Tuesday, May 26, 2015


"There are many things that can be learnt from [master carpenter's] skills and spirit to be applied to contemporary organizations and the making of things."

The last time we were here I raved about The Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum.  It was a central stop last time and was so again this time.  This time around they are in a new building, one that has been constructed using ancient techniques but applied to a lovely and thoughtful contemporary building.  There are more exhibits, there is a workshop where you can take classes, all the furniture is by local craftspeople, it is crazy.

I won't go back through what I wrote last time, that does not seem to make sense.  And I do want this blog to be more than a travelogue, so just posting some photos does not seem to be the right thing either.  Why bring a group of architecture and design students to a craft museum at all?  None of them want to go into woodworking, so why bother even if it is a stunningly thoughtful and well-designed space?

Well, one answer to that might have been raised by Howard Risatti in his book "Theory of Craft."  It's a good book and one that has particular relevance in much of my work.  He writes:

When we look at craft objects from different societies...it is clear they all share common functional traits, what we would identify as functional form.  It is also clear they have formal differences, these we would identify as their different stylistic forms or styles.  Style, or stylistic form in craft objects, always exists along with functional form; but unlike functional form, stylistic form springs from the realm of culture and the intention to meaning, to signification.  Moreover, because craft objects are an embodiment of both functional form and stylistic form, they must be understood as having a life as both physical objects and as social objects.

So a historic hand plane has an existence as an object, a tool, a component in a carpenter's tool kit.  But it also has relevance in a conversation about resources and resource usage, and about what a style of work or a style of workmanship communicates about a particular culture.  And my hope is that by exposing our students to the style of making in another culture that it will underline for them the stylistic and functional choices and assumptions that they are making in their own work.

Japanese traditional carpentry, like Western carpentry, dictated (in part) the æsthetic that we think of as "Japanese."  The mix of wood and clay and stone, the intentional asymmetry, the floor plans dictated by tatami mats, these have their root in how the spaces were made and used. 

As we walked around the museum yesterday and I talked about tools and methods, about materials and the way we treat them (they still have the bins full of shavings from different woods so that you can smell the difference between hinoki and oak, for example.  IT'S SMELL-O-VISION!  WITH WOOD.  OMG.)  I am hopeful that some of this resonated with the students.  I am hopeful that as they move forward in their own design practices some gossamer memory of attention to not just materiality but also the ways that materials are used will have clung tot heir perceptions.  Here are some photos and drawings from my favorite museum on the planet.

The workshop.  We did not have a chance to use it, but next time for sure.

A huge plane and the shaving that came from it.

Looks like a simple joint, right?

Here's how that joint goes together.

A really amazing display that is sort of a 3D exploded view of a timber framed structure showing all of the joints.

A shouldered sliding dovetail bridle (kyorogumi) joint.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Urushi (漆)

One of the things that one sees a lot of here is lacquer-ware.  The beautiful deeply lustrous black and red (and clear) lacquer is a finish that is unparalleled and iconic.  So much so that you can also buy black and red plastic objects like rice bowls and spoons and trays that purport to emulate the finish, though there is really no comparison.  The only thing that is like urushi lacquer is urushi lacquer.

The binder for this lovely finish comes from the Japanese Sumac tree, which looks not unlike our own sumac trees back home.  This is a very different tree, however: the sap of the Japanese Sumac contains a compound called urushiol, which is the same toxin that is found in poison ivy.  The highly skilled craftspeople that work with urushi lacquer go through a period of extreme discomfort during which they are pretty much covered with the painful and highly itchy rash that any sufferer of poison ivy can relate to.  I have heard anecdotally that if someone who works with urushi takes a break from it for a week or two they have to build up a tolerance all over again when they come back to it again, that no  matter how long one has been working with urushi one still has to get re-acclimatized.

When I was young poison ivy was not of great concern.  I had a small case of it once or twice, but mostly I ran through the woods with abandon and very little repercussion.  In my early teens I started going to the local YMCA summer camp for a week or two each summer.  Camp Hanes taught me a lot of things: it taught me how to be responsible for younger people as a councillor in training (a lesson I put in to practice now in my work life) about rock climbing and backpacking, about how to sneak cigarettes and about power hierarchies and inequities.

