Back in early August, as families across Japan were beginning to plan trips to their hometowns during the upcoming Obon holidays, Hannes Schnelle of Sarenseck, Germany, and 26 fellow Europeans were preparing for a Japanese journey of their own.
On their collective packing list: Five drawknives, two pitsaws, 14 thrust axes — and seven each of hatchets and ripsaws.
The brawny group of Germans, English, Belgians, Swedes, Danes and Austrians stepped off their airplane in Tokyo on Aug. 6. Fortunately for the citizens of Japan, their goal was not to stage a low-tech reenactment of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but rather to join 30 Japanese craftsmen and women in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture for a backwoods building bonanza called the “Chisana Kezurokai” — which roughly translates as: “Mini Let’s Plane Together Event.”
During the course of the two-week event, the multinational group of expert blacksmiths, carpenters, and carvers built a small Japanese teahouse and a European pavilion — all made without the use of a single watt of electricity.
“Trees are like people, each one has its own character. Hand tools take time, so they allow us to get to know the character of each tree and decide how and where to use it,” explained carpenter Kunihiro Amemiya, 41, who organized the event to help revive traditional building skills, while Schnelle, a 30-year-old carpenter, organized the European end of things.
On the second-to-last day of the event, the steeply sloped worksite was buzzing with activity as participants, mostly in their late 20s to early 40s, scrambled to finish up the ambitious project. Instead of the usual construction-site racket of chainsaws and electric drills, the air was filled with the syncopated knocking, sawing, and scraping of hand tools and the scent of freshly cut larch and Japanese cypress, all harvested from the site itself.
Gunther Loebach, a 35-year-old knifemaker from Braunschweig, Germany, took a break from hammering red-hot iron into a barbeque for the European Pavilion to sum up his experience so far.”Working together is really amazing. You learn lots of tricks of the trade and all about the different tools,” he said.
Loebach and his compatriot Manne Heiser were sharing the smoky, spark-filled smithy at the lower end of the worksite with Yoshida Yasutaka, a 32-year-old swordsmith currently living in Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture. Loebach and Heiser wore all black and worked standing up; Yasutaka, all in white, sat cross-legged as he hammered out a hook to hang a stewpot over the teahouse’s traditional irori (open fireplace).
Also on display were some old-style nails that Yasutaka had made. Unlike their modern, tubular descendants, their sides were squared off, and the top was shaped into a whimsical curl of metal. The nails, however, were just for show, as both structures were constructed using traditional nail-free joinery — which also makes it easier to disassemble them if they are moved to museums or schools in the future.
Further up the hill, Japanese and European carpenters were wielding an arsenal of chisels, hammers and saws (as well as a hand-operated drill that looked like an enormous corkscrew) in order to complete those critical joints in time for assembly the following day.
“I think I have 28 joints left to cut,” laughed Corneilius Litzka, a muscular house carpenter with a pirate’s earring and ponytail who repairs traditional buildings in Germany. He explained that while the Japanese joints were intricate and meticulously carved, the German ones were less so.
“Traditional German framing is square, and within the square is a triangle. The tenons and mortises are very rough and quick. The triangular braces add the strength,” he said. Such braces are liable to snap in earthquakes, however, so the Japanese usually forgo them, gaining more flexible strength from a highly developed system of joints.
One key step in getting those Japanese joints just right is expert planing, or shaving down of the wood. Planing also adds highly valued visual and tactile appeal and improves water repellency. In Japanese, the word for “to plane” is kezuru, as in the event’s title. In fact, that event is an offshoot of the larger “Kezurokai,” a 1,000-member organization founded by temple carpenter Kojiro Sugimura in 1997. In 2003, Sugimura met Schnelle (the co-organizer of the Yamanashi event), who at that time was traveling in Japan as a journeyman cabinetmaker. Schnelle became Sugimura’s last apprentice, and after returning to Germany he organized “Kezurokai” events there, in 2005 and 2007, with the goal of connecting Japanese and European craftspeople. Many of the Europeans at the Yamanashi event got involved at one of those earlier gatherings.
“Kezurokai” events also take place twice-yearly in Japan, the highlight being a competition to see who can shave the thinnest strip from a wood post. The feat requires a perfectly sharpened tool as well as a masterful hand, explained Eiichiro Amakasu, a 68-year-old teahouse carpenter from Kanagawa Prefecture who was on hand at the “Chisana Kezurokai” to demonstrate the difficult art.
“I test my work by looking at it with a 100-times magnifying glass. If it looks smooth with that, it’s okay. Unless you’re in a competition, it’s not common to plane off strips that are less than 10 microns thick,” he said, explaining that 10 microns is thinner than a human hair.
To demonstrate, Amakasu gently drew his kanna (planer) down a square post of yellow cedar. A ruffled transparent strip fluttered out from the end of the tool; the surface left behind looked more like yellow glass than wood, literally reflecting the trees around it.
Planing of that caliber was not being put to use on the teahouse under construction, however, since that was to have a more rustic charm. In fact, event organizer Amemiya could be spotted toting a tool favored by his Paleolithic ancestors — a stone axe with a wooden handle. Amemiya said he used to scorn such primitive tools, but since trying one out two years ago he had become enamored of its effectiveness and durability. He can chop down an 20 cm-diameter cedar in 15 minutes with the axe, he said.
Amemiya said he uses hand tools for about half of his day-to-day carpentry work, because “if you don’t use the skills, you lose them.” Others at the event, however, said they had few chances to use hand tools in their daily work.
“No one’s asked me to build a house with an ax yet,” said Litzka, the German carpenter, noting that with nearly 60 people working for 10 days — and preparatory work having started a full two years before that — the two small structures would have a sky-high price tag were they to be sold. In fact, the event was financed by the participants themselves and donations from toolmakers and other companies in Europe and Japan.
Price apart, though, the warmth and character of the craftsmanship on display gave the buildings a value not found in their modern-day industrial counterparts.
Katharina Kroedel, a 32-year-old goldsmith from Hitzacker, Germany, said that the European team added one particularly special touch to their pavilion, which did go up as planned on the last day of the event.
“It’s a German tradition to carve a sentence into a beam, along with the name of the owners of the house. You’ll find it in all old houses in Germany,” she said. The team had managed to come up with just the right one, she added. It goes like this: “Beauty is where the old remains and new things happen.”