A visit to Kyoto will invariably lead to Teramachi Street, a mecca for smart shops since the Meiji period in the 1800s. Along an enticing stretch lined with antiques shops, washi-paper makers and a centuries-old tea emporium, is a sleek storefront that gives way to a magical world of glossy, hand-hewn lacquerware.
Zohiko has been in the same family since 1661, but was moved to its current gallery-like space in 2014. “We wanted a calm, clean atmosphere to bring out the elegance of the lacquerware,” says Kazumi Nishimura, who co-owns the store with husband Tsuyoshi. “We aim for simple beauty with our pieces. There’s no need for excessive design or harsh lighting.”
A ground-floor showroom leads to an archive of rare pieces, some dating from the 17th century – minimalist white shelves display a mix of functional and decorative objects in the highly polished red and black lacquerware peculiar to Kyoto. The owners delight in sharing their history and the artisanal maki-e technique – a process of embellishment with silver, gold and lustrous mother-of-pearl – that makes Kyoto lacquerware so distinctive.
From everyday, heat-retaining bowls (¥16,200, about £110 for a set of two) to ceremonial tea services (price on request) inlaid with opalescent abalone shells, every piece begins with a slab of local keyaki wood or bamboo that’s carved and sanded to smooth perfection. Only after 20 or more layers of urushi lacquer (or tree resin) have been applied and polished is the piece ready for decoration at a nearby atelier.
“There are various lacquer colours – black, blue, red, white – but I think the most beautiful is still black,” says Nishimura. “It’s not a pigment but rather a shade born by oxidising lacquer with iron.”
Among the glossy creations on offer are ornamental red-lacquer boxes (about £220) with nature motifs – orchids, cranes and clouds recur – rendered in brushed gold, and minimalist matcha-tea canisters (about £485) in muted, matte-black lacquer. Elegant incense boxes (about £2,610) decorated with fire-breathing dragons sit cheek by jowl with a textural, one-of-a-kind, black jewel casket (about £8,210) bearing Kyoto’s pride – cherry blossoms in bloom – in gold with accents of shimmering shell.
Bespoke work (price on request) is a speciality and no project is ever deemed too small or too complex. The store has taken orders for inkstone boxes in unusual shades of sapphire, orange and ivory, created ornamental folding screens and received a commission for the elaborate thrones for the current emperor and empress that grace Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Daily-use items – geometric trays, sake sets or plates in varying organic shapes – typically take three months to complete, while more elaborate items such as an incense burner (about £6,870) with a woven silver top “might take two years or more because of its unique shape,” says Nishimura.
“Lacquerware is part of day-to‑day Japanese living,” says Nishimura. “It’s antibacterial, hardwearing and, most importantly, the pieces are comfortable to touch and to hold, which makes eating and drinking a pleasure.”