“The etymology of the word ‘God’ in English is totally different from the Japanese word kami, and has a completely different sense,” says master charcoal burner Hironori Takebayashi, in his deep, laconic voice.
It’s a winter evening and red embers glow in the large ceramic hibachi around which we are warming ourselves after a day of work at his bamboo charcoal kiln. The low flame provides the only light, and we occasionally add pieces of the light black sticks of sumi to the softly clinking fire. Around the inside rim of the circular hibachi lean short sections of freshly cut bamboo filled with warming sake, imbued with the subtle, green, spicy aroma of this, the strongest plant in the botanical kingdom.
The charcoal smell is pungent and sultry — an entrancing odor, like old forests.
“In Japanese, one can write the word kami with the character for ‘upper,’ ” Takebayashi continues, speaking slowly, his words thick with the local Shikoku dialect. “I think that’s the original meaning of God in Japan, the human drive — everyone has it — to constantly try to raise themselves up, to bring themselves to a higher place, and progress, just as plants turn themselves toward the sun. Nobody says to themselves, ‘Things with me are just fine as they are.’ “
Besides being a charcoal burner, Takebayashi is many things, including an expert on the varieties and uses of bamboo, a devotee of Indian saint Satya Sai Baba and a linesman for the local electric utility company, repairing downed electric poles during rainstorms.
The transformations in his life began about 10 years ago.
“At the time, I was just your regular, boorish salaryman,” Takebayashi says. “I had your run-of-the-mill kind of values and I had no awareness of my own self. A woman I had been drinking with invited me to a human potential movement seminar in Osaka. And to be honest, the only reason I went was to, how to say it, pursue the male-female interaction.
“But when I got there, the trainers started to ask me questions like, ‘Behind your actions, what kind of thoughts do you have, what kind of feelings?’ ” At this point, Takebayashi pauses and looks straight at me, one eyebrow raised and crooked like a question mark.
“I said, ‘Me? I’m not feeling or thinking anything at all.’ The trainer said, ‘That probably isn’t the case now, is it?’ They told me to look at my own facial expressions, my own attitude; they said I seemed angry and hostile.
“I didn’t understand a thing they were saying.”
After his first three-day seminar Takebayashi didn’t think he’d go back. He felt little change in his life except that he seemed to have a lot more energy. Still, he eventually decided to attend the second seminar in the series.
“The trainers, using techniques from Transactional Analysis, got me to understand that I was killing my own feelings, and that I was unconscious of my motivations most of the time.”
A few weeks later, back in his hometown, he was out on business in the company car, and all of a sudden a massive wave of sadness overtook him. “I began to weep and weep, my tears pouring out just like a waterfall. I realized how so many people had been taking care of me, giving of themselves, looking out for me my whole life. I felt this incredible thankfulness.
“Soon the changes started happening to me very quickly. I met a totally different group of people, and all kinds of new information kept coming at me. I met a man who had ESP, who knew my name and date of birth the first time I met him. Then there was Mr. Jubishi, who is a strange and very powerful man, very small in stature, but almost frightening in his ability to project his energy. It was he who told me to go to India and meet Sai Baba.”
Meanwhile, at the company where he worked, Takebayashi was starting to get strange looks from his coworkers.
“They would say to each other, ‘He’s gotten into some weird religion,’ ” he relates. “I was threatened with being fired. Japanese culture, and company culture in particular, has a very difficult time accepting new things. However, there’s two sides to this tendency, I think: One is to see the way of thinking here as old and hard and brittle. The other is to see it as steadiness. Japanese people chew things a lot before they swallow them.”
While in India, Takebayashi met a Japanese man at Sai Baba’s ashram who gave him a single stick of traditional Japanese bamboo charcoal, saying, “This is an incredible, an amazing thing.”
Takebayashi continues, “That can be seen as a coincidence, but I don’t believe there are coincidences. I think that everything I had done and gone through up to that point was all leading me, step by step, to being introduced to bamboo sumi. I think some part of me had always wanted to make it myself.”
He hands me a stick. Each piece is light and yet dense. It’s curved, and the surface sheen reflects a silver lustrous light as if frozen liquid mercury was glowