My wife Yuriko and I have shared a busy life, hers as a successful linguist and historian, mine mostly as a woodturner. When Yuriko retired a few years ago she decided to research her own family history and soon made a surprising discovery. In the town of Yamanaka on the west coast of Japan there is a large granite statue of a very distinguished man wearing a kimono. His name was Kumakichi Araya. Yuriko discovered that he was her great grandfather, but even more amazingly she learned that he was one of the most famous woodturners in the region!
Yuriko with the statue of her great-grandfather.
In Japan woodturners are not usually known by name, but her ancestor is famous because he used woodturning to create a company that is still active and important. After Japan started to open up to the West from the middle of the 19th century, bicycles became very popular. However, the Japanese did not have the technology to make wheel rims out of metal. Mr. Araya was a turner in an area with a 400-year history of woodturning and he saw an opportunity to enter this new market. He started turning bicycle wheels out of wood and they filled the gap till he was able to change from wood to metal manufacture. This is how he founded the Araya bicycle company in 1903 and it is still a leader in bicycle technology that sells its products worldwide.
Even though Yuriko has been married to a woodturner for 38 years, discovering this personal link to the craft was a surprise, so she decided to do more research. In 2017 we travelled to Japan together to follow up what she had learned. We also invited our good French friends Isabelle and Christian Delhon as they always looked after us well in France and they had never been to Japan. In August we travelled from opposite sides of the world to meet in Tokyo.
Although I have investigated woodturning in Japan before, this time was different. With Yuriko in charge of planning, everything was much easier and she had arranged so many experiences. The day before the Delhon’s arrival we travelled a short distance from Tokyo to visit Masaaki Hiroi, who has been making traditional Edo tops and toys for 70 years. We found him in his unimposing house with the give-away pile of wood at the side. Mr. Hiroi has a cheeky personality, not concerned with the conventional expectations of Japanese society, and we enjoyed listening to his stories. I was completely amazed when he showed me his workshop. In Japan workshops are clean and tidy as a matter of principle, but his was the most chaotic and untidy workplace I have ever seen. There was so much junk on the floor that I could barely walk on it, but he was at ease there and sat down at his lathe to show us how he turns his magical toys. I will definitely be writing about him.
Masaaki Hiroi in his unusually messy workshop holding one of his creations
that comes to life when a string is pulled.
This bouquet of flowers becomes a rainbow when he spins it.
When Christian and Isabelle arrived we set out for some sightseeing. Travel by train in Japan is wonderful and the countryside unfolds spectacularly when you pass through at 285 kph! (177 mph).
Among the many sights we saw was the kinkakuji (golden pavilion temple) in Kyoto,
one of the treasures of the world.
After we had criss-crossed southern Japan, we went to Yamanaka on the west coast and our woodturning adventure began. I had been to Yamanaka without Yuriko in 1994 and met Torao Nakajima and his son Takehito. Now Nakajima senior trains young woodturners at the Ishikawa Woodturning Training Centre in Yamanaka, the only school of its kind in Japan, so he has handed over the daily running of the family business to his son. Mr. Nakajima is a wonderfully kind person who has the respect of all who know him and it was a privilege to introduce our French friends to him.
Nakajima Torao with one of his spectacular pieces –
proof that life as a production turner
does not preclude making one-off pieces.
In the workshop Takehito showed us how he roughs out a bowl for the first drying (all Japanese turners turn each bowl three times to ensure there is no warping after it is complete). I photographed each stage and that is another story for me to write soon. I asked him how many bowls he can turn like that in one day. I will not write the answer here, as I would like you to take a guesstimate, but you will find the answer at the end of this story.
Takehito Nakajima in the middle of a production run of bowls – his daily work..
We posed for the obligatory group shot and then Mr. Nakajima took us to the woodturning school.
With the Nakajima family L-R: Nakajima Takehito, Yuriko Martin, Nakajima Torao, Mrs Nakajima,
Terry Martin, Isabelle Delhon, Christian Delhon.
Woodturning in Yamanaka has a distinctive tradition going back 400 years and the school was established in 1997 to preserve this heritage. Interest in the arduous traditional apprenticeships had declined and the school was established to counteract this trend. They offer two levels of training, Basic and Advanced, each of two years' duration. There are 13 teachers from the area, but each course has a maximum of 5 students, so the student/teacher ratio allows for intensive instruction. The course even includes flower arranging and tea ceremony and there is a traditional tea room in the school. That is another story in itself, but for me the most interesting fact was that more than half of the students are women. Until recently there were no women turners in Japan, but declining numbers meant that this very traditional craft has sensibly opened its doors to women. Nakajima-san didn’t want to take any credit for that, but the women we met spoke so highly of him and all that he has done for them that there is no doubt he was a key driver of the change.
