Friday, May 31, 2013

Tools Abroad

This trip has been a constant juxtaposition of the very old and the very new (we recently went to see this building designed by Kengo Kuma that is pretty stunning, and built in part by temple carpenters imported specifically.).  Toggling back and forth has made me constantly aware of my default stance that old stuff is better than new stuff, which of course I do not believe across the board, but that tends to color how I see the world. 

We also are getting to spend a fair amount of time with tools and the way things are made, which I also love, and which is new for a lot of these students, as it turns out.  It has been exciting to see them get excited about making and about the idea that they can make stuff.  And I get to also see some incredible stuff, of course.

The story goes that in 1610, a temple carpenter in Nagoya started a carpentry business named after himself, Takenaka.  Today the descendants of Masataka Takenaka run one of the five biggest architecture and engineering firms in the country.  When they say it is a family business they are not lying.  In about 1985, the corporation decided that it was worried about the decline of traditional wood working and carpentry in Japan and started a museum dedicated to wood and wood working tools.

Holy crap.

When the Japanese get it in their heads to do something, they don't ever really go halfsies.  The Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum is one of the finest museums of any type that I have visited anywhere ever.  It rivals the Henry Ford, it rivals the Smithsonian.  The displays are in Japanese and English, they are thoughtful, they are interactive, they are well thought out.  It was just a joy to be there.  There were video demonstrations of things that the students otherwise would never have seen, like two people using a saw to make lumber out of trees.  There were displays about making tools.  There were different species of wood with plane shavings that you could smell.  I mean, if I had several million dollars and a year I could could not have set up a better shrine to traditional Japanese carpentry.  Also?  There is a full-time staff of six architectural historians.

PEOPLE!  Come to Kobe!  Go to this museum!

Actually, they are doing a joint project with GSD at Harvard next year, and part of the collection will be there.  So go there, if you can't come to Japan.

There is a reverence and a gentleness to the way that the tools are shown that came through to me, an idea that there is something that is still relevant and necessary about these tools.  And every edge tool was meticulously sharpened, something we would not do in the States, which betrays a nuanced difference between attitudes:  in the States I think we would want to preserve the object in the moment it came to the museum.  In Japan, at this museum, it was clear that the displays were put together by people that saw these tools as living objects.  They have a purpose and a use, and as Miya-Daiku Ogawa says in a video there "Sharp tools don't lie."  You would no more display a dull chisel than you would display a 1903 Harley-Davidson with square wheels on it.  It just would not work that way, and this is an object that is made to work.  So you show it the way that it would be if it was working.

It is a difference in stance that I have commented on here before, this idea of what is "real," what is "historically accurate," and I am really interested in it.  History, of course, is notoriously subjective.  It is, as the famous quote goes, written by the winners.  And so who are we to say what the best way to celebrate and present history is, and how best to talk about it?  Is it lying to say that a building that was built this year is the exact same building that was built a hundred years ago, if it was built in the same way with the same tools?  Not from a certain (very Japanese) point of view.  Similarly, it is only appropriate to sharpen a plane iron to a mirror hone before presenting it.

I suppose that one of the things about travel is that it allows you to step back and look at the assumptions that you make every day and question them.  I sure am doing that here, sometimes on a daily basis.  Here are some images from the museum.

Two-person saw with an instructional video.  There was also a video about how to assemble the saw.

A "Standard Carpenter's Tool Chest"

A display of sumitsubo, which they use instead of chalk lines.

A very funny Indonesian wooden hand plane.

"Woods of Japan" complete with end grain, face grain, and shavings to smell.

Adzes.  Lots of adzes.

More joint samples.

Yet more joint samples

"How to make a ryoba saw."

"A Miya-Daiku's Tool Chest"

The different finishes and the waste that comes from using an adze, a spear plane, a roughing plane, and a hand plane in that order.  Holy cow

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Scrap Book

I have been writing every day about some specific thing, which has meant that there is a lot that does not get said.  I wanted to take this morning to post some images that are not necessarily connected, but that are pretty cool.  So here we go, starting with an image from Honganji, a temple that is the largest wooden structure in Japan.  They need a lot of fire extinguishers.

A really nice bench.  Super simple but quite lovely:

Used book store in Kyoto.  So lovely.  The books are stitched, but with paper covers.  I just love them.

Not sure what this box is for, but I love the curves in the handle.  Probably will make one of these at some point.

Creative re-use is everywhere here.  This is a particularly nice one.

I find the smooth plaster wall dying right into the curve of the wood to be so pleasing.  It enhances both the smoothness of the wall and the organic shape of the column.

