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Blazing a woodland trail through Shin Kiba

by Kit Nagamura

Even if you can’t read the kanji for Shin Kiba, you’ll sniff out its meaning of “new wood place” the moment you arrive. The Yurakucho subway line’s terminus there in eastern Tokyo smells like a cedar closet. Inside the station, a display of Japanese carpentry — including beams featuring dovetail, mitered and tenon joints — plus the giant stone sumitsubo (carpenter’s inkpot) outside drive home the local livelihood.

While the fragrance suggests forests and nature, the face of Shin Kiba is, for the most part, rows of huge metal storage sheds and impersonal high-rise offices. A hot wind picks up dirt from vacant lots as I head south like a newbie character in a computer game. At some point, I realize, I’ll either have to knock on a warehouse door or, umm, log out.

Ujihashi Baiten, a single-story office building, looks approachable. Inside, Hiroshi Makita, 81, tells me the company president is away, but shows me into his boss’s office, proffers chilled Taiwanese tea and flips on the air conditioner. I try to ignore the stuffed penguin in a glass case as Makita explains how all the city’s lumberyards were once located in Kiba. That was because, he tells me, after a huge fire in 1657 reduced them to ash, the Tokugawa Shogunate moved all timber commerce east across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa district. The idea was to keep building supplies in the booming city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) safe, yet near rivers and canals for ease of transport.

After that, Kiba remained the city’s main “wood place” for more than three centuries until urban expansion butted up against the lumberyards in the mid-1970s. So then the city designed a new site on reclaimed land and named it Shin Kiba.

“But things are changing again,” Makita says. “Other businesses are creeping in. In fact, we rent space here now from NEC.” It’s all supply and demand, he elaborates, noting that though Ujihashi imports from Russia, Canada and Alaska, and is tapping into the retail market, some kinds of wood are either too costly to procure, or simply not available anymore.

After being granted a peek into Ujihashi’s storage sheds, fragrant from red Canadian cedar and Douglas fir, I press on in pursuit of more board meetings.

The wind now holds a tang of salt mingled with eau-de-sawmill, and I’m enjoying the walk until, abruptly, something reeks like an overused sneaker. The odor is from Iseto Meiboku Ten, a purveyor of precious and rare woods. Owner Masaya Iseto, 77, serves me my second cup of tea of the day, and whistles up his son, Masashi, 47, who speaks a bit of English.

“Sorry about the stink,” he says. “That’s black persimmon wood. We soak it in water before drying it, to make it stronger. While it’s wet, it doesn’t smell great.” Too true, but the result, a wood with smoky markings that looks almost like an ink painting, rewards the temporary miasma.

Masashi, a part-time university art teacher who studied woodworking in Florence, is busy hand-carving a large sign for a sushi restaurant. He works surrounded by stacks of choice planks, in burled chestnut, black ebony, cherry and zelkova. As we chat, I learn that Masashi is one of the few lumber merchants who takes private commissions. So, if I wanted a special table or something, could I order directly? “Yes,” he says. “It would save you a lot of money.”

But for the “sneaker factor,” I could watch Masashi work all day. He has another idea, and leads me down a back alley to meet a “unique” friend of his, 60-year-old Motonobu Murayama.

“Would you like tea?” Murayama asks me, his voice deep and commanding. I demur, having had two cups already.

“I said, would you like tea?” he repeats, deliberately. It’s not entirely a question.

I nod. He disappears and I glance around at the elegant styling of his “office”: subdued lighting behind traditional washi paper, a tokonoma (display alcove) with seasonal decorations, bamboo sliding doors of superb workmanship.

Murayama reappears with koicha — powdered green tea frothed into a thick emerald-colored drink. The curl of his hand round the bowl as he sets it down is practiced. I murmur something about not recalling the formal way to receive tea, rotating the bowl awkwardly three times and taking a swallow.