One of the students at the woodturning school. Western turners often call this way of turning “strange”, but they don’t consider that our way of turning seems strange to Japanese turners. This is the direct result of one of the longest turning heritages in the world going back thousands of years in Japan and China.
Next we travelled to the "birthplace" of Japanese turning, Ogura No Sato, in the region surrounding the city of Higashi Oomi. Woodturning was brought to Japan from mainland Asia along with the material culture associated with the rise of Buddhism. While much of this culture was Chinese in origin, many of the craftsmen came from Korea. Although the Japanese do acknowledge it, the details of this history were largely brushed out in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Japanese nationalism was on the rise.
Yuriko had arranged for us to be met by a representative of the local government. His name was Mr. Takizawa, a charming man who seemed to enjoy being out in the countryside as much as we did. He first took us to a temple with an ancient grove of hinoki (Japanese cypress). The oldest tree was 2,300 years old, 54 metres high and 11 metres in diameter! The tree was as healthy as a tree can be and just too large to do it justice in a photograph.
One of the many revered ancient hinoki in Japan, this one is 2,300 years old.
The rope and folded paper are signs of respect for the spirit of the tree.
We then took a winding mountain road that narrowed and twisted as we penetrated the dark forest. This is a reminder that despite the big city lights, 68% of Japan is still covered in forests. It was a journey into the past - the occasional villages became smaller and smaller, and all signs of modern Japan fell behind us. Eventually we arrived at the small hamlet of Kimigahatake. Sadly, many of the houses were falling into ruin. The mountainous countryside of Japan is filled with declining villages like this as the young people flock to the bright city lights. It was even sadder when we were taken to another place which was once the site of a thriving woodturning village - all silent and empty forest now. Perhaps the trees have had their revenge.
We walked, up and up a narrow path until we emerged into a grove of ancient trees with a scattering of temple buildings. We were told this was the "birthplace of Japanese turning".
The temple complex at Kimigahatake.
Mr. Takizawa explained that 1300 years ago turning was first officially given imperial approval, and turners were given the right to travel as artisans from one region to another. Prince Koretaka of the imperial family gave this approval, and this serene and peaceful place was created out of respect for him.
The temple complex at Kimigahatake.
Back in the village we visited the only woodturner still working there. Shoji Tanaka lives alone and is a typical hard-working Japanese woodturner, making thousands upon thousands of pieces a year.
Shoji Tanaka in his storehouse where he dries wood till it is ready for turning.
Next we were taken to meet the mayor of Higashi Oomi, Mr. Ogura. He is a very outgoing man and he kept us fascinated with his stories as he entertained us in his traditional Japanese house in Hirutani village. This village was once a settlement of 23,000 households engaged in turning – an incredible number at any time. We talked with Mr. Ogura at length, but a key moment came when Yuriko mentioned her turning ancestor. The change in Mr. Ogura was amazing. From a very confident, bluff manner, he suddenly lowered his head below Yuriko’s and gently reached out to take her hand with both of his. It was a moment of profound respect.
He spoke proudly of his own ancestry and told us that archives confirm that he is a 58th generation descendant of his woodturning family going back 1160 years. It was an astonishing fact. All turners share the ancient heritage of turning, but this was probably the oldest confirmed family lineage in the world. We posed for the usual group photo and then went to see the records he had spoken of.
Mayor Ogura with the happy travellers.
The archive buildings looked very like a temple and in the garden we saw a monumental stone that looked like it has been there for many hundreds of years. Yuriko translated for us: the first word, inscribed deeply into the moss-covered stone, was rokuro, meaning "lathe". It was very impressive and I was moved by this powerful and venerable monument to the craft I love. But in Japan you should never assume too much as it will always surprise you. The next word Yuriko translated was mannenhitsu, which means "fountain pen"! Perhaps the stone was not as ancient as it looked? Eventually Yuriko found out that it was erected in 1973 by a Japanese pen company. From the early 20thC they had their pens made out of turned wood and to acknowledge this history they commissioned the monument. I thought of the thousands of turners in the West who devote their time to turning pens, many of them thinking it is a relatively new idea, but the Japanese were doing it a hundred years ago. And why not? They were probably turning brush handles for over a thousand years before that.
The monumental stone with a surprise dedication.
Inside we saw a treasure trove of ancient artefacts and documents, and plenty of confirmation that all the stories are based on recorded history.
The names of turners are recorded in documents so ancient that modern Japanese can’t read them
without expert help. This is a register of woodturning households.
This scroll is an Imperial message to woodturners, dated AD 935.
All of these adventures will be subjects for me to write about for different publications over the coming months. The information I have is so rich and it is all because of the hard work of Yuriko.
And now back to Takehito Nakajima in Nakayama. When I asked him how many bowls he could do in a day, without any sense of arrogance he calmly replied, "Two hundred". That number, matter-of-factly stated, tells us so much about the work ethic and skill of Japanese turners.
"I made this."