24 May Nuribe’s Home in Uda
Message from Taiwa Matsuoka
– Membership Magazine ”Urushi Culture” No. 5, Japan Cultural Heritage Urushi Association, May 1, 1976
The first Japanese dictionary, Irohajiruisho, which was published in Japan in or around the twelfth century, describes the legendary story of the discovery of Urushi by Prince Yamatotakeru, as first recorded in the book Honcho-kotohajime in volume five of the dictionary set. This is a familiar story often introduced in regard to the beginning of Japanese Urushi craft history. However, ancient clay wares that have been excavated indicate that Urushi had been used well before the time of the story. When Prince Yamatotakeru went on a hunting excursion in Mt. Aki of Uda in the Yamato countryside, he broke a branch of a tree as he attempted to grab onto it while climbing up a slope. He must have observed some tree sap at that time. The prince called his follower Tokobanosukune and ordered him to collect the tree sap to paint on a shield. The prince was very pleased with the outcome, and painted his craft belongings. He then appointed Tokobanosukune as an official for the Urushi department of the Yamato court.
Uda is my hometown. I grew up near Mt. Aki, the area famed for the legendary story of the Yamato expedition. In ancient days, the exclusive hunting field for the Yamato court existed in the area, and the general public was prohibited from hunting in the area. As the name “Nuribe-no-sato (home of Urushi craftsmen)” indicates, there had been an abundance of wild Urushi trees in the area. After Urushi was designated as levy, people in the area were ordered to grow it, and Urushi craftsmen were stationed at craft studios for the Yamato court. Consequently, high-quality Urushi was produced in the area from Uda to Yoshino. Near Mt. Aki there is an area called Ureshigawara. The name is believed to be derived from Urushigawara, an area filled with Urushi trees. Despite being the home of Urushi craftsmen, the scenery of Nuribe has changed since the late nineteenth century, and one can scarcely see an Urushi tree. Urushi wares were brought into the area by vendors from a distant place, Wajima. Wild Urushi trees with beautiful autumn colors on the outskirts of the mountains and riversides were destined to be cut down due to the fact that it causes allergic skin reactions on contact.
During the 1950s I was concentrating my efforts on a quest for colorants for my Urushi Artwork (Saishitsu-ga) in Tokyo. My younger brother in my hometown wanted to plant Urushi trees, so I sent him tools for scraping Urushi along with the information needed to obtain Urushi seedlings. There were several Urushi trees on the flanks of the mountain near his house, but he had an oak mountain for firewood near Mt. Aki. There was a paulownia nursery nearby, and adjacent hillside land was occupied by a rice field. He wanted to make an Urushi mountain after cutting down the oak trees. I think he bought approximately three thousand young Urushi trees from the Aizu area and planted them. He had experience in planting cedar and cypress trees, but it was his first time planting Urushi trees. Had they grown since then, I would have been able to obtain copious amounts of the best Urushi in Japan. I think a lack of appropriate study in geological formation and soil contributed to unsuccessful growth. As years went by the trees died out, and cypress trees took over the mountain.
A large slope on the Uda side of the Hanzaka mountain pass leading to the Uda highlands–known as Urushigawara in the old days, as previously stated–is at the present time a tiered rice field on a mild slope. On the slope of the mountainside there is a spring water site that provides abundant water to rice fields even during drought years, and the area is known for this natural blessing. The village of Soni is located in Okuuda, closer to Ise, and is now known for the autumn foliage of Kouchi Canyon. The Soni River runs below steep, oddly shaped rocky peaks, and there is a bridge on the river called Nuribe. There is the story of a female hermit in Nihon-ryoiki, the oldest Buddhist narrative stories in Japan, written by Kyokai, a monk at Yamato-Yakushi Temple around the beginning of the ninth century. The story describes the mistress of an Urushi craftsman named Miyakkomaro, during the period of Emperor Kotoku. She could not tolerate a poor way of life but instead lived the life of a celestial being including her wardrobe and meals when finally she rose to the heavens. There is a Nuribe mound that is supposedly the site of Miyakkomaro’s compound further down into the mountain from the bridge. There are wild Urushi trees here and there in the area, and I used to see handy villagers painting the fixtures of their houses and furniture with fresh Urushi. Through this one can see the legacy of the village of Nuribe.