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Ceramic works by Studio Odahara

Hi, Iacopo:
Thank you for keeping me on your mailing list. Sincerely appreciate your generosity and love of Japan, and her culture.
I’m a ceramic artist with a deep appreciation of wood, using Japanese kashigata, carved cherry molds in my work:
http://www.mnartists.org/polonianovack
Currently researching where my Japanese grandparents were born in Japan. Once I’ve sorted out details, planning to make a pilgrimage to their birthplaces. 
Your projects sound compelling and full of promise. Wishing you continued success.
With kind regards,
Polonia Odahara Novack
Studio Odahara
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Is this paradise?

I received this beautiful picture from a kind client in Australia who installed this oversized kadomaru (L=1300mm) made of hinoki wood instead of the regular sawara.
I do not know about you but I could just keep staring at this photo for hours. Doesn`t it look like paradise?

Hello Iacopo 

Thought you might like to see where one of your beautiful tubs ended up. 

Covered of course to avoid damage from sun but lovely like this when we enjoy a soak

Regards
M.

Kumano, Shu-gen-do and more!

Following from the previous blog entry, after the visit at the Furuya house, we had lunch with the city hall staff and other consultants and I spoke about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route and how many European tourists skip the beaten track and head straight to the Koya-san monasteries.

(If you are not familiar, the Kumano Kodo is a 4 to 6 days pilgrimage trail also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wakayama prefecture)

Wouldn`t it lead to positive results both culturally and economically to appeal to these tourists rather than opening yet another aquarium with jumping dolphins?

My comment was maybe superficial – also considering the fact that I did not yet walk the Kumano route myself.
I just felt that if we had to find the Hannan hidden potential it was probably not on the tetrapods of the reclaimed shores but rather on the trails connecting Sakai to Mino and to Koya-san.
This generated a very interesting conversation about Shugen-do and maybe with some potential to change the destiny of the area.

Shugendo is a syncretic theosophy, with some similarities to the shamanism of the American Indians or the celtic druidism at its base (just to add another layer of syncretism…)
Shu-gen-do (literally: PRACTICE + MIRACLE + PATH) is the “path to gaining special powers as the result of training”. It was founded by En no Gyoja in the VII century and combined elements of ancient pre-Buddhist, Shinto worship of nature together with the doctrine and ritual of esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo), Taoism, Onmyōdō, astronomy, medicine etc.

The Shugen-do practitioners are also known as Yamabushi and have to spend time in the mountains (one trip for each season, 4 times a year) and learn from nature the truth about life. Thanks to this experience, they gain knowledge of curative herbs and in the past acted as healers and were believed to have superpowers. (As a side story, many ninjas used yamabushi techniques for fighting and disguised under the robes of pilgrims.) You can find a lot of information on the internet about yamabushis: let me just add one comment (as I did not find it elsewhere) : the best definition of what “Yama”-“bushi” are can be found in the literal reading of the kanji: “mountain” + “human + dog”: in the sense that practitioners seek freedom from the control of their rational mind to become like animals a part of nature and understand its rules and power.

Shugendo was outlawed by the Meji government as the newly established Emperor was aiming at creating a simple pyramidal structure where he was the chief of a depurated Shinto religion and therefore Buddhism and Shintoism had to be forcibly separated.
(Before then, most of the sacred sites included Buddhist and Shinto buildings side by side, as you can still see in Asakusa – which is now an exception).
In any case, the Yamabushi continued their training in secret until they were rehabilitated after WWII. During the years of concealment, Shugen-do was mainly absorbed within the Shingon Buddhism and Tendai Buddhism influencing its present structure and rituals.

↑ photo copyright by http://wadaphoto.jp/

But the core component of Shugen-do is very simple and there is no sacred text or theory. You just have to walk (in silence) in the mountains and go through trials like climbing a steep cliff, meditate under a cold waterfall or walk on fire. Nature will teach you the truth about life, without the necessity for any interpretation or mediation. No theory, just do it!
Isn`t it powerful?

