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Japan! The Three Week Craft Adventure

jarrod dahl

Post edit- This blog post ended up being exactly what I didn't want, an epic story of our trip full of ideas and wild tangents. My very busy teaching season began just a week before this trip. I'm teaching classes coast to coast on top of my regular classes at North House Folk School. I'll also be teaching at Spoonfest in the UK.  Put all this together with the other big project which is writing a book on pole lathe turning (more on that later) and clearly my time is very limited. But I just couldn't pull off a short post. I really had to include the backstories and my thoughts and ideas that relate to what we experienced. It's a great way to process all that we learned too. With so much to share, it was hard not to include it all. I hope you enjoy reading my ramblings.

In mid-March, Jazmin and I traveled to Japan and stayed for nearly 3 weeks. This trip was a long time coming. I've had a very strong interest in Japanese culture and craftsmanship since I first started reading house design books years ago. Two books worth mentioning are Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings by Edward Morse and The Genius of Japanese Carpentry by S. Azby Brown. But there are many more. These books gave me an introduction into the making/design ethos in Japan. 

The first stages of planning the trip began more than a half a year earlier when I began the dialogue about teaching a few workshops with two important Japanese green woodworkers—Masashi Kutsuwa and Tomio Imaru. Both Masashi and Tomio are teachers, chair makers, and all around great people. Both caught the green woodworking bug years ago and even spent some time with Mike Abbott in England.

I first met Masashi in 2016 in Sweden at Täljfest. He was attending the event with his wife Madoka and their daughter Fuku. I attended one of Masashi's presentations there. Masashi is a woodworking instructor and associate professor at the Gifu Academy of Forest Science and Culture. He talked about his greenwood chair making and his brilliant shavehorse design, his apprenticeship in Scotland with a furniture maker, and his work with Mike Abbott. Madoka  also gave a demonstration on urushi lacquer. This is where I learned that urushi may just be the best completely natural finish for woodenware and that it's been used on woodenware and other things like baskets for over 7000 years. It's tricky stuff to handle because it contains urushiol. That's the same stuff in poison oak and ivy.  She told us that when she was first learning to use it her face swelled up so bad she couldn't open her eyes, but now she has an immunity to it. Yikes! Once urushi is cured, it is resistant to water, heat, alcohol and even strong acids. It also breathes and moves with the wood.

Tomio has been on my radar for some years. This was back when I was on Facebook, and also when the days of blogging were a very important part of the growing green woodworking scene. My friend Robin Wood talked about him a few times on his blog. I remember watching Youtube videos of him turning on a pole lathe and was very interested in his work. Tomio runs a green woodworking school in Fukushima that offers classes on pole lathe turning, chair making and spoon carving.

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After months of emailing back and forth, Masashi, Tomio and I finalized the plans. In Gifu I was to teach a 5-day workshop called One Tree. In Fukushima I would teach a 2-day pole lathe turning class focused on turning lidded boxes from green wood. In between workshops I would study in Yamanaka-Onsen with a master woodturner I'd been in contact with. Jazmin and I would also visit Kyoto for two days before the first class in Gifu.

The 5-day class is something that I've been teaching more frequently. In fact I'm about to head over to Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Washington to teach a version of this class. Later this summer I'll teach a similar class at North House where we will use birch. The bark adds a pile of other projects to the class. Then in the Fall I'll teach it again for the last time this year at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine.

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I've found that people are very interested in getting into the nuts and bolts of green woodwork and what a better way than to spend 5 days making all kinds of goods from one tree. In these 5-day classes we start off with riving the wood, then learning knife grips while making chopsticks, spoons and spreaders. We then move into shrink pots with fitted lids. Each class is a little different as the material dictates what is possible to make. We also make coat hooks, and cutting boards or small serving boards.  There is plenty of time to discuss sharpening, design, and all the other stuff that doesn't quite fit into a 2-3 day class.

