The Ouchi Family was one of the most powerful and important families in Japan during the 12th to 14th centuries. At the height of their power their domains, ruled from the castle town of Yamaguchi, known at that time as Suo Province, comprised six provinces. The Ouchi family remained powerful up until the 1560s, when they were eclipsed by the Mori Family from Hiroshima.
The Ouchi family was involved in foreign trade and relations, particularly with the Ming Dynasty in China. As a result of their wealth and trading contacts, the Ouchi family was renowned in the worlds of art and culture. They possessed countless items of cultural and artistic significance and beauty from Japan and China, as well as from further abroad. The Ouchi family also granted St. Francis Xavier permission to preach in Yamaguchi, thus introducing Western culture to the region.
The Ouchi family amassed their great fortune through trade with China and Korea. The main items for export were lacquer ware goods. Ouchi lacquer ware is still popular today, and has a very distinct design. The repertoire covers trays, bowls, stacked boxes, vases, chopsticks, and dolls. Ouchi lacquer ware consists of pure gold leaf diamonds, the shape of the Ouchi Family Crest, positioned one by one on Ouchi red lacquer, and Ouchi bamboo grass, saw grass, bush clover, and Ouchi chrysanthemums delicately painted one brush stroke at a time in a variety of yellow, green, and blue lacquers. The dolls, which come as a pair, are said to represent harmony between man and wife and make popular wedding gifts.
The Ouchi family based the city planning of Yamaguchi City on Kyoto’s grid-like streets. The street planning remains largely unchanged, and there are many remnants of Ouchi culture still visible today. The most famous vestiges include the beautiful five-storied pagoda of Rurikoji Temple, and Sesshu Garden at Joeiji Temple.
The Five-storied pagoda of Rurikoji Temple, a masterpiece of Ouchi culture, was erected by Ouchi Moriharu in order to mourn for his elder brother Ouchi Yoshihiro. With one piece of wood running from a stone slab in the base into the roof, not attached to the sides, the structure is very sturdy, and has survived many earthquakes and strong typhoons.
The garden at Joeiji Temple was designed by a Zen priest, Sesshu, who left many acclaimed works as a painter. Natural grandeur and beauty are reproduced by the clever positioning of the ponds and greenery in a limited space. The garden is an accurate representation of a garden in one of his paintings.
St. Francis Xavier’s stay in Yamaguchi was commemorated by the building of a memorial church in 1952. The original structure burnt down in the early 1990s, and was replaced by a striking modern structure in 1998. During his stay he converted many people to Christianity, and is reported to have found the people of Yamaguchi extremely receptive to new ideas.
Ouchi Lacquer Ware Today
The Furasato Denhso Center in Yamaguchi City offers people the chance to lacquer their own personal chopsticks. Reservations can be made (Japanese only) by calling 083-928-3333. It takes from 30 minutes to one hour (and a further 3 weeks for the lacquer to dry), and costs 800yen per pair. Posting is extra.
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