By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photo, except where noted. All rights reserved.
On previous trips to Japan, I had admired lacquerware’s elegance and practicality, and had in mind that I might purchase a nice piece in May 2014 on my fifth visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Lacquerware is made by applying multiple layers of sap from the lacquer tree (a relative of poison oak) over a wooden, metal, paper or leather form. The dried sap imparts strength and durability to the piece, which can also be decorated simply or elaborately.
The traditional art, requiring great skill, patience and attention to detail, dates back more than 2,000 years in Japan.
Tea cups, rice bowls, trays, boxes and vases are just a few of the shapes made into lacquerware. When hand-painted designs, mother-of-pearl inlay or gold leaf are added to solid midnight-black backgrounds, the contrast is stunning. The price can be too.
Lacquerware can also be red (vermillion pigment is added to the sap) with black accents and artwork. All are buffed to a high sheen and are silky smooth to the touch. The finished product can differ from region to region, some being known for specific floral or avian motifs and colors.
The pieces are generally lightweight, and if not too large, easily portable, so I knew that if I found something I liked, I would probably be able to tote it home in my backpack.
I had left my shopping for my last day in Sapporo, which turned out to be a good thing, because it was chilly and drizzly, and not conducive to more outdoor sightseeing.
Japanese department stores are wonders to behold. Not only are the goods beautifully displayed on par with a museum exhibit, but they are of excellent quality and workmanship. In my experience, Japanese-made arts and crafts are often produced at the master craftsman level.
The stores can also be entertainment in and of themselves. A man sitting cross-legged on a platform sharpening a series of fierce-looking knives was among the interesting activities I witnessed on this trip.
On the lower floors, all manner of food is sold. Among the delights I’ve sampled are green tea (aka matcha), sake, sushi and mochi (chewy, bean paste-stuffed rice cakes), offered on small trays by smartly uniformed young women (often wearing white gloves).
Busy workers mix/chop/grill ingredients to be sold at the glass-fronted prepared food counters, and for the grab-and-go set, a wide array of compartmentalized bento boxes packed with a mound of white rice, a main (usually seafood, chicken or pork), pickled ginger, and a side vegetable make dining options a breeze (and reasonably priced).
I don’t think I need to elaborate on the fact that seafood is among the freshest for sale anywhere in the world.
I was in Daimaru Sapporo on the seventh floor, where the store brochure told me I’d find Japanese ware and Japanese tableware.
I spotted the lacquerware, which was in a department next to the ceramics and porcelain. The ceramics were of very high quality, with beautiful colors and designs. When I mentally converted the price from yen to dollars, I thought I must be doing it incorrectly because the ceramics seemed so reasonably priced.
I went to the counter to talk to the saleswoman, dressed in a skirt and jacket, to try to figure out if my calculations were faulty. What I wanted to know specifically was if the price for the ceramics was for one piece or the quartet displayed together.
Alas, I hit a roadblock, because my Japanese is nonexistent, other than a few words, and her English was in about the same league.
After much smiling at each other, the saleswoman excused herself, and came back almost immediately with a flip phone in hand.
The woman she called spoke excellent English (many stores have in-house translators). There ensued an animated, three-way conversation — me to the woman on the phone, woman on the phone to the saleswoman, and woman on the phone back to me — about the price.
The total was for four ceramic pieces. They would not be sold individually.
I thanked both women. Arigato is one word I do know. Now that I had an idea of the pricing, I went to study the lacquerware.
After about 30 minutes of considering nearly all the items, I settled on a graduated round dish with a small lip, about 9.5 inches across. In the center was a fan-shaped gold design that reminded me of a ginkgo leaf, encircled in gold. I took the red “chop” on the right to be the artist’s signature.
I showed the saleswoman the piece I wanted to buy, and she bent down to look under the display unit to find a new one in its box.
As she stood up, a look of panic crossed her face. I didn’t know quite how to interpret her expression, but it seemed likely there wasn’t another dish like the one I wanted to buy.
Out came the phone again, the saleswoman brought over the department head, and there ensued a four-way conversation with the translator.
A call was made immediately to other stores in the chain to see if the dish was in stock.
One was found, but logistically, it couldn’t be transported to the branch where I was until the following week. That wouldn’t work because I was leaving Sapporo the next day.
I said arigato to all three women again, and they suggested I have a second look around the lacquerware to see if I liked another piece equally as well.
This was not, I repeat, not, a ploy as it would be in some other countries, to get me to buy something more expensive. In a culture that prizes etiquette and politeness, they were not showing me other items just for the sake of making a sale.
While there were many pleasing options, I still liked my original selection best.
My solution was to propose buying the display piece, if, after a close examination, I didn’t find any scratches or nicks marring it.
Reconnecting with the very patient woman on the phone, she said this was highly unusual — selling the floor sample — but they would do so, the underlying sentiment seeming to be that they wanted to accommodate me — the customer.
But the transaction would only go forward if the lacquerware’s condition passed muster with the department head.
So, with gloved hands, the department head personally inspected the piece, wiped off all fingerprints and polished it repeatedly with a soft cloth. She placed the dish in a paper sleeve, and tucked it into a very dark green, almost square box.
Also in the box was a rectangular piece of paper with a red stamp that I took to be its provenance and another sheet of paper. Both are totally in Japanese. Tips for the care of lacquerware (keep out of direct sunlight, polish with a few drops of vegetable oil) were, fortunately, in English.
All parties could not have been nicer or more more eager to help while this series of conversations went on for more than an hour.
But wait, there’s more.
At their insistence, I was given a 10 percent discount because the lacquerware had been on display. Obviously, I wasn’t going to say no to that.
Finally, the receipt was hand-written and paperwork filled out so that I could collect the tax refund in cash in-store. Often, the refund has to be pursued at the airport upon departure.
Lacquerware is widely available in Japan, so, yes, I could have purchased something in Nagasaki, where I was before Sapporo, or in Tokyo, where I was headed.
I might have ended up with a different piece of lacquerware, but I’m pretty sure I would have been treated with equal courtesy wherever I was shopping.