There were hundreds of holy mountains providing the challenges and the teachings necessary to become a wise man but the most famous areas for wanderers are:

  • The now lost paths of Mino (north of Osaka) and Ikoma mountains where En no Gyoja, fascinated by the red maple leaves started to develop his practices.
  • The most famous of all times is the Omine mountain range which includes the Kumano, Kinpusen and Yoshino super-holy sites, making it the mecca of the “mountain wisdom seekers”.
  • Koya-san was not properly a Shugen-do site but of course distinctions were much more fuzzy in the past. It is technically part of the Kii-Omine mountain range but it is so sacred that I am listing it separately. Koya san was connected to Sakai and Osaka by a pilgrimage route.
  • Dewa Sanzan – the Three Sacred Mountains in Yamagata prefecture (north-west Tohoku). Mount Haguro,  “the mountain representing the existing world,”  Mount Gassan, “the mountain representing the past,” and Mount Yudono, “the mountain representing the future,” alone can teach you everything you ever hoped to know … and more!
  • Hakusan (lit. white mountain) is the collective name for a number of sacred Japanese mountains that converge along the borders of four prefectures (Ishigawa, Fukui, Gifu, and Toyama) in northwest Honshū From early on, Hakusan was known as a “mountain realm inhabited by kami” and banned to normal people.
  • The Isu peninsula with its ancient hot springs holy sites and Shinto-Buddist – one thousand handed Kannon statues
  • Mt. Ontake in the Kiso Region (Nagoya)
  • The Katsuragi mountain in Nara prefecture
  • The Ishizuchi mountain in Shikoku Island
  • Last but not least, Hiko-mountain in Kyushu featuring giant buddhas carved in the cliff.

The practice included some rituals before “entering-into-the-peak” (nyubu girei) but as those traditions were handed down orally, there are very few traces remaining nowadays. But most importantly (and here I am coming to the point of this long entry) each path consisted of a number of stages: practical experiences to be done in order to absorb the wisdom from nature. These stages were marked by stone tablets or kannon statues, so that the practitioners could understand where to stop and what hint to look for. The Omine path has en route 75 ascetic practice stages called “Nabiki“.
Other paths consist of 33 stations, symbolic of the 33 manifestations of Kannon Bodhisattva.

And here is my idea and proposal. Did you know that the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra were buried among the peaks in the Katsuragi range which extends from Futagamiyama (Nara) to Kada (at the gates of Wakayama)? At present only a few stations are known (#1 being a cliff in Tomogashima and #7 being a cold waterfall).
Also, it is amazing that the Katsuragi route would connect to the Omine and the Kumano pilgrimage route forming a triangle.
Onigashima is the island with the spectacular ruins of the Japanese Imperial Army batteries which is worth a visit alone! And there are 26 sutras that are waiting to be found in the mountains leading back to Yoshino, in the heart of the old country of Yamato, the heart of Japan.

Don`t you think it would be extremely thrilling to re-discover the forgotten Shugen-do path together with its treasures of wisdom?
The location is also ideal making it easy for the visitors of Koya san to intercept at least some stations. Also, being the Katsuragi mountains quite low it would be possible to cover the pilgrimage in 2 days creating an introductory experience for those who could then decide to wander the Kumano or Omine range on their next trip.
It would be culturally exciting – and I think also commercially successful to rediscover and restore in a non-invasive way the old Shugen-do Katsuragi path and all of its 28 stations. What do you think?

Giving it a try, instead of just wrapping ourselves in theoretical thinking.
Learning while experiencing this wonderful World we have all for us: isn`t it the perfect antidote against the invisible force that sucks our time and confines our lives behind a virtual facebook avatar?

I would appreciate it if you let could let me know your opinion about such a project (via email or by commenting below) as I could use these data to convince the authorities to look at concrete ways to implement the project.
I know, it is not an easy way but – hey! – if it was easy what is the point?

strong as a castle gate – outlet tub – SOLD OUT

(sorry, sold out)

We just completed a large roten-buro (outdoor bath) for a hot spring in Hakone. As we had to use long pieces of lumber, we had some left overs: we picked up the best parts – heartwood only – and made this “hearty” ofuro for the outlet corner. We had several inquiries in the past month for knotty hinoki tubs but did not have any nice material on stock.
If you were looking for this type of ofuro you should act quickly because I am not sure when we will have another lot of such generous knotty hinoki.

