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b. benten is the online shop for high quality handmade ceramics and houseware items from Japan rooted in tradition for everyday use. Our mission is to introduce Japan's master artisans to the world by offering their limited work and covering fascinating stories of craftsmanship.

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Summer Special

Maya Nakamura

It's August.  It is hot.  It is humid.  Mosquitoes everywhere.  Summer in Japan can be a real pain.  It always makes me wonder how in the world people in the old days survived this heat without air conditioning.  

In fact, everyone in Japan seems to live for summer.  There are certain sound, scent and taste that remind you of summer, and makes you feel nostalgic.  

First off, everyone's favorite summer event is hands down, Matsuri, the local festivals packed with food stalls and festival games.  They are normally sponsored by shrines and temples, revelers amid a lively atmosphere of Japanese drums and flutes and the seductive smell of grilled corn basted with a soy sauce glaze.  This scent always gets me like movie theater popcorn.   

Dancing and stunning fireworks are part of the festivals, too.  

Besides Matsuri, it is quite common for everyone in urban area to take a trip to their grandparents or relatives in the countryside.  It lets everyone forget the hustle and bustle of city life.  

At night after taking a bath at onsen (hotspring), you look up to the stars with the soothing sound of wind chime and the scent of mosquito repellent coil, and you are fanning yourself in Yukata...   this is when I love Japanese summer.    

As the years pass, even the obnoxiously loud sound of cicada and the scent of repelling incense smoke all become nostalgic like Miyazaki films. 

b. benten has selected the following 5 essential summer items to celebrate the Japanese summer.  All available at our online shop:

1.  Hand fan "UCHIWA" and "SENSU" 

A traditional fan is used to create a breeze to keep cool in hot weather.  Uchiwa is a non-folding fan with a handle and Sensu is the folding version.  Both are made of Japanese paper or cloth fixed to the handle and spines normally made of bamboo (sometimes sandalwood).

 

2.  Wind chime "FURIN"

One of the best summer symbols in Japan.   It is traditionally hung from the eaves of a house during the summer.  Most are made of glass and when the wind blows, a gentle chime will ring and the sound you hear in the humid summer brings you coolness.  

3. Mosquito coil  (repelling incense)  

A mosquito repelling incense, typically made from a dried paste of pyrethrum powder. It is usually shaped into a spiral.  It used to be a must-have item in every household before the repellent sprays and electric versions were invented.  Learn more about mosquito coil >> click here

4. Beer and Edamame

There is nothing better than thirst-quenching cold beer on hot summer evenings, and one of the best snacks to go with beer is edamame.  Edamame has become popular appetizer all over the world through out the year, but some people don't know is the fresh edamame is only available during the summer, and it tastes so much better than the frozen ones.   

bamboo basket

bamboo basket

How about enjoying a hot summer day Japanese style, by drinking a glass of beer and feeling the cooling breeze from your hand-held fan, while listening to the sound of your wind chime? 

 

 Hope everyone is having a fun and safe summer!

Urushi the Magical Sap

Maya Nakamura

The deep, glow of lacquerware is a Japanese handicraft form that has mesmerized the world for a long time. 

No other application style can match the deep hues and smoothness of Japanese lacquer “Urushi”. 

via takashitomii.com

via takashitomii.com

So what exactly is Urushi?

Urushi is the sap of the lacquer tree, which contains a resin that polymerizes and becomes a plastic-like durable substance when it is exposed to moisture and air.  The Japanese recognized the durability and shiny beauty of urushi and began using it to coat wood, pottery, baskets and bone objects back in circa 7000BC. (no for real.) 

urushi trees via reijunkan.com

urushi trees via reijunkan.com

Urushi tree takes about a decade to grow and once matured you can extract the sap only little by little (every 4-5 days) so that you don’t hurt the tree.  You can only get about 200ml of liquid urushi from a single tree.   

The substance is poisonous to the touch until it dries, the creation of lacquerware has long been practiced only by skilled dedicated artisans.