Sweeping up bamboo leaves at a Zen temple.  As one does.

Some exquisite drawings on a screen in Katsura.  This one is for Jaime especially.  I wish you could see some of these drawings, photos don't do them justice.

Bibs on Buddhas at Kiyomizu-dera.  All the Buddhas are wearing bibs this year, apparently...

A lovely, simple, effective fence, and made easily from bamboo.  Pretty great idea.  I am storing it here so that I can remember to do this.

A terrible photo of a really wacky place:  We went here with our students.  If you want, you can sit on the boat and fish off the side and then they will cook what you catch.  Osaka is full of weird stuff like this.  We did not have that kind of patience, but wow.  Just wow.

A really nice square-link chain around a memorial in Osaka.

This wood finish is ubiquitous here in older villages.  The wood is scorched, which stabilises it and makes it weather proof.  It is a very cool finish, and looks great next to the window grill.  It is a smart way to weatherise your house, and does not cost any money for paint.

Once again, being smart:  these are little paper filters that you can use to make real coffee in your hotel room.  These were at Benesse House.  Pity they make the coffee taste terrible.  But still, a really good idea!

On Teshima Island, an art installation in a bamboo forest.  I went down to the end, where there arethe  ruins of an old farm house.  Just the hearth, really, and a bit of the foundation.  There is no signage, and nothing to indicate why that site was chosen.  Also it is really creepy.  Beautiful, but man, it creeped me right the heck out.

Lovely wabi-sabi on a chain at Teshima harbor.

We are in Kobe for one night only, and this is a wedding chapel attached to our hotel.  No, really.  Western style weddings are all the rage here, there is a bridal shop in our hotel as well.  But check this joint out:  blue lit runway for the bride, and a skylight so you can see Kobe Tower, a great big, lit-up steel and glass phallus, just so there is no ambiguity about expectations.  When Karen and I renew our vows I want to do it here.  Holy cow.

So there are some unconnected images, things that did not make it into other posts.  There are more, of course, over a thousand and counting, but this will do for now.  Today we visit the Takenaka Carpentry Tool Museum, and holy god will I write about that tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


This is going to be hard.  I am at a bit of a loss to explain Naoshima, and am understanding why my co-teacher had such a hard time trying to explain it to me.

Naoshima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea.  There is not a lot to recommend it over other small islands, really, and there are a LOT of small islands in the Inland Sea, which reminds me a lot of the coast of Maine.  I mean, the beaches are different and the islands are different and there are different plants and, well, ok, we are definitely not in Maine, but there is something about all of these little islands rising out of the water that is Maine-like.  This photo may not do it justice, but check it out:

You see what I mean?

So Mitsubishi used to have a refinery on Naoshima, and still does own part of the island.  I have been assured they are cleaning up their site these days, but who knows.  

The Benesse Company, which is a big industrial-sized publisher, bought this island in the '70's I think, and in the '90's started work on the Benesse Art Site, a combination of site-specific sculptural installations, accommodations, restaurants, and galleries, and they commissioned Tadao Ando to build it.  It is breathtaking.

I don't have any photos of the inside of the structures (we are told not to take photos), and had a hard time taking photos of the exteriors as well, but there is a book in the room that has some photos in it, so the following are a combination of my photos and photos from the book. Including this next one by Osau Watanabe.  This is the Benesse House Art Site as seen from the air.  Maybe you can understand why it is so hard to photograph, it is built into the Earth so much that standing outside it you never really see a whole lot of it.

Here is another photo by Watanabe.  This is the deck, I suppose, or veranda.  It is reached by walking out of a wall-sized glass door, Ando has a thing (I would say it is a very Japanese thing) about blurring the difference between outside and inside.  The photos on the wall are completely encased in acrylic, and are on display outside all year long.  I love how wacky that is.  And the walls frame a view of a little harbor, which is itself square.  So you have the landscape carefully framed by square walls, and off in the distance you have another human-made square structure continuing the theme.

This next photo is mine.  It is of a Richard Long piece called "full Moon Stone Circle," and is made of stone laid on another deck.  It was originally installed with another, identical piece on the inside of the gallery made of driftwood, which has since been removed, but this piece is pretty lovely in itself.  I am so smitten by the tension between the perfect circular outer edge and the jumbled, rough texture of the rock itself.  Just lovely.

