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Craftsman gets creative with Yakushima wood

by Edan Corkill

Derrel Grisham is an American, but it was a sense of nostalgia that drew him to the island of Yakushima off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture.

“I actually grew up near Tokyo,” the 57-year-old Grisham says. “My father was in the U.S. Air Force, and I spent my kindergarten and elementary school years in Takahata, near what was then the Tachikawa air force base.”

When, in 1991, he first saw the rice paddies, narrow roads and little farmhouses that still dominated the inhabited areas of Yakushima, it reminded him of what Takahata looked like almost 50 years earlier.

Grisham became enamored enough of Yakushima’s natural beauty, small scale and slow pace to relocate and remain there ever since — although in the ensuing years he has had to watch as what he liked best about the island gradually retreated in the face of development.

“After they announced that part of the island would become a (UNESCO) World Heritage site, then all of a sudden they started promoting tourism,” he says.

Grisham has made three trips to the island’s most famous landmark, a giant Yakusugi (cryptomeria) tree called Jomon Sugi that some say is 7,000 years old.

“The first time I went, before the World Heritage announcement, the tree was a part of the forest,” he says. “Every time I have gone back since, they have done something that I don’t think is good.”

The first change was to clear the forest surrounding the tree so it could be viewed by tourists more easily. “Then, of course, the soil began to wash away and the root system became exposed, so next they had to fix that and by the third time I went up there they had built a big viewing platform, quite a long way from the tree.”

The sense of the tree being a part of the forest was lost, he says. Add to that an increase in cars, hotels and shops and, Grisham laments, the island’s natural attractions have gradually been diminished.

Grisham is more conscious of Yakushima’s nature than most. He relies in part on the island’s forests for his — and hence his wife, son and daughters’ — livelihood. In addition to teaching English to locals, he earns his keep as a craftsman, working in particular with wood.

Grisham’s home in the northeastern village of Kusugawa has a small gallery in front where he displays his wares: bowls, vases, boxes and many smaller trinkets. There is also a large stump from a “beni tabu” tree (Machilus thunbergii) — one of the many types of local trees he uses.

Behind the gallery, which he also uses to hold private English lessons, is a workshop furnished with a wood-turning lathe that Grisham imported from Britain.

Standing by the large machine, Grisham explains that everything made of steel in the workshop needs to kept well-oiled to protect it from the island’s famously wet weather. “If you leave something unoiled here then in a few weeks you’ll have a nice layer of rust,” he says.

Grisham buys his wood — cherry, orange tree, persimmon tree, a type of conifer called “tsuga” and others — from a range of local dealers, some of whom collect driftwood and trees felled by typhoons. He also buys from some of the chipping companies that still operate on a small scale on the island.

Selecting pieces of wood for their colors, textures and grain patterns, he spends up to several weeks fashioning and sometimes combining multiple pieces of wood into various objects.

“The most popular things I make are the small trinkets that tourists buy,” he says, pointing out necklaces and straps that combine metal mounts with small pieces of cryptomeria.

They sell for ¥2,000 at local cultural centers, such as the Yakushima Island Environmental Culture Village in Miyanoura.

Grisham receives orders from outside Yakushima, too. One of the woods he uses, “kurokaki,” which is a persimmon that has been stained black by a type of fungus, is particularly popular among tea-ceremony aficionados, who think its complex grain patterns make for beautiful kimono accessories, such as “obidome.”

“I have some kimono-makers who fax me orders from Kyoto,” Grisham says.

After moving back to the United States as a child, Grisham attended the University of Arkansas before working in a government financial aid office for about eight years.

“I had to speak on the phone with people all the time,” he says. “At the time I was really interested in pottery, and I wanted to come back to Japan.”

Grisham returned to these shores in 1990. His mother is Japanese — a native of Kagoshima — so he had relatives in Kyushu. He worked as an English teacher for a couple of years before marrying a Kagoshima native and moving to Yakushima in 1992. He switched from pottery to wood-turning because it required less space, and because Yakushima abounded in wood.

Despite the wave of development that followed Yakushima’s registration as a World Heritage site in 1993, the island still lacks some comforts.

“There’s no optical fiber, no broadband Internet,” Grisham says. “And no cinema, so I have to wait till films come out on DVD and then get them sent from the States.”

Nevertheless, he is comfortable in what he calls his “routine.”

“I’m comfortable here just doing my own thing,” he says. And with that he puts down the wooden bowl he had been explaining and goes to greet one of his students, who has just arrived for an English lesson.