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In Gifu we used Cherry and Magnolia (think yellow popular). We also harvested the bark from the cherry and Jazmin taught everyone to make knife sheaths. It was such a great class! The folks who attended came from all over the country. All who attended were very kind and very focused. I was a bit thrown off at first having to stop mid thought so Masashi could translate. But after the first day I learned to think about the more specific ideas I was intending to share instead of the stream of consciousness style I find myself using most times. By the third day folks began to ease into asking me questions in their best English and I tried to explain the answer the best I could. I became very aware of the many slang words, idioms and expressions that made no sense to Japanese folks. It was such a great experience to teach in this way. It really helped me to use very clear and simple language.

 It was a big class...

It was a big class...

 Traditional Japanese spoon carving tools and a spoon.

Traditional Japanese spoon carving tools and a spoon.

In the evenings Masashi took us to all kinds of restaurants to sample the local foods. We ate so much great food! We had udon with strong red miso, went to a place that specialized in grilled eel and had been serving it for over 150 years, ate various cuts and parts of pig grilled right in front of us (the grill was in the center of the table), soba noodles (one of my favorites) a few times and a fair amount of sashimi. Japanese food is generally served with a few small sides of pickled vegetables, or other goodies and a bowl of plain rice. Japanese people take the craft of cuisine seriously. Dishes were not only tasty, but also presented like artwork. It wasn't until we were on the plane back home, after opening up our chopsticks that came with our dinner, and looking at our neighbor who chose the plastic fork instead, that we realized we hadn't used a fork in over 20 days. 

 One of Masashi's chairs.

One of Masashi's chairs.

After the Gifu workshop we traveled to Ishikawa Perfecture to a town called Yamanaka-Onsen. It's a hot springs town so all the hotels had hot spring bathhouses (onsen) to soak in. Hot springs are a very big deal in Japan. Folks go there for a kind of holiday to rest and eat. As I understand it every hot spring is a little different. The waters all have a different mineral content and temperature. We went to 4 different onsen while we were in Japan. The bath house has separate parts for men and women. Once you enter, you undress and in a small little shower with a stool for squatting you scrub down with soap and water and rinse off very well. Then with a little towel in hand walk over to the various pools of hot water and soak. You shouldn't put the towel in the pools, but place the towel folded on top of your head. When you leave you scrub down again with the towel. It's a really nice experience. If you ever find yourself in a hot springs town, I'd say go, don't hesitate, it's really nice.

 Takehito's woodturing workshop with all the bowl blanks waiting to be turned.

Takehito's woodturing workshop with all the bowl blanks waiting to be turned.

We were in Yamanaka for one reason—I was to train with a master turner there for 3 days. Yamanaka and the surrounding area is one of four major woodturning areas in Japan. Takehito Nakajima runs a turning studio that his father started years earlier. At the time of our visit he also had two apprentices working with him. They all worked to produce 1000's of wooden bowls and cups every year. There are over 30 of these turning workshops in Yamanaka and the surrounding area so that makes for a lot of woodturning. If you've read the article I wrote for Mortise and Tenon Magazine on "Mastery Through Production Work" for issue 4 this Spring, you'll know I have a great interest in the type of work that involves repetition. Takehito's skill was mind-blowing something that happens from making similar forms for over 27 years.

 Takehito explains the Yamanaka lathe.

Takehito explains the Yamanaka lathe.

 Piles of blanks.

Piles of blanks.

To me Japan has a strong wood culture. It seems odd to look at it in this way because wood still plays a major role for most of the world today from building materials, furniture and cabinetry to—of course the most common wooden household item—the cutting board. Ever notice that wooden plywood is used as forms for skyscrapers and highway overpasses?  But on a broad level wood is not used much in the form of woodenware here in the States. In fact people are afraid of it. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the wooden bowls or spoons can be used to eat with. As a bowl and cup turner I am very intrigued by the fact that the wooden bowl and other domestic woodenware has a special place in the Japanese home. Much of it is lacquered and to the point of such perfection that it can be mistaken for plastic. Of course the tradition goes back thousands of years before plastic. I tried to learn what I could about the use of woodenware there, but only got a small taste. There is so much more to learn.  Much of my interest is directly related to finding ways that I can promote the use of woodenware to a broader group of people than we see today here in the US. I find that the green woodworking world is just a very small part of a larger group of folks who use and are very interested in using woodenware. There is plenty of room for the market to grow and thus our culture of understanding of the forest, trees, and the benefits of using this beautiful material in our daily lives.

