Sunday, 16 March 2014

Keeping Japan's 1,300-year-old tradition alive

Old ways: Oak Village uses complex joinery systems that date back more than 1,300 years to create modern furniture that will last a long time. - Photos by SHIGEKI WATANABE

Old ways: Oak Village uses complex joinery systems that date back more than 1,300 years to create modern furniture that will last a long time. - Photos by SHIGEKI WATANABE

To uphold Japan’s carpentry techniques, a Gifu-based company injects a contemporary edge into its woodcraft and subscribes to the sustainable mantra.

LONG before the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Tadashi Inamoto had an epiphany.

“I realised I couldn’t save the world with nuclear physics,” says Inamoto who ditched his career in nuclear physics to become a wood craftsman 40 years ago.

“For humans to survive, we need clean water and fresh air. So we need to cherish and love trees.”

Inamoto went on to found woodworking company Oak Village in Gifu Prefecture’s Hida region in 1974. Based in the picturesque city of Takayama, Oak Village’s workshop produces furniture, tableware, children’s toys, stationery, toiletries and aromatherapy oils. Its offshoot, Oak Village Wooden Architecture Laboratory, provides architectural design and built services.

Oak Village is nestled in the beautiful mountainous Hida-Takayama region of Japan's Gifu Prefecture.
Oak Village is nestled in the beautiful mountainous Hida-Takayama region of Japan’s Gifu Prefecture.

“My philosophy is to turn 100-year-old trees into 100-year-old products,” says Inamoto, 69, during our interview at Oak Village’s Takayama workshop last year.

To fashion top-quality wooden products that can be passed on for generations, Inamoto looks to Japan’s ancient joinery technique – a method of construction that eschews the use of screws, bolts and nails, relying instead on a complex joinery system.

Hida’s master builders

Hemmed in by rugged mountains in central Japan, the Hida region is noted for its master builders dating back to the Nara and Heian periods (710CE-1185CE). In lieu of paying taxes, Hida officials would despatch skilled carpenters to the then capital of Nara to construct buildings and temples. Some of these magnificent temples, including Tôdai-ji, Yakushi-ji and Hôrûy-ji are designated as Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Sites. 

Built 1,400 years ago, the Hôrûy-ji pagoda is apparently the oldest wooden building in the world. Dubbed Hida no takumi (roughly, artisans of Hida), these craftsmen mastered the art of joinery in which a piece of wood is fitted into another using various joinery techniques, or tsugi-te (a generic term for joinery including spliced and angled joints). 

Timber-framing joints, for example, help isolate vibration while maintaining structural integrity – a vital trait needed to construct flexible (ie, can be dismantled) yet structurally strong houses in earthquake-prone Japan.

Oak Village's Takayama showroom.
The company’s showroom in the city of Takayama.

Many of these carpentry techniques have been handed down for generations.

“A craftsman who has mastered these traditional techniques and tools can apply his knowledge and expertise to modern machines and different materials,” Inamoto says.

Oak Village takes it a notch further by bringing these age-old techniques into play with their contemporary furniture. Bestsellers, like the oak-crafted Swallow chair, sport a modern feel yet are light and sturdy.

Inamoto’s 20 craftsmen, including carpenters and woodworkers, use a combination of traditional hand tools, like chisels, saws and wooden planes, and machines. Fashioning complex joinery is hard work; unsurprisingly, it takes an average of 10 days for the workshop to create five tables of various sizes.

Solid wood (instead of plywood or veneer) and mainly nara (oak; Quercus crispula), kuri (chestnut; Castanea crenata) and sen (prickly castor oil tree; Kalopanax septemlobus) are the craftsmen’s choice of materials.

Dubbed the “King of the Forest”, oak is known for its hardiness, appealing grains and high resistance to insects and fungus. Strong and elegant, chestnut wood is used for tabletops and other visible areas of furniture. Often referred to as “white ash”, sen’s grain is like that found in the elm family’s zelkova tree, but the wood is lighter and has a softer hue.