Ok, now we get to what our rooms look like.  I said that this is a combination of accommodation and gallery, so here goes, starting with an √¶rial view by Watanabe:

We are staying in "The Oval," a series of guest rooms at the very top of the hill.  It is almost the highest point on the island, and it is incredible.  You approach the building on a six person monorail tram.  This slowly takes you up the (very steep) side of the mountain, and deposits you on a covered platform at the end of a hall.  You walk down the hall and here is what you see:

All of the rooms let off an oval atrium with a huge reflecting pool in the center of it.  The water running over the side of the pool makes a lovely white noise as it echoes off of the walls, and you circumambulate the water as you go to your room.

My room looks like this:

One whole wall is windows, and the windows both open, so that by sliding one of the windows away there is no barrier between inside and outside, between nature and human-made space.  It really is quite stunning.  Here is another view:

And the view from my room this morning when I got up:

Not too bad.

This place is pretty incredible, even given the lack of internet (First World problem).  The idea that we get to stay in a space that was designed so well, so tightly, is pretty special.  And I am thinking a lot about these barriers we set up for ourselves:  inside/outside, human/nature, transparent/opaque.  The ways that Ando manipulates them helps us to understand that our thinking about them is arbitrary at best.  We have cultural expectations about walls and windows, about interior spaces and exterior spaces, as do the Japanese.  But these are learned responses to the built environment, and we can learn other ways of thinking about that.

Which of course can be expanded to address all of the cultural assumptions that we make, about the role of people in our lives, about our responsibilities to each other.  All of these are things that are open to question, open to improvement, just as much as the size of a window is.

Pretty cool place.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Hit it right

The Bizen prefecture encompasses some iron-rich land, and for thousand years it was the center of Japanese sword making.  The smithing tradition in this prefecture east of Okayama runs deep, and there is a museum built to honor it:  The Bizen Osafune Sword Muesum.

I am not a Japanese sword aficionado, of course, but this is a museum built and dedicated to the craft of black smithing, and one of the only of its kind that I know of.  And every other Sunday they have a "blacksmithing demo," so that sounded cool.  So we set up our travels to stay over in Okayama, and to take a train out to the museum on the only Sunday we could make work.  It is not close to anything else at all, so this required a little figuring.

The museum's website is a bit hard to follow, and even with a co-worker of Japanese descent helping me on the US end it was a struggle to get this piece to fit well.  Then she told me one day that she had finally made contact with the museum and the Sunday we were going to be there was not, in fact, a Sunday that there was going to be a smithing demo.

Well, hell.

At this point the hotel had been booked, though, and so we went.  It went like this:  We went to the   Okayama train station and got on a little two car train.  It was pretty empty.  We rattled along (no bullet train, this) through smaller and smaller towns until we got to Kagato, literally a one-track town.  We got off the train at the platform, and looked around.  There was almost no english signage.  We were likely to be the most exciting thing to happen at the Kagato platform in quite a while.

Thanks to various apps that pulled up maps we started walking along a pretty wee-traveled four lane road.  It made me think of Reynolda Road where I grew up, or Genesee Street in Syracuse.  Trucks going by, cars zooming along.  It was a hot, sunny day, and fourteen out-of-towners were walking through the weeds along the side of the road, hoping this was going to be worth it.

We turned left and really started to get into farm land.  Rice paddies lay baking in the sun, it must not be time yet to flood them.  So there was field after field of light-tan loam looking for all the world like plowed fields everywhere.  Then we turned the corner and there it was.  Bizen Osafune.

It is situated in a complex of modern buildings, with a separate building for each step in the process of making a sword:  Smithing, grinding, honing, engraving, polishing, and making the scabbard.  We politely went through the first building which had some lovely sword blades on view.  Pretty, but to a guy who neither knows anything about swords no can read Japanese, it was hard to be too excited.  We do have a couple of Chinese students, and they can read the kanji but not the -kana, so they translated that this blade was fourteenth century, and this one was twelfth.  Cool, but a bit esoteric.

Then I heard the trip hammer.  

If you have spent any time around people making stuff out of steel, you know what a trip hammer sounds like.  There is a regularity to the way it goes WHANG WHANG WHANG WHANG that is a tip off that someone is making something out of hot steel.  I broke in a run to the smithy. And I forgot about the trip hammer.

There was no smithing demo, true.  But in a couple of weeks all of the apprentice blacksmiths in Japan are sitting the test to see if they are ready to become journeymen, and they were all at Bizen museum taking workshops to prepare.  

Sometimes you have to be sure you are asking the right questions.

