Kiso Hirasawa is a small town in the Kiso Valley of Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture. The town is about 30 minutes away from Matsumoto City by train. Kiso Valley is known for their famous lacquerware. In 1949 the former International Ministry of Trade name Kiso Hirasawa as an important designated location for lacquerware development, and in 1991 the town was designated as Important Folk Culture Property of Japan. The most iconic task bestowed on Kiso Valley was to make the Nagano Winter Olympic Medals. Even today the medals are displayed at Kiso Kurashi Craft Center.
I saw brochures about Kiso Valley when I went to Shiojiri’s Visitor Information Center. I was immediately attracted to the old style Japanese wooden buildings, their famous lacquer ware shops & museums, oh~~ and the chance to see Nagano Olympic Medals. I vowed I will spend less money during the week, and use my money to buy some good lacquer-ware while in Kiso. Using my broken Japanese with hyped spirit, I boarded a train hoping I will arrive at the right station.
When I arrived at the station, I stood there and was a bit confused. Unlike the photos in the brochures that shows the bustling town with tourists, not a single movement, sound, nor was living creature in sight. I wondered if I came to the right place for a second there (more like for 5 minutes I panicked). I tried to check on my position on their village map, then walked down the path to the their main street.
Though the beautiful buildings are standing there, not a single shop was open. I peeked into every shop hoping to see if there was a person who could open the door for me, but only the still lacquer bowls, boxes, and plates at the windows were staring back at me among the dimmed lights. I looked back on the street again, it did feel like I was in the wild wild west, with all the people hiding, and cowboys (probably Japanese warriors in the case here), will storm out and have a battle. I did see couple BMWs driving by though.
The first floor sells many lacquerware, local treats, along with a restaurant, and lacquer ware workshop studio. My eyes did shine though when I saw all the red and black plates /bowls. I ran towards the lacquerware, but before I reach my hands out to touch one, I stopped.
I stopped for a good reason. Each bowl, each mug, each plate is worth more than the bills I have in my wallet (and my handbag’s worth)….you want a lacquered soup bowl with no decorations at all (only the color)? The medium price is around $70 USD. You want the sake drinking plates/cups like in the photo above with gold paint? They are around $170 USD. I took a cold, deep breathe, and admire the lacquerware from some distance.
The craft center even has an exhibit that shows the process of how they made the medals step by step. I still wish though I could touch them…even just once with my own hands I be happy and willing to not eat for a day.
And that, was my first time visiting Kiso Hirasawa. I think next time I will visit their town’s Kiso Museum.
Kiso Hirasawa/木曽平沢駅 is accessible by JR trains from Matsumoto City. From Matsumoto take JR Shinano/or Chuo train to Shiojiri City Station. Then from Shiojiri Station transfer to a smaller, local JR Chuo Main line with “Kiso Fukushima木曽福島” as the destination. Get off the train at Kiso Hirasawa Station. The train comes every one or two hours, so plan ahead.
It takes about 15-20minutes to walk from Kiso Hirasawa station to Kiso Kurashi Craft Center.
Kiso Kurashi Craft Center Address:
Map (From Kiso Hirasawa Station to Kiso Kurashi Craft Center):
Some info about laquerware:
Though the exact date of the origin of lacquerware is debatable since prehistoric lacquerware are unearthed from time to time in China and Japan, the technique of making lacquerware originated in China during Shang Dynasty (around 1600 BC), using a plant secretion/varnish from the tree wound to coat wooden or bamboo made objects. In 8th century, the developed techniques of lacquerware came to Japan along with religion and other cultural artifacts from China. Handmade lacquerware are expensive, delicate, yet beautiful. Lacquerware are often painted by hand, carved with patterns, or engraved with seashells by skilled artisans with carefully chosen wooden made objects like bowls and plates. Lacquerware can only be washed by hand with a soft sponge, no extreme heat contact, and cannot be used in the microwave and oven.