Artisans from the Echizen region of central Fukui have a policy to never refuse a job, no matter how difficult it might sound at first. New challenges often involve working across industries, and this region is the perfect place for collaboration: numerous traditional crafts, including Echizen Paper, Echizen Lacquerware, Echizen Pottery, Echizen Chests, and Echizen Blades, coexist here within a 10-kilometer radius.
Echizen Paper is known for its superior quality, which comes in part from the area's natural environment. Echizen’s rivers have pure water, as well, ideal for washing impurities out of the plant fibers, and the water is cold enough to tighten these fibers for crisp finished paper. This quality is part of why Echizen Paper has long been culturally important. During the Nara period (710–794), it was used for Buddhist sutras. Over the centuries, the artisans’ technique continued to improve, and Echizen Paper came to play another valuable role: money. In 1661, the Fukui Domain introduced Japan’s first paper money, printed on Echizen Paper, and in 1868, the national government selected Echizen Paper for the first nationwide banknotes.
Today’s artisans inherit traditions of quality and excellence, and another unique tradition: for many centuries, it has been a cottage industry in Echizen. The town has roughly 60 paper-making workshops, including small factories, and even the artisans’ own houses. The artisans of Echizen continue to evolve their craft: Ryozo Paper uses metal molds and a water shower to transfer a delicate pattern of paper fibers onto a thin base layer, for a lace-like effect. Visitors can watch the paper makers at work, and even step into their workshop for a closer view. Over at Osada Paper, artisans have developed a lineup of products that adapt paper for use as a decorative material in its own right. They offer contemporary products that use Echizen Paper artistically for interior décor, such as wallpaper, sliding doors, and lampshades.
Artisans in Echizen have long built sturdy chests of drawers from lacquered wood and metal fittings, assembled using a Japanese style of nail-free joinery called sashimono. The results are both durable and beautiful. The lacquer and metal fittings are more than decorations: lacquer helps preserve the wood in Japan’s humid climate, while metal fittings prevent warping and protect the corners from damage. There is a spiritual aspect to the design of these fittings, too. They feature elements like heart-shaped holes called inome (lit. “boar’s eye”), which are a lucky symbol.
While these chests often look very serious and dignified, the studio Furnitureholic incorporates playfulness into some of their recent designs. Their work to adapt chest-making techniques to other purposes includes chests with colorful metal fittings, with sliding handles and wheels added to turn them into rolling suitcases. The studio has collaborated with other Echizen artisans on various projects, such as crutches assembled using sashimono joinery and finished with Echizen Lacquerware techniques, and wooden stationery boxes decorated using Echizen Paper.
Works of Art for Everyday Life
Roughly 80% of the lacquerware used in restaurants and hotels nationwide comes from this region of Fukui. Echizen Lacquerware is known for its gentle shine and elegant beauty, making it a popular part of New Year meals and other special occasions celebrated at home. This local industry dates back 1,500 years, to when Emperor Keitai became fond of lacquered carved wood items made in Kawada (in modern-day Sabae, Fukui), and encouraged Kawada to become a center of lacquerware production.
Modern artisans continue to push Echizen Lacquerware forward. Tsuchinao Japanware has developed a product lineup that uses lacquerware techniques for contemporary designs and new types of items beyond tableware. Their travel mugs and bottles, for example, combine modern insulation technology with traditional lacquerware decorations, such as hand-drawn maki-e gold powder designs. Tsuchinao has collaborated with artisans from other industries as well, creating products such as lacquered knife cases for local blade makers.
The region’s iron-rich clay gives Echizen Pottery its reddish color and rustic feel. This iron, along with high levels of aluminum and silica, also helps this pottery stay strong during firing, without cracking even at very high temperatures. The tradition of Echizen Pottery stretches back some 850 years. In the nineteenth century in particular, the Kitamae-bune merchant ships sold Echizen Pottery all along the Sea of Japan coast, and Echizen became the Hokuriku region’s largest pottery producer.
Today, some 90 potters continue to work with traditional techniques handed down for centuries, such as wood-fired kilns, and a distinctive natural glaze that comes from the firewood ash at high temperatures. At the Fukui Prefectural Museum of Ceramics, visitors can learn firsthand about the history, cultural significance, and aesthetics of Echizen Pottery, and explore a collection of over 1,000 items on display for sale.