of rural Japanese arts and crafts.
Like a great mystery writer, Kirshner is deceptive. Her journey begins with an invitation to apprentice at a sake brewery in Yamanaka, Ishikawa Prefecture, inoculating rice with koji, tending it on its way to becoming a clear and complex beverage. In the second chapter, she studies the tea ceremony and learns patience, humility, and the Japanese style of hospitality known as omotenashi.
At this point, you’d be forgiven for dismissing Water, Wood, and Wild Things as one of those books where a Western writer goes to another country (and let’s be honest, it’s usually Japan) and gets in touch with themselves through meeting traditional craftspeople and food artisans and learning the Old Ways.
Water, Wood, and Wild Things is not one of those books. Having dispensed with tea and sake, the author moves on to the most dangerous, unlikely, and wildly specific pursuits – and goes where women are rarely welcome. In one chapter, Kirshner treks into the woods with a band of duck hunters who carry no guns because they hunt with nets:
“The ducks get louder and the men get quieter. Silhouetted against the fading sunset, each hunter crouches with his net help out horizontally in front of him, like a tennis racket ready for a service. Widgeons, teals, and mallards begin their flight east to the fields where they feed on gleaning overnight.”
Yamanaka’s duck hunters are conservationists, helping to preserve duck habitat, but they are also grumpy old men doing their thing. To her credit, Kirshner also spends time with artisans who aren’t old men, such as the young washi papermaker Mika Horie, who is tired of being asked whether she makes “rice paper,” as there’s no such thing.
This brings us to the terrifying world of lacquerware, possibly the oldest tradition in the book. Japanese artists have been making intricately lacquered wooden pieces since at least 7000 BC.
Lacquerware, naturally requires lacquer (urushi in Japanese), the plastic-like varnish applied as an outer coat to beautify and preserve wood. I’d always imagined lacquer as some sort of preindustrial Elmer’s glue, as harmless as preschool.
In fact, lacquer is made from the sap of the Toxicodendron tree, which is part of the poison ivy family and causes the same angry rash. (Don’t make the same mistake I did and wind up on the Wikipedia page for urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.) “Sometimes,” Kirshner writes, “I notice the telltale cluster of blisters on my neck or the back of my hand when I haven’t been anywhere near a lacquer studio or urushi tree. In a town where nearly 20 percent of the population is involved with the lacquerware trade, there are probably traces of the potent oil on the door to the convenience store and the menus at my favorite izakaya.”
Water, Wood, and Wild Things takes us to a charming small town where the past is always close by. Maybe wear gloves when you go.
Hannah Kirshner appears virtually at Elliott Bay Book Company on March 31. Register for free at www.elliottbaybook.com/calendar/