One year I was art of a group called the Rangers.  It was not as militaristic as it sounds: it was sort of like a work/study program.  We went to morning workshops and then in the afternoon we did a few hours of work for the camp.  I quite enjoyed it, actually, as even then, when I was thirteen or fourteen or whatever I was I liked to be on the inside, to be part of the workings of a place rather than simply attending the place.  It was that same tendency that would lead me to start working backstage on shows, which would take me out of the great outdoors and into large dark rooms and the world of the entertainment industry.

I don't know if Camp Hanes still does the ranger program, I don't know if they would be allowed to.  We swung axes and used saws to prune trees, we clipped shrubs, we drove the golf carts around hauling trash, in general doing stuff in the eighties that would probably be looked at very differently in the litigious 21st century.

I can't for the life of me remember who the guy in charge of us was, but I remember what he looked like: skin swarthy form day after day in the North Carolina summer sun, leathery from years of being a Camel smoker.  He would smoke cigarettes while we worked, which always made us as campers (who were not allowed to smoke, officially) highly jealous and greatly desirous of a cigarette.  I remember him as tall (though in retrospect he may not have been) and I remember he had what we used to refer to as "Dunlop's disease:" his belly done lopped over his belt.  He had the thick, slow, round accent of the North Carolina hills, and a parsimony with words that will be familiar to people who have hung out around farmers and country folk at all.

One day our task was to clear the weeds from a small hill side next to the tennis courts.  This is probably almost 30 years ago and I remember it vividly.  Having been raised baby my mom to recognise plants by their leaves, I immediately spotted that the bulk of the weeds were poison ivy.  The boss man handed me a swing blade (a sort of horizontal blade set on a long handle) and told us to get to it.

"But that's poison ivy," I piped up, thinking maybe he had not noticed.  "Yep."  "And you want us to cut it with these?" "Yep." "Can I at least go up to my cabin and put on jeans?" "Nope.  Y'all can shower when yuh finnish." So we got to work.  To this day I remember the smell of those huge leaves as the swing blade cut their stems, the baking, sultry heat of the North Carolina summer sun, the sunburn starting to make my scrawny back pink.  I did shower, but to no avail, by the next morning the first welts started to form.  Then more.  Then more yet.  All the way up both legs and on both arms the poison ivy rash stood out.  I remember how painful it was, how terrifying as it kept spreading.  A couple of weeks later I went with my dad to his little home town in Michigan to visit my grandparents and I remember walking up the street with one of those curved chopping knives that I had found in the attic.  It reminded me of a battle axe so I was carrying it around.  The poison ivy was so itchy I remember stopping on the sidewalk and using the chopping knife to scrape at my legs, bent over and crying in frustration as the welts were torn away and the yellow pus inside them oozed down my legs.  Ever after I have been extremely sensitive to poison ivy and have mostly kept well away.

A few days ago, in Kyoto, we took the students to a sushi making experience.  We sat at long tables while the sushi chef (who was also the architect of the space and the owner) showed the students how to use the long sushi knife to cut slices of very fresh fish, and how to ball the rice and shape the sushi.  It was a fantastic experience and left us all stuffed full of sushi.

After we had eaten, Aki (the sushi chef) told us how the building we were in had been a factory where urushi lacquer was made and applied to rice bowls and spoons.  He talked about how he had bought the building and turned it into this beautiful ryokan, or Japanese style hotel, and showed us some lovely and quite old lacquer ware that he had collected, some of which had been made in that factory when it was still a factory.  We all listened and learned and generally had a good time.  He told us about the big slab tables that we were sitting at and about how he also loves to work wood, and how he had hand planed them and applied the urushi lacquer finish to them himself.  And he told us all how the space had only been open for three months but that he was very proud of it.

The next morning when I awoke my wrist was itching.  Not a normal "my wrist itches" sort of itch, but a deeper, more painful itch that I have come to know well.  Somewhere in that lovely space there must have been some urushi lacquer that was not fully cured.  And I found it.  And that is how I came to have poison ivy in Japan, and how I now know that the Japanese for "calamine lotion" is "cadamine."  And that is is really hard to find anti-itch stuff in a drug store when you can not read or speak the language.