As some of you know I've built a Japanese-style electric lathe. It's been in progress for over a year. Just a few weeks before leaving for Japan I completed it and began using it in my production of woodenware. I can't remember when the first time I saw the lathe in use in my many wanderings on Youtube, but when I did, I became fascinated. They use a type of hook tool and a tool rest that sits on a table. The tool rest can be moved wherever the turner wants it to be. When I saw the tools in use I instantly recognised the technique as the same as turning on the pole lathe. On both lathes, for much of the cutting technique, the hook is used well below center. This is very different from Western electric lathes and part of the reason learning to turn on the pole lathe has such a steep learning curve.

My interest in this type of electric lathe is spurred on by the repetitive strain injury I have from turning for years on the pole lathe. I have nerve and tendon problems on my right side, most of which is in my standing leg. There were times in the recent past where the pain was very severe. I've grown to love turning so much that I needed to find a way to continue as I age. I tried sitting at the pole lathe, but found that the lack of power really limited the cutting, at least with the lathe design I use currently. I may just try to design a different lathe for sitting at instead of standing. The Japanese electric lathe is my compromise. Plus I can continue to design, forge and use hooks—in fact it's a very big part of either lathe. And the turning speeds are still relatively slow which is what I'm used to. I'm not interested in the high speeds and large horse power of the modern Western style lathes. I was born into wood turning on a pole lathe.

My time with Takehito-san was amazing. The first day we covered the lathe, tools, and cutting techniques. He demonstrated this while turning a bowl. After the demonstration I practiced on a small bowl and then we went to visit a cooperative that produces the bowl blanks for all the turners in the area.

Because of the quantities that are produced in Yamanaka and Kaga, the nearby town, this cooperative is very busy. There are a few other blank producers in the area too. When we arrived their was a small crew of people working through the various steps of producing bowl blanks. Two men were cutting 4-6in thick discs from a giant Zelkova (a type of elm) with a vertical saw mill. There was another man laying out the circles on the slabs avoiding any knots or trouble areas. He then cut each cylinder with a giant bandsaw by cutting in straight passes. After this first roughing the blanks were transferred over to two different duplicating lathes. These were powerful machines. After the blank is mounted in the chuck, the cutter (tail stock) follows a template and cuts the outside shape. The blanks then go to the next lathe which hollows the insides. After these steps, the blanks go into a vacuum kiln. There were giant piles of bowl blanks all over the warehouse. Takehito laughed as he mentioned he would come here and buy a whole pile at a time. 

 Myself, Takehito, Fumi, Masashi, and Fumiko

Myself, Takehito, Fumi, Masashi, and Fumiko

I never did find out just how many bowls are being produced in the area but my VERY conservative guess in 20,000 annually. Takehito's shop makes a few hundred at a time and that takes just a few weeks. Multiply this by months and then factor the other 30 plus turners' shops and their apprentices. I think I read that Yamanaka produces more woodenware than anywhere else in Japan. Mind blowing in many ways. I love that the more mindless machines do the roughing, but the skilled makers do the finish turning. The designs are not altered for the machine. Isn't this what machines are for, to do the rough work? So many times in our industrial world design is compromised by the method of production. It's not the case in the woodturning world of Japan. Of course the business of woodenware is still threatened in some ways. Cheap plastics and cheaper foreign production will always be a threat. That shouldn't come as a surprise. It's the same the world over. 