This ofuro is simple and solid like the gate of a Japanese castle.
The length and width are very comfortable for 1 or 2 people and the 45mm plank thickness (compared to the normal 33mm) makes a bold statement. We usually use “beefy” planks when the clients require a large ofuro but want to avoid the top edge reinforcing frame. An option worth 1,200-1,500 USD alone!
Last but not least, the pattern of the knots as you can see is very well balanced on both sides. A bolder accent in the center (like a constellation) on one side and a more subtle harmony of knots on the other side. We applied the copper apron on both sides so you are free to choose how to orient it.

I am realizing that my writing ability today is overwhelmed by the multiple outstanding features. It is like trying to use all my muscles to push through the inexpugnable castle gate. I think this ofuro even more than the others cannot be explained with rational means. It definitely belongs to the realm of the emotions, with its stronger than average hinoki aroma (due to the knots), the thick walls and the organic pattern of the wood grain.
Yes, I am sure that absorbing this primitive strength from the fibers of this tree will provide the owner the power to break through the sturdiest castle gate!
(oh- I think I went a little too far…)

(more…)

Hannan City revival?

I have been invited by Hannan City, in Wakayama prefecture to participate in a committee to study ways of promoting tourism and valorizing the historical heritage.
Hannan City is just east of the bridge conneting to the Kansai Airport artificial island. Since most of the traffic is westward (towads Sakai and Osaka), Hannan City – as well as Wakayama City – is cut out

It is needless to touch in this article the shadows of the whole deal: the mountain flattened to infill the airport, the abstract monument made of rocks on the beach and closed to the public by a barricade, the strategies and alliances to split the cake of the public aids or create yet another theme park with dolphin shows.

But there are also chances to save the old buildings still standing, with some compromises. One of the more notable house is the Furuya house. Boosting a 1200 uninterrupted lineage as rulers of the area, the Hatanaka samurais,
at the time of the Meji restoration had to pick up a last name as a “civil” family and properly picked Furuya which means Old house (in the meaning of old lineage). The Hatanakas owned a land of about 20 cho (200 hectares). A military airport build during the WWII deprived them of 50 hectares and the Nankai trail line exprepriated some other land and left them with the about 6 hectares of the present lot. Which is still a huge lot by any standard.

From some 400 years the Furuyas have been the rice tax exactors on behalf of the government and the property consists of a kind of maze of some 10 buildings connected by courtyards and gardens. The lot has its own 500years old well and its own river: unfortunately its boulders have been cementified but nevertheless, this forested area is a paradise for the birds and kind of an unreal experience for us that are not used to hearing birds chirping.
The property has 5 tea rooms and many artifacts worth being classified as important historical asset. The asymmetrical ranma transom, the sword guards used as door handles attracted the attention of the academics for the past 40 years but as there is no benefit but only burdens in listing the house as an historical property, the owners have been steering off this way.
As the owner age approaches 94, I hope we will be able to do something to preserve the property: a rare piece of civil architecture left to show us the structure of the society in the Edo period and even before.

I am splitting the description of the Hannan city visit. Please check the next blog entry as well.

Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum

I am dedicating this post to my friend Anke who is an architect like me and I am sure would love the architecture and displays of this museum.

Takenaka Komuten Co. is one of the most famous “super-general contractors” in Japan, having built the Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Dome Stadium as well as other major airports, public buildings, skyscrapers.
Being founded in 1603 it is definitely the oldest of the “big 5” general contractors (with Obayashi, Kajima, Shimizu, and Taisei)
After the WW2, when Japan was exposed to power tools, reinforced concrete and steel frame construction, Takenaka felt the need to preserve the heritage and the memory of the glorious japanese timber frame construction techniques and culture and founded this “Tools Museum”
https://www.dougukan.jp/information?lang=en

It was transferred 7 years ago to an idyllic location just a few minutes away from the shinkansen “Shin Kobe” station making it easy to visit even if you have to make a detour. I am telling you: it is definitely worth a visit and after having a clear understanding about japanese construction culture and details you will appreciate much more your visits to the temples in Nara or Kyoto.