Oak Village founder Tadashi Inamoto is a nuclear physicist turned wood craftsman, writer and environmentalist.
Oak Village founder Tadashi Inamoto is a nuclear physicist turned wood craftsman, writer and environmentalist.

Oak Village only uses trees from planted forests and second-growth forests in Japan (second-growth forests account for more than 55% of Japan’s forests) with some trees over 100 years old.

To ensure nothing goes to waste, the leftover wood is used for smaller products like toys and stationery.

“We try to make products that will last at least as many years as the trees used in those products,” says Inamoto, one of Japan’s leading environmentalists today.

“It’s our way of paying respect to the forests from which we received these great resources.”

Today, Oak Village has 65 employees with showrooms in Tokyo and Osaka.

One acorn for every child

But why not run a non-profit organisation (NPO) to protect the forests instead?

“It would have been difficult for us to get funding if we are only an NPO,” says Inamoto, ever the pragmatic activist. “With a business enterprise like Oak Village, I can channel our profits to our NPO, Donguri no Kai (Acorn Club).”

Set up in 1981, the Acorn Club works on the premise that “if we take one tree from a forest, we must give one back”. The club engages schoolchildren and local communities across Japan to collect and nurture seeds, and plant 30,000 saplings annually.

A cuckoo clock by Oak Village.
A cuckoo clock by Oak Village.

On top of green campaigns, Oak Village takes part in projects that re-use scrap wood. For instance, in the production of baseball bats, about 95% of the finished products are discarded due to stringent quality control.

“So we use this ‘wasted’ wood to make key chain straps and to convey our forest education message to customers. Profits from the sales go back into our tree-planting projects,” says Inamoto who has authored nearly 20 books with titles like Towards A Green Country, Living With The Woods and Aromas From Japan’s Forests.

One of Oak Village’s bestselling products, the children’s blocks, is crafted from 30 types of trees grown in Japan. Each tree’s name is etched on every individual block to help kids learn about the varieties of wood. Another bestseller is the wooden xylophone, aptly named “forest choir”. Typically, the length of the wood determines the pitch but in Oak Village’s xylophone, different types of wood produces different pitches.

“With the xylophone, kids not only hone their musical ability but learn about the different trees and the environment,” he adds.

Wood’s healing power

About 10 years ago, while researching a book on forests around the world, Inamoto met the illustrious British botanist and ecologist Sir Ghillean Tolmie Prance. The then-director of the renowned two-millennia-old Royal Kew Gardens is a specialist in Amazonian plants. He taught Inamoto about the healing powers of plants.

When Inamoto visited the Amazon, he was distraught to find that tree species like rosewood are going extinct due to unsustainable harvesting by perfume manufacturers.

A 20-year veteran, craftsman Kasuya Koichi, 45, uses a combo of traditional woodcraft techniques and machine to craft furniture.

“I discovered the value of aroma from plants, and that wood represents healing and enjoyment, and it is not just a material,” he says.

Over five years of trial and error, and with the help of forest experts and scientists, Inamoto found a way to extract essential oils from tree branches and leaves without destroying the whole tree. Oak Village works with a forestry management group to collect discarded branches and leaves, a by-product of secondary forest management in Hida.

Named Yuica, the essential oils are extracted from nine types of native trees including sugi (Japanese cedar), hinoki (Japanese cypress and momi (fir).

“My father was a doctor and he used to say prevention of illness is very important, that is why we make aromatherapy,” says Inamoto, who was born in Toyama Prefecture and moved to Gifu when he was a child.

“Most importantly, our customers are happy and touched by our products. They grasp the value of what we do.”

Ultimately, Oak Village strives to create products that not only enrich people’s lifestyle but also enhance the world for future generations.

As Inamoto sums up: “Forests are essential for human survival, so my dream is for human and forests to co-exist happily and healthily.”

Oak Village products are sold at lifestyle boutique atomi in Singapore; go to atomi-jp.com or call +65-6887 4138.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Oak Village , furniture , woodworking , traditional carpentry and modern designs , Gifu Prefecture , Japan


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