So the smithy was filled with people, all 6 forges were glowing, strapping young men were standing around with big hammers.  What a show.  Several of the forges were in the process of taking the raw iron and adding carbon to it and hammering it flat and then folding it and hammering again, so the sound of several sledges ringing off of the steel filled the room as the apprentices sweated with heat and exertion.  It was incredible, I told a student it was like Christmas for me.

They were happily snapping photos, I don't think any of them had ever seen anything like this.  I had never seen anything like this.  It really transported me to a smithy of a couple of hundred years ago, this is how iron implements were made for hundreds of years in the West and the East.  And it does not take fewer resources now to make something out of steel, we have just automated the process.  It still takes as much energy, it is just that that energy use is hidden inside some machine.  

We went on through the other huts and saw a craftsman filing away at a blade, and another doing some polishing.  The polisher had a bowl of lollipops which he handed out with glee.  He thought we were very interesting, I am not sure an American school group has ever come through that museum before.  We talked to him for a while in pidgin Japanese and he showed us some of his tools.

All in all it was a great trip.  It is a special museum, and we are lucky that we hit it at a day when we got to see a part of a process that helped to shape civilisation as we know it.  I did not take a lot of photos, but here are a few, Starting with the forge:

Big Japanese style sledges.  I love how the head is off-center.

Tongs.  One of the first things a lot of smiths do is make their own tongs, a different pair to hold each differently shaped piece of steel.  These look a hell of a lot like a lot of tongs that I have used and a few that I own.

In the grinding room.  This gentleman is using a file to grind off the hammer marks and to straighten the blade.

The polisher.  He brings the blade to a mirror finish.

Little chisels used by the engraver.

An apprentice smith at work.  The master holds the steel on the anvil and teh apprentice hits it with the sledge.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Posting is going to be spotty over the next few days as we are traveling a lot and seeing a lot.  I am hoping that i can post later today about the museum we went to yesterday, but I really wanted to get some photos up of the Church of the Light first, so here goes.

In the 1980's, the congregation of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka church approached Tadao Ando about building them an addition to their existing wood church.  Others have written more eloquently and knowledgeably about the resulting structure than I can, but suffice it to say that it is an important structure and one of the highlights of the trip for me was that we would get to visit it.  Here is the entryway, a sort of space (here is "ma" again) between the sanctuary and the Sunday school building:

It became possibly the best known Ando structure, this little church and Sunday school building,  and for good reason:  It is just stunningly beautiful.  All concrete, which sounds gloomy at first, but when you are inside the cruciform east wall is so breathtaking and the rest of the space so calming and lovely that even this atheist felt reverential.  It is the kind of space that makes one verbally respond:  I was one of the first of our group into the space, so I had the pleasure of hearing the students one by one gasp as they turned the corner from the entry and saw the east wall.  This is what the east wall looks like:

The cross is simply a window.  That is all, and that is all of the ornament.  Just a window, just light.  What better metaphor than to have the only sacred object in the room be not an object but light itself? Just stunning.  The pews and floor boards are all made out of the scaffolding that was used to build the building, and the concrete walls still bear the marks of the concrete forms (an Ando trademark) so the making is part of the building and visible every where you turn.  The process is the product, if you see what I mean, in a way that I think is so smart and so lovely.  I sat in the space for a long time, just taking it in and smelling the concrete and feeling the coolness in the air.

There is a reductive simplicity about this way of thinking that I think is so appealing, a stripping back to the very essence that makes it a delight to be in Ando's work.  Here is the Sunday School room:

Notice anything?  Yep, the wooden cross.  Feels a bit weird, doesn't it?  That is because it was not originally part of the structure.  It was added much later by the congregation.  It's their building and it is their call to do that, but I think it is such a great object lesson about two things:  One has to do with vision and the other has to do with occupants.

As far as vision goes, having one feature on the wall behind the teacher be an aperture that is again light and in this case seems to be beckoning you toward it is so much stronger than having another object that competes with it.  Now the audience's view is split between the object (the cross) and the non-object (the window), which makes both a bit weaker.  But then there is this:

The building belongs to the occupant now, and they get to make decisions about what is important to them, and for a Sunday school, it is obviously important to have a cross.  Makes sense to me.  So there is a cross.  But it is clearly an afterthought, an add-on.  It can be taken out of the room, unlike the cross in the sanctuary which is built into the room and can not be removed.  Interesting conversation there.

On another note, the furniture in the Sunday school room was quite nice, and although I do not typically make plywood furniture, I thought the form work was pretty cool:

Simple, easy to build, durable.  Nice stuff.

Church of the Light.  What a gift, what a joy to be able to see it.