Wajima artisan via  coinaca  

Wajima artisan via coinaca 

Every aspect of how the Urushi is treated reflects what kind of color will come out; from where the sap's taken, the time, the weather and how skilled the workman is. When the sap is thick and rich the color of Urushi becomes more vivid. If the quality is opposite then the color will instead be more transparent.

tetsuo gido via  teamahimatrip

tetsuo gido via teamahimatrip

Liquid urushi can be applied to just about any surface: wood, metal, cloth, ceramics, etc.. When it solidifies, it becomes a very hard coating that waterproofs and protects the coated object from the effects of mold, mildew and other forms of weathering. It also provides protection against caustic substances such as acids.  The color will blend over and over again for many years and the color will mature in beauty.

Only direct and prolonged exposure to sunlight will cause urushi to deteriorate. Urushi's hardness and durability make it an excellent protective coating for any object that will be used continually over a long period of time. The product reaches its best quality when used for some years after it was painted.

antique trays by Kinokumo

antique trays by Kinokumo

Urushi techniques are widely used to elegantly decorate furniture, iPhone cases, eyewear frames now, but urushi bowls or plates are an essential part of Japanese haute cuisine forms.  

Today, urushi continues to be used in its traditional forms and in modern, new ways.  and the lacquerware still stands as one of the most distinctive forms of Japanese beauty. 

 

If you can handle the strange piano background music, please check out this video and see how urushi lacquerware is beautifully made in action.   


Here are some urushi items available at b. benten:

Tsutomu Masuda: The Coming of Summer

Maya Nakamura

Kamakura is probably my favorite city in Japan.  It is by the ocean and there are dozens of old Buddhist Zen temples and Shinto shrines in this area.  It is a popular old-fashioned resort town with lovely little cafes and gallery shops everywhere.  If you ever come to Japan, please make sure to swing by. 

So I heard my beloved potter, Tsutomu Masuda, is having an exhibition in Kamakura to celebrate the coming of summer.  

via  vuori  

via vuori 

The exhibition was at the cafe/gallery called, Vuori, right off Hase station.  Super cute.

Vuori  1-15-1 Hase, Kamakura 248-0016, Kanagawa

Vuori  1-15-1 Hase, Kamakura 248-0016, Kanagawa

The first floor is the cafe and the second floor is the gallery space.  the first floor is so nice, but I was too excited to check out the exhibition, so I immediately walked up to the second floor when I got there with so much anticipation.   

And there, I could instantly spot Masuda chatting away with his fellow wood artist, Takashi Miyashita in the corner.  Photos were not allowed in the gallery unfortunately, so I'm borrowing the photos below from their website.  

 

Vuori 2nd floor gallery (via  vuori ) 

Vuori 2nd floor gallery (via vuori

By looking at his charming smile with flip up sunglasses and slightly messy grey hair, Masuda looked like such a lovely guy, and his pottery reflects his warm down-to-earth personality.  

I started to take plates and bowls shamelessly, and spread them out on the table to decide which ones I will take home.   By the way, this is what you normally do at any pottery shops in Japan.  You take the items you are interested in, and place them onto a "display table" so you can evaluate them and decide whether or not you will purchase them.   

So as I'm smiling at the plates and bowls that I selected, the sweet lady from the gallery insisted that she'd introduce me to Masuda.  Well twist. my. arm. 

I had such a pleasure talking to him about everything from his kiln to his love for jazz.  What I learned is that he was an art teacher.  He actually taught himself to make pottery using traditional methods like glazes, brushstrokes and powdered appearance.  He currently resides and make pottery in Tsukui, the far northwestern corner of Kanagawa prefecture, which is known for their artist community.  (It is like Hudson, NY in my mind)  

His pottery is simple and functional, he explained.  It is meant to be used everyday and easy to mix an match with your existing dinnerware and blends into all kinds of settings.    

 

These are particularly my favorite items from the exhibition. 

As I exited the gallery, I felt a breeze came from the ocean with a hint of summer fondly.   

It was a perfect Sunday afternoon.