The next day we visited Japan's only woodturning school which is in the same town. It's a place where students learn the trade of woodturning over a two year period. After this time students can attend for another year or search for work as apprentices in workshops like Takehito's. The school takes on students from all over Japan. Many of them return home to set up shops in their own areas. Another surprising thing is that many of the students are women. This has not been the case until recently. I think it's a really good thing too. At the school Takehito demonstrated how he forged hooks in their blacksmith shop. Takehito's new apprentice Fumi and a student at the school also took part in the lesson. We talked about tool design and all the subtle things that make a good hook. Like the pole lathe hooks I make and use, I've come to understand that they are far from simple. What makes a good hook and a great hook is often a very small detail that at first can be easily overlooked. I was invited to forge a hook under the watchful eyes of everyone in the room. Folks were very curious about my interest and desire to learn about their style of turning coupled with the fact I came all the way from America and I knew how to make hooks.

 This strap lathe was in use until very recent time—the early 1900's.

This strap lathe was in use until very recent time—the early 1900's.

I'm very interested in the idea of trade schools and have been trying to sort out a model that I can adopt. I have searched and found a few handfuls here in the States. Many of them focused on furniture and design or boat building. The U.S. is so big it's really hard to find what I hope or assume are many schools or trainings that are operating under the radar in other fields of craft. I'm not talking about art schools or craft schools that have that bent to their focus. My interest is in a full-on trade school or at the very least ideas on how to teach and train people on a professional level.

After the tool forging we went back to Takehito's shop and hardened the hooks. I then set out to sharpen them and mount them on a turned handle. The sharpening takes about an hour per tool.

 This electric lathe replaced a type of reciprocating lathe that was used in between the strap lathe and the electric lathe.

This electric lathe replaced a type of reciprocating lathe that was used in between the strap lathe and the electric lathe.

The third day I turned all day. Takehito demonstrated and then I practiced. The lathes at Takehito's shop are set up level with the floor with the sitting area below the floor level. So you have to step down and wiggle into the seat. Under the worktable are foot peddles that control the direction of the lathe. The direction in which you turn depends on the part of the bowl you are shaping or the tools you are using. The main thing to take note of is that most bowls in Japan are end grain oriented. This makes the cutting very simple in relation to the fiber and tool cutting direction compared to the more complicated tangential turning techniques I have more experience with—at least for bowls. 

The first step is roughing with a hook or two and also completing the shape. There are templates to help with the shape because they make quantities of the same bowls. After the shape is complete, the turner uses a kind of scraper tool that is difficult to control. It's sharpened like a card scraper, but it's a hook of sorts. Too much pressure and it'll catch. When using this tool you slip the belt with the foot peddle to slow down the speed. That's a tricky move too. The final step is to scrape the item with a custom shaped scraper made from a thin piece of used high speed steel industrial hack saw blade. There is little to no sanding at all after the scraper. The finish is very smooth because the scraper is actually cutting and makes a fine shaving. The hooks were very aggressive, so it took a steady hand and the tool handle pushed tightly into my armpit to control them. When moving the tool across the surface Takehito taught me to use my entire upper body to shift the tool. I only caught a few times—ironically it was when I was moving to reposition my body on the bench and not while turning. Once I ended up catching the tip of one of my new hooks on the bowl rim during one of these body shifts and broke it. I guess I'm used to the workpiece not moving when I'm not pumping it.

In three days I learned so much, and yet it was just a brief introduction. I learned about the lathes and how to set up the peddles better, which was one of my main focuses. Now is the hard part. I have to practice and turn more with my new lathe, I need to tweak some things, and also make more hooks. I've already made 6 but need a few more to round out the basic set for the things I'm turning.

 Cutting the foot on a rice bowl.

Cutting the foot on a rice bowl.

