Preserving the Beautiful about 400 year old World Heritage Forever

Hiroyasu Okazaki, a member of the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples, is in silent concentration amidst the large scaffolds while he applies black lacquer to the main shrine of Nikko Tōshō-gū. This lacquer is the deepest of black, a color also called as shikkoku in Japanese. In the darkened workspace, the lacquer burnishes with a lustrous sheen.
During the shogunate of Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa, many shrines were built at Nikko Tōshō-gū, and are now repaired every few decades to preserve their beauty. Major repairs and refurbishment for the Heisei period (1989~current) began again in 2013. The Youmei-mon Gate has already been completed and has been open to public since March 10th, 2017. Currently, the work is centered on the main shrine, and the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples are doing the lacquering, gold gilding and painting. Work will continue through 2019.
"My father does lacquer work with the Association, and currently is the supervising engineer of the lacquer department. I had always admired my father's work, so as soon as I graduated from the art department at high school, I stepped into this world," says Okazaki who is in his 14th year as a lacquer painter.
There are 38 to 40 steps in lacquer work. The processes begins by scraping off the old lacquer, then moves on to covering the damaged parts with hemp cloth and filling in any dented areas with powder fine chopped hemp cloth. After these steps, 17 coats of lacquer are applied. The roof is also lacquered, so almost the whole building will be painted in lacquer. The lacquer used is a Japanese variety, mostly from Ninohe City in Iwate prefecture. At most temple and shrines in Japan, lacquer is imported from overseas, with only 2% of these types of structures using Japanese lacquer. "The best match for the climate of Japan is the Japanese lacquer. It keeps its quality for a longer period of time. But beyond that, we use Japanese lacquer to preserve the techniques of the lacquer tapping craftsmen," says Okazaki. We have to change the amount of ingredients depending on the weather and temperature. The harsh cold of Nikko presents its own problems in working with this medium.
Hiroshi Ono was in charge of the color painting department. It has been 24 years since he started working at the association. During the interview he was working on the statue of the "Married Monkey" which is located on the west wall of the Shinkyusha, a building to keep the sacred horses. When there are parts that can be taken off, they are done so before working on them. The process takes about two months, and going from drawing the draft of the coloring, washing the paint off, working on the foundation of lacquer, and finally coloring it. In the draft, he draws the shapes and colors of the statue, and around the design the details and coloring techniques are written in. The draft design is not only for the coloring, but is then preserved for future reference. "For finishing the coloring we use rock paint. There is an artificial rock paint that is made from glass, but the touch needed to apply it is completely different" says Ono. Rock paint does not fade for a long time, but ultraviolet light goes through artificial rock paint, so its color gradually fades. Rock paint is made from ground minerals such as malachite and azurite. These minerals are also used in jewelry, so they are extremely expensive. The contrast of the color depends on the size of the chopped mineral, and the color fades as the more the mineral is broken down. The rock paint does not have an adhesive property, so glue is added, and the paint warmed over boiled water before applying.
Mr. Okazaki's dream is to exceed his father's skill as a lacquer craftsman as soon as possible. “My father studies old lacquer crafts, and often just when he thought, ‘so-and-so could be done in this way’, and it turns out that people in the Edo era have been doing it like that already. Craftsmen in the past were relentless workers, and finding ways to improve the craft is very difficult,” he states. Tokugawa Ieyasu founded Nikko Toshogu Shrine 400 years ago, and it was constructed 20 years later. Since then, the complex and has been refurbished over and over. It is only thanks to the efforts of these many craftsmen that Japan’s beautiful world heritage is preserved.
Hiroyasu Okazaki
Born and raised in Imaichi City (Now Nikko City). Watching his father doing lacquer painting, he became a lacquer painter himself after graduating from high. He has been in charge of lacquer painting of the main shrine since September 2015. He bears in mind to do his best at repairing the shrine so it will be in good shape until the next round of repairs. He also loves Tochigi for its abundant nature and clear air!
The People of Tochigi