Once upon a time, I had something of an unusual experience. Not unusual in the sense that it was weird or anything like that, but more so unusual in that this isn’t something that happens often enough in my life. For an all too short weekend, I was able to escape from the city and bask in the beauty of the Japanese countryside.
Now, I will not for one second try to pretend to be an expert on such things, but one of the most pleasant surprises to emerge from my countryside break was to be introduced to some of Japan’s most beautiful, creative and inspiring works of traditional, hand-made art.
One style particular to this region of rural Okayama Prefecture, yet known all across Japan is the style of “bengara”.
Bengara is an especially vibrant, colourful and enriching art style, encompassing pottery, stained glass, woodwork and other forms of furniture and household décor. As I said before, I’m not really much of an expert on this kind of thing, and I certainly have no aspirations to become one of those pretentious artsy types who talk far more with their increasingly animated hand movements than they do with their mouths.
Buildings made from Bengara. Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons
And yet, one couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty of these works of art.
The word bengara actually doesn’t refer to a particular style of art but rather it comes from the colour used in the production of its various sample works.
Namely, the red iron-oxide, rust-type colour that is associated with prominent examples of bengara work.
Being written in Japanese as a Katakana word: “ベンガラ”–which in Japanese language, usually originate from foreign vocabularies–one can draw the conclusion that this style didn’t originate in Japan. Actually, the style itself is innately Japanese in its origin, but the name is derived from the Bengali region of India. In the early days of Japanese creative arts, namely around the 16th century, the Bengali people had a certain level of trade with Japan. One of their principle exports to Japan was the ore iron-oxide, which of course has the same, naturally occurring reddish brown hue to it.
Hence, from the 16th century onwards Japanese artworks utilizing iron-oxide, or appearing to have a colouring similar to iron-oxide came to be known as “bengara” works.
If you have ever seen classical “red laquer” goods from Japan’s Edo period, then you will probably not be surprised to know that it was, in most cases, bengara colouring techniques that gave the items their distinctive colour and sheen.
Not only are bengara goods easy on the eye, in the days before mass-production of synthetic plastic compounds and lacquers was possible, bengara goods proved to be remarkably resilient too.
Goods made using the traditional bengara techniques are not only airtight, but they are also remarkably resistant to the wear and tear of long term exposure to sunlight, the extremes of both heat and cold and even excessive alkalinity.
In these days of increased environmental awareness (outside of America anyway) many in Japan’s textile trade are also pushing the eco-friendly elements of bengara as a dyeing technique.
Coming from iron-oxide, which is a naturally occurring substance in several mud deposits around Japan, bengara dyes are literally taken straight from the earth itself. No factory assembly or other forms of synthesized processing is required. Also, this “mud dye” as producers call it, is naturally biodegradable, so disposal is both environmentally friendly and easy.
And as mentioned before, these dyes don’t fade, even in prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.
This is also another reason why bengara-based paints are excellent for making stained glass displays too.
The combination of a broad range of vibrant colours, with the obvious benefits of resistance to UV light and no harmful side-effects like those of lead-based paints, means that for modern day stained glass displays bengara is a Japanese artists’ go to source for paints and colourings.
However, in today’s fast food world or instant payment and a demand for instant gratification, much of the bengara you will find in Japan today is mass produced in factories and other such places.
However, there is one charming little place that continues to defy modern conventions and bucks this trend. This is the place I had the good fortune to visit, by chance for my recent weekend break, the tiny, isolated village of Nariwa-Cho, about 90 minutes outside of Takahashi City, in northern Okayama Prefecture.
It is not hyperbolae to say that in this delightful little town, which is the perfect throwback to a simpler time in Japan’s history, bengara is everywhere. It forms the coloured coating of the roof tiles on most of the buildlings. It is applied as a sealant to most of the wooden exterior frames of the buildings themselves. And of course inside the buildings one can see first-hand fine examples of pottery, glazing and other artistic uses for the bengara dyes, lacquers and other compounds.
I’ve been to other “old towns” in this region of Japan, such as Kurashiki’s Bikan Chiku, in the past. And whilst places like The Bikan Chiku aren’t lacking in charm and a certain degree of romantic nostalgia, there’s something about Nariwa-Cho that just, somehow feels more authentic, more real and more organic. Perhaps it’s the fact that almost all of the old Edo period houses are still open for viewing by the public, in their unaltered state from centuries ago, or perhaps its more down to the warmth and sincerity of the locals, who are not only extremely friendly but also highly knowledgeable about both the town itself and its ongoing contribution to the promotion of bengara works across Japan.
I highly recommend a visit to Nariwa-Cho when you have the time. It is a bit out of the way, and perhaps getting their without a car may prove a little too difficult for some, but trust me when I say that it is definitely worth the effort. And be sure to check out the variety of bengara goods on offer there when you do.