Keep in mind our friend Masashi not only translated my 5 day class, but also traveled with us to Yamanaka. All dialogue went through him. I'm so indebted to him for the countless hours of bouncing back and forth between English and Japanese—not only the everyday stuff, but also the very technical information related to turning, tool making, etc... If you are reading this Masashi thank you again! Arigatogoziamas!

 Carved lacquered chestnut tray.

Carved lacquered chestnut tray.

On our way out of Yamanaka we visited Shinichi Moriguchi-san. Up until the late 1800's the rural folks spent their winter days splitting chestnut shingles. When they found the choicest pieces they would set them aside and carve serving trays from them. The making of these trays ended years ago, but Shinichi has been reviving the craft from this area and also teaching young people the techniques. His work with these traditional trays is very important because it is a true Japanese green woodworking craft. I'm working with North House Folk School to try to invite Shinichi and Masashi here to give talks and run a workshop or two. The trays are really sweet.

 Shinichi and an antique tray.

Shinichi and an antique tray.

 We visited his workshop and he gave me one of his trays.

We visited his workshop and he gave me one of his trays.

 Madoka teaches us how to use urushi lacquer.

Madoka teaches us how to use urushi lacquer.

After Yamanaka-Onsen we took a couple days off and stayed in Gifu at another hotel with an onsen. The famous cherry blossoms were blooming, so strolling around was very beautiful. We just wandered and rested in the hot springs. We also got a very short lesson in urushi lacquering from Madoka one afternoon before dinner.

 These handmade brushes are made from human hair and are specifically used in urushi work. There are only two individual makers in Japan today. The hair lies inside the entire wooden handle which can be trimmed away to get more bristle after extended use.

These handmade brushes are made from human hair and are specifically used in urushi work. There are only two individual makers in Japan today. The hair lies inside the entire wooden handle which can be trimmed away to get more bristle after extended use.

 Some of Madoka's lacquer work. The rough looking bowl was turned on an old strap powered lathe. The one in front of it I gave to her and it was turned on my foot powered lathe.

Some of Madoka's lacquer work. The rough looking bowl was turned on an old strap powered lathe. The one in front of it I gave to her and it was turned on my foot powered lathe.

 High end cotton yukata shibori. A 21 yard roll cost over $1000 because it was dyed with living vat indigo and tied by hand. Imagine the handwork labor and skill involved.

High end cotton yukata shibori. A 21 yard roll cost over $1000 because it was dyed with living vat indigo and tied by hand. Imagine the handwork labor and skill involved.

On our way to Fukushima we visited a town called Arimatsu. For a few hundred years it's main industry has been shibori (a type of tie-dyeing.) We walked around and stopped in all the shops where Jazmin bought some really nice fabric. We visited a family business that has been making shibori dyed kimono fabric for hundreds of years. There were 30 meter bolts of the finest silk fabric with such minute details and patterns that it took elder craftswomen 2 years just to tie it. This is no joke and simply mind bending!

 This is the kimono fabric. Each white area is wrapped with string before dyeing, little dots smaller than a pencil.

This is the kimono fabric. Each white area is wrapped with string before dyeing, little dots smaller than a pencil.

We traveled by Shinkansen (bullet train) and they do go really fast! Something like 200 mph. Inside the train it was quiet and smooth. I think Japanese people are very aware of personal space and in public spaces they are very quiet. This was comforting because travel can be intense for me.

Tomio and his friends picked us up at the train station and drove us about 45 mins to the ryokan where we stayed for a couple nights. A ryokan is a traditional inn which serves breakfast and other meals. We were in a small town so the hostess could not speak any English. But Tomio helped set up some protocols. When it was time to eat or take a bath (shared bath, but private) she would knock on our door and give us hand signals for each. We stayed in many ryokan on the whole trip and although many offer western style rooms with tall beds we always opted for traditional rooms with futon beds on tatami mat floors (tightly woven straw mats) and a low table for sitting. 

 Tomio's school in Furudono, Fukushima.

Tomio's school in Furudono, Fukushima.