The beautiful high-tech and warmly handmade building by Takenaka Komuten is a must-see in itself, featuring maniac woodworking details, huge glass openings framing the luxurious green and the plasterwork of the master Akira Kusumi.

Big news within the news: I will be offering a guided tour of the museum in english for visitors coming to Kobe on a cruise. The organizer is JTB the tour operator and at present we are looking at a schedule of about once a month starting in january 2020.
For this purpose I was showed around by the museum director himself: wonderful man formerly member of the design section of Takenaka Komuten. I took some 224 pictures and I would like to share them with you hoping they can provide a good enough excuse to bring you to Kobe.
I am not going to share all of the 220+shots, but they will still be too many for a normal blog post. I will try to use a photo gallery plugin hoping it works. Please let me know of any usability or compatibility problem.

information about the location and opening hours, please visit the museum homepage: https://www.dougukan.jp/information?lang=en

ancient artworks

In the past year I have been developing a friendly relationship with Mr. Kitayama: an art collector and art broker from Kyoto.
He has amazing pieces and he would be interested to know foreign art collectors interested in purchasing/trading. Of course he is very cautious but he agreed to this blog post. I hope I can act as a bridge between him and western collectors who can appreciate his pieces.

Most of the information is confidential but he allowed me to publish here 3 photos just to explain the type of items he can offer.

He has many Buddha statues. One even from the Nara Period, with some minor fire damage (but I could not publish the photo). Some statues are slightly unfinished and were never displayed. Also I saw many photos of kakejiku scrolls, byobu screens ceiling decorative panels etc. from the Muromachi period (XIV century) to the Edo period (XIX century)

The reality is that most japanese art collectors are now very elderly.
Their heirs are not interested in those pieces and they are scared at the thought that their jewels could be sold in bulk to some Chinese trader for 1/10 of the value.

His network includes many owners of collections of hundreds of baroque violins, french impressionist paintings and ancient chinese porcelain.
Of course, I cannot swear on the originality of every item but I have trust in Mr. Kitayama and know of too many scrolls and porcelain thrown in the dump together with the debris of the house after the owner passes away.

He does not have an homepage and most of the items are hidden in “kura” buried among old furniture and cardboard boxes. For those interested, please contact me by email.

ofuro details page

We are ready to proceed with the tub but have a few more questions. Does it need a copper apron? What’s the iron for? What are the dowels? Will it survive out doors in NYC Acid rain etc?

Please note:
1) apron:
https://bartokdesign.com/5-tub_details/hinoki_bath_details_shape_and.php

we can provide both copper apron and oil treatment for the tub bottom.
Copper makes it very resilient also as per the english saying…
https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/copper-bottomed.html

2) iron brand:
This is our logomark applied with a hot-seal.
https://bartokdesign.com/5-tub_details/hinoki_bath_details_drain_and.php
If you prefer we can omit it.

3) dowels:
they are wood pegs to conceal the stainless steel screws that reinforce the corners.
https://bartokdesign.com/5-tub_details/hinoki_bath_details_drain_and.php

4) outdoors use:
please purchase a custom made thermal cover in the US.
The ofuro needs to be protected while not in use not just from the acid rain but especially from direct sunlight exposure.
When the ofuro is full of water there is no problem, but while it is empty it is vulnerable to dehydration which may lead to dryness damage and cracks.

Please refer to the INFO -> DETAILS AND OPTIONS menu for a comprehensive list of our standard details and feel free to contact me for any other question or problem.

durability of different woods

I was told that sawara has poor durability compared to hinoki and kouyamaki is better durability,… can you clarify? which is better for longevity and mold resistance and cracking?
Hinoki contains more aromatic oil than sawara so in a test environment it can be said that it is more resistant… Anyway the secret to have a long lasting ofuro is love and care. Like a nice pair of leather shoes: it is smart to prevent problems with a constant even if easy maintenance. In case you need to repair a problem it will be costly and time consuming and you will never be able to restore the original condition 100%. It does not matter too much which type of wood you use. Just avoid contact with soap and dry condition. And ventilate well to avoid mold. It is that simple.

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