The Japanese Table / Lacquer tableware elevates an everyday school lunch

Yomiuri Shimbun photo, in cooperation with Ecole de Cuisine Egami

Prawn soup in a black lacquerware bowl

By Miwa Uehara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer This series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. This installment takes a look at how traditions are maintained through changes.

Wan bowls and chopsticks are typical tableware for washoku. Many washoku dishes are eaten with chopsticks, with people holding their bowl in one hand and putting their mouth near the brim. This posture is a characteristic part of Japanese food culture.

While the occasion to use urushi lacquered wan bowls has been decreasing, elementary schools in Sabae, Fukui Prefecture, are attempting to increase the opportunity.

At lunchtime at Kawada Elementary School in the city, the clatter of dishes could not be heard. What was heard was only the gentle sound of the children eating from black lacquered bowls.

With the cooperation of the Echizen Lacquerware Cooperative in the city, school lunch utensil sets — including wan bowls for rice and soup, a side dish plate and a tray — were produced with the skills that go into traditional Echizen lacquerware.

The school started using the set for its lunch for all grades in the 2000 school year. In the 2005 school year, all of the city’s 12 elementary schools started using the set.

“I want to make lacquerware, which is a Japanese tradition and a local craft, more familiar to children,” said Michiko Miyazawa, a nutrition instructor at Kawada Elementary School. “I hope they inherit the culture of using the tableware.”

The school also provides a wide variety of washoku food for lunch. Lacquered bowls stay cool on the outside, even when they contain hot rice or soup, allowing a user to hold the bowl in their hand.

In a home economics class, fifth-grade students fillet a fish and prepare dashi broth from kombu to make miso soup.

Around the end of each school year, the school’s students use fine lacquered tableware in the class. The school makes efforts to have children deepen their interest in washoku and local food in terms of presentation and taste.

“I feel like the food in urushi bowls tastes delicious. The dish also looks nice,” one sixth-grade girl said. “I started using lacquerware more often at home, too.”

In Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, Urushi Rocks Inc. produces lacquerware as it wants more people to become aware of the attractiveness of wan bowls.

The firm, which supports traditional craftspeople, has been selling a set of wan bowls in three different sizes since 2015. “Three is important,” said the firm’s head, Wataru Kainuma.

The set of Aizu urushi ware, named “Meguru,” consists of one bowl each for rice, soup and a side dish.

“By using this set, you can prepare a Japanese meal in the traditional ‘ichiju-issai’ pattern,” he said. “I hope these bowls will lead to people learning about washoku.”

Ichiju-issai literally means one bowl of soup and one side dish. In the context of washoku, a “side dish” is anything other than rice or soup.

The more the bowls are used, the better their color becomes, he said. It can be repaired even if the lacquer cracks off, and urushi also can be applied to it again.

“Japan has bountiful forests, and lacquer plants grow naturally. Lacquerware was a practical utensil that was produced at home,” said Isao Kumakura, a professor emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology. “The comfortable feeling of wood also matches the Japanese sensibility.”

Ceramics as well as lacquerware has blossomed in Japan since the 17th century, with some of the world’s most skilled craftspeople producing excellent designs.

“For Japanese cuisine, tableware is spoken of as clothes for dishes,” Kuma-kura said. “No matter how wonderful a dish is, the charm could be halved if the clothes are not good. The mind-set of enjoying washoku has led to a rich culture of tableware.”

Recipe for prawn soup

Serve soup in a lacquered bowl. Green fu gluten bread in the shape of Japanese maple leaves creates the feeling of early summer.

Ingredients (serves 2):

4 prawns

6 mitsuba greens

2 young sansho leaves of Japanese pepper tree

6 pieces of Japanese maple-shaped green fu gluten bread

A little katakuriko starch

2 cups of ichiban dashi broth

(made from kelp and bonito)


1. Peel the shells from the prawn’s bodies, leaving the tail ends and the nearest segment attached. Rub salt into the bodies, and wash with water. Salt lightly again and dust with starch. Put pairs of prawns abdomen-to-abdomen, and fasten them together by skewering each pair with a toothpick. Boil them in hot water. When the prawns are cooked and have cooled, remove the toothpick.

2. Put the mitsuba greens briefly in boiled water and then place them in cold water. Take three mitsuba greens and tie the stems together in a knot. Cut both ends of the mitsuba to make them a uniform length.

3. Put sansho leaves on your palm, and pat them lightly to release their scent. Add flavor to dashi with ½ teaspoon of salt and a little soy sauce.

4. Put a pair of prawns in each bowl, along with mitsuba and fu, then pour soup over them and add a sansho leaf on top. Cover the bowl with a lid.

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