Lacquer, or urushi in Japanese, is a natural product extracted from the sap of the lacquer tree (Lat. Rhus vernificera) that hardens upon contact with oxygen.
The sap is tapped from the trunk of trees by a series of cuts through the bark in a similar way to that used for the extraction of rubber latex or maple syrup.
This sap, which produces highly toxic vapors, turns brownish when exposed to air and solidifies with certain conditions to become a very hard and strong material that can be polished, carved or even modeled in any shape.
The most typical Japanese lacquer designs use the makie (“sprinkled picture”) technique, which was in use already during the Heian period (794-1185) and was perfected during the Muromachi period (1392–1573) when it was already being exported to China. Essentially, the term denotes the technique of sprinkling gold (or silver, or other metallic dust) onto a wet surface design.
The term makie is first mentioned in the Taketori monogatari (“The Tales of the Bamboo Cutter”), the oldest surviving fictional prose narrative in Japanese literature, written in the late ninth or early tenth century. The story’s description of a splendid palace decorated inside with precious materials, such as sprinkled gold lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlays and luxurious brocades, clearly illustrates the timelessness of lacquer art in Japan.