In Japan the shoe thing is very real. You take them off when entering homes, some restaurants, ryokans and just about everywhere. There are piles of slippers for folks to use. I found that my feet are much larger than the average Japanese foot so the slippers where always quite awkward to fit into and walk around. I just kinda dragged my feet as I walked to keep them on. I wasn't the only one to do this though. Some Japanese men didn't fit the slippers either which made me feel less self conscious. The next visit I'll be bringing my own with me.

The two-day class at Tomio's Craft House School was attended by about a half dozen people all who had previous pole lathe turning experience. This was important as we were making lidded boxes like those I saw in Sweden last fall. The design is pretty universal though so the basic shape fit well for folks. The trick with making tight fitting lids out of green wood is to use large diameter trees. The bigger the better. Then you cut or split it up so that the radial plane is parallel to the top of the box and the the top of the lid. This is also known as quarter sawn in some circles. Orienting the fibers this way allows only a little movement across the width of the "board" or box and lid body. When dry, if you've cut precisely, the lid should fit and with a twist also lock. It's like putting two ovals inside one another and twisting one. They act kind-of like a cam and lock together. Folks did great! Everyone finished and had a great time.

 Tomio shredding up the the hunoki log.

Tomio shredding up the the hunoki log.

 Eager folks turning away. The man second from left is the president of Japan's Green Woodworking Association.

Eager folks turning away. The man second from left is the president of Japan's Green Woodworking Association.

Tomio's place is an old day care center so the workshop was a very large room with great light. He set up a bunch of lathes with bamboo poles for the class. Tomio and his wife Junko were kind hosts. The last three nights we stayed with them and ate more great food. I sampled some fine sake too. Tomio spoke pretty good English, but there were times when we had to take it slow and consider just what was trying to be said. 

 Jazmin looking at all the baskets

Jazmin looking at all the baskets

The last day before leaving we visited a bamboo basket maker who had been weaving baskets for 70 years! He was in his mid-eighties and moved around the workshop like a teenager. All the baskets he made were utilitarian. We made some small serving baskets with him and Jazmin made a hex weave basket. It was amazing watching him work. Splitting bamboo is very challenging especially as fine as these weavers were. He said it took about 5 years of solid work to really get the hang of it. We ended up buying a few baskets to bring home. The prices were very affordable.

 Check out this drawknife grip.

Check out this drawknife grip.

 I had to try it. It worked very well.

I had to try it. It worked very well.

 I kinda felt like Gandalf in a hobbit's home.

I kinda felt like Gandalf in a hobbit's home.

We spent most of the next day traveling to the airport and then heading home to the Mid-West.

 The awesome goods we brought back.

The awesome goods we brought back.

Two days later I traveled to North House for the annual instructor retreat where I was teaching a class with my chum Fred and I haven't really stopped since.

This trip has changed me. What I've seen cannot be unseen. What I've felt there cannot be forgotten. I don't often use quotes, but I recently read this in a magazine Jazmin reads called Selvedge whose focus is on the textile world. This quote has deep meaning to me: 

"The cult of the craftsman is alien to most of those with a western art eduction; where ideas and creativity are everything, even for those who don't have the skills necessary to communicate them. This concept is turned on its head in Japan, where skill and tradition are more highly prized." Polly Leonard, Blue Collar, Selvedge Magazine, Issue 81

The art world of ideas and creativity has heavily influenced the modern American craft world. Even in the traditional craft world makers alter their utilitarian objects because originality and highly decorated or even sculptural items tend to get more sales—or at the very least a lot of compliments. What about a world where people respect the craftsperson for making the same thing over and over again? Like many of the pottery traditions in Japan, the wooden bowl's shape  and form there has also remained relatively unchanged for generations. Each maker gets only a tiny claim to its evolution. No where have I felt so at home.  

 A wooden cup that I bought in Yamanaka-Onsen. Its as thin as a paper cup!

A wooden cup that I bought in Yamanaka-Onsen. Its as thin as a paper cup!