“Well, you should have started with the sweet,” Murayama says, wryly, pointing out a tray of wrapped wagashi. But then he laughs. “Tea is not something to study; it is something to drink,” he says. “The formality came from men, when they met for tea, not knowing if they would ever meet again.”

The tea is stimulating, as is my host’s breadth of knowledge. For 70 years, his company, Yamayasu, has supplied materials and craftsmanship to construct tea houses. The process is complicated, detailed — and steeped in cultural implications it takes decades to comprehend. To help me get an overview, Murayama takes me to his showroom, fragrant with incense and full of elements that give Japanese traditional rooms a quiet elegance: wood pillars, subtle window and ceiling treatments, lanterns — even finely wrought door handles and hinges.

From a handmade box the size of a small filing cabinet, Murayama opens a drawer and eases out a cardboard folder. From this, he flips up several ingeniously folded pieces of paper until a 3-D model of a tea house is revealed, all to scale and intricately detailed. Murayama makes these by hand to help customers visualize various spaces.

In his spare time, he says he has been carving featherweight chashaku (tea scoops) in seasonal woods. This month, it’s a mulberry-wood spoon — “Because its fruit ripens in June.” To get the full scoop on Murayama in a single day is hopeless, I realize, so I thank him for his gracious time and tea, and promise to return soon.

I haven’t gone far when Masashi Iseto pulls up in his car and offers to drive me to Shin Kiba consignment center, saying that’s where he buys his wood. There, at the Tokyo Meiboku Kyodo Kumiai center, I meet Business Section Chief Hirofumi Suzuki, 49, who has been selling high-quality planks here for 30 years. He’s shy at first, ducking my camera, and answering questions monosyllabically. But when I pose him in front of a slice from a Yakushima cedar more than 1,500 years old, he opens up as we start to discuss the true value of wood.

“You can’t cut a tree several hundred years old and expect to see another like it in your lifetime,” he says. “Japanese people often think of trees in terms of the paulownia. They grow so fast, you can plant one when your daughter is born and make a tansu (traditional chest of drawers) out of it when she marries. That’s not the case with most trees.”

We peruse his vast warehouse of centuries-old ebony, rosewood and — Suzuki’s favorite — circular-burled slabs of zelkova before going to the waterfront, where special pens were designed to float lumber at Shin Kiba. I ask Suzuki if anyone still uses these, and he sends me off with an address in hand.

Hiking back past Iseto, I come to a narrow bridge. Just below, I spy a fleet of yakatabune (party boats), whose boisterous shipmates are readying for the night’s cruises. Though they specialize in monjyayaki, a savory pancake dish I’m not fond of, ¥5,000 for two hours on the water is a planking good deal.

As I continue on, I come to Kamogawa Shoten. A lovely young woman, Hiroko Saiki, tells me that her father, Mitoyo Kamogawa, will be back shortly. She knows what I want to see, though, and guides me through the sawmill to the vista of floating logs out back — the image of how Shin Kiba was meant to operate. Stored in water, Hiroko explains, the logs are safe from fire and insects, easy to maneuver, and the soaking allays splitting.

When Kamogawa returns, the youthful 78-year-old company head tells me that the move to Shin Kiba, 35 years ago, offered more space, but some drawbacks. “It’s better to work in places where kids can see what their parents do,” he says, glancing lovingly at his daughter — a chip off the old block.

As I sip a fourth cup of tea, Kamogawa entertains me with lumberyard yarns until the sawmill’s 5 o’clock siren hollers. Then, saying he needs to prepare for an upcoming lumber auction, he offers to drop me off somewhere. With thanks I accept a lift back to the bridge. From there, I walk north, then west, around the empty log pens.

That’s when I happen upon, of all things, the Wood and Plywood Museum. Talk about missing the forest for the trees!

Backstreet Stories author Kit Nagamura recognizes that this article on Shin Kiba begs to be continued. Read more about the area, including about the Wood and Plywood Museum, in July’s installment.

  • DA

    Great stuff as usual from the backstreet master.

  • paul evans

    One more area I must lookup when back in Japan, keep more coming please