The sushi was fantastic though.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Engawa (縁側)

As he showed me my room on our first night here, the tall, blonde, German (?) guy who works the desk at our hotel pointed out the lintel above an alcove in my room that leads to the bathroom.  "Be careful," he said, "in Japan it is painful to be tall."

A sketch of the engawa space leading into the bathroom
Now, I am not a tall guy, being as I am several inches south of six feet.  On the other hand, I am in a country in which I routinely find myself talking to or walking past adult humans who do not even come up to my shoulder.  So I crack my head on that lintel almost daily and every time I do I think to myself "In Japan it is painful to be tall."  We leave tomorrow and I wonder if I will even then be trained to duck as I step up into the little alcove.

The alcove is worth noting (and I have been since I got here not just because I keep rediscovering the top of the entry with my skull) because it represents a very Japanese space: engawa.  Transition is important in traditional Japanese architecture, and passage from one space to another, though fluid, is also often tightly composed.  An engawa space is one of the ways that this happens.  Typically it refers to a sort of veranda on a traditional Japanese house that is either open to the elements or enclosed with screens.  Here's a photo I took of a traditional house in a town called Takeyama last time I was here.  You can see the tatami room and then, beyond the screens, the engawa.  The user of the space does not walk out from the house into the garden, but has a period of adjustment, and interstitial space that eases the transition.  The other thing that this space does is that it allows for very deep eaves on a traditional house, which is good since shoji screens are mostly paper and those eaves protect the walls of the house and the paper screens form the elements.

Rough floor plan of my room.   
I don't have a veranda on my third floor room, of course, but this idea of "in between" space is so strong here that in a "Japanese style" room that is not very big to begin with I have not one but two of them.  I have been thinking about them as my own little engawa spaces.  They both have hardwood floor, and they flank the tatmi room, one inside the door and the other in the headbanging space between my room and the bathroom.  In fact, to come into the room, there is a little entry, maybe 3'-0" by 20", then a little step up to an engawa space which is where the closet for my futon is, and then you finally step onto the tatami.  The whole of the entry is maybe 36" x 60", so not huge, but there are several transitional spaces, utilising changes of level as well as changes of material and color.  The hardwood helps protect the tatmi, of course, but it also allows for an entry into a space, it compresses the user into a small space before opening them up into a larger, brighter space.  This has the effect, among other things, of making the space feel bigger than it is, because the user is experiencing it in contrast to the very small transition space.  The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright used this kind of transition quite often, and I think he learned it in his travels here. 

Being aware of this and experiencing it has been reminding me about the importance of transition, and of honoring the need to allow for transition.  So often in my life I do not build in time to process, time to enjoy, time to reflect.  So often I go from one thing directly into another.  Maybe there is value in emotional engawa. Temporal engawa.  Even in this small space "transition" is important enough that space has been set aside for it.  Maybe I would do well to take that lesson and apply it elsewhere in my life. At the very least I will tell myself this is why it was so important to put that lintel where it is.  Not just to make it painful to be tall.

Though in Japan, it is painful to be tall.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hohai (Pray-Respectfully)

On the ridge in the eastern mountains above Kyoto there is a series of temples and shrines that are linked by a narrow street called Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Philospher's Path.  It is mostly a gravel path with square flagstones set in it that meanders along the side of a canal that runs the ridge for quite a while.  For a good portion of it there are gnarled and twisted cherry trees on one side and the canal on the other, and occasional views across the valley of Kyoto stuffed in between the mountains.  It is a beautiful walk.

The canal is lined with stone, and though the water at the bottom is only maybe a foot deep, the stone-lined ditch is about ten feet deep, and maybe fifteen feet across at the top.  The clear water running along the bottom is home to some gigantic carp who lazily face upstream with their mouth open, eating away and generally living the life of Riley, it looks like.

We started on the path at Ginkaku-ji, the "Silver Pavillion," which is a Zen Temple and garden that was finished in 1482.  The dates here are arresting for an American, of course.  There is a completely different time frame for a lot of the structures in Kyoto than the one we are used to, and it is helpful to me to be jogged in this way.  The things that I have been learning and thinking and wanting have been learned and thought and wanted for centuries (millennia, actually) of human experience.  This does not make them less real or less important (more of both, actually), but it does help to contextualise my own life to look at it against the backdrop of all of the lives that have come before me I think.
On the right is my drawing of a small waterfall in the garden.

The temple garden is just incredibly stunning.  There is a meandering path that takes you around the gravel bed that has been carefully raked, across some small bridges, past a little waterfall.  The trees are quite old, some of them, and twisted in ways that are precarious.  Many of them are propped up with these gorgeous posts to protect them and keep them standing. 

After you meander through the garden there is a path that leads up stone steps and across the ridge and back down, giving the walker views of the temple from above swimming in a sea of leaves.  Beyond the temp,d buildings is Kyoto, jumbled and stacked in between the eastern mountains and the western ones, looking for the all teh world as if thousands of toy houses were laid out on a quilt between your legs and then you raised your legs, making them all fall into the valley.

One of my top 15 trees in Japan and the calligraphy for Ginkaku
As the walker comes back down into the garden past a forest of ruler-straight conifers of some kind (cypress?  Juniper?) one of my favorite trees in all of Japan comes in to view.  Twisted like the muscles of my forearm and propped up and an unbelievable angle, it really is so lovely and so obviously ancient that I had to spend a few minutes drawing it. 

The garden is so full of tourists like us following the path that it is hard to get a sense of what it must have been like during the Shogunate in which it was built.  A place of peace and contemplation and refuge, the quiet must have been almost alarming.

Gardeners at work pruning a tree.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Konnichiwa (Coming/Coming Back)

It is 6.27 am on day three of my return visit to Japan, and I have been trying to think about how to write about this and what to write about it.  Coming back, it turns out, is different from coming here.  Sort of like a second date, you know you will be exhilarated and excited, but you also know how you will be exhilarated and excited.  Which does not lessen the experience at all but it does give it a different flavor.

The difference in flavor is one that I have been trying to parse over the last couple of days as I settle into our routine here.  The first trip of course everything was a learning experience, everything was new, everything was exploration.  This time I knew exactly how to get to the good ramen shop, which streets lead to the knife store.  I know what to expect when I walk into the Imperial Palace to get our permits to visit Katsura Villa.  I am not just now finding out about propped-up trees, I am re-visiting old friends.

This has been true for a lot of things, and I have to admit to being a bit crestfallen as this process was revealed to me.  Like a lot of people I wanted the continued first flush of newness that I felt last time.  Of course that is childish, but the only other time I have been to Japan everything was so very new, so very alien, that the excitement of discovery actually started to wear me out by then end.

So I am taking stock and recalibrating.  We walked the students to Kiyomizu-dera, and I got to re-visit it, which, it turns out, was quite lovely.  Although familiar, it is no less stunning.  The massive beams and columns, the hand cut joints, the views of the city and the Western mountains beyond it, none of this is at all less enthralling.  But because I already have the photos of these views and these things, I felt released from the need to obsessively document, and was able to sit in the gloom of the temple and just smell the incense and feel the worn wood under me and listen to the big bell ring and the people swirling outside and just sink in to the experience itself.  How lovely.

I did do a little sketching, which I have decided I need to do more of in my time here, which reminded me how little I draw these days.  I hope to get better at it by the time we leave here.  And I did take a couple of photos.  But mostly what I did was sit and listen and smell and feel the place, and sit with my students, cajoling them to do the same.

Seems like that may be the flavor of this trip:  That instead of experiencing it through a little black plastic box I experience it the way that people have for centuries, and then relate it back through stories, which will have a different flavor this time.  Here are some sketches and photos:

Some sketches from today.

I love these baby Buddhas with bibs.

I took a photo of this last time, fun to draw it.

This is the big gong the sound of which reverberates throughout the temple.

Every temple has calligraphers, who will do calligraphy specific to the temple.  The three characters down the left hand side of this page are "kiyo,' "mizu," and "dera."
Just a dad waiting for his kiddos to come out of the temple.  Some things are familiar across cultures.

Just because you are in a stunning kimono doesn't mean you don't like a good selfie.

Some really nice CNC-cut planters for the side of a steep hill.
I love the way the curve of this maple tree accentuates the three dimensional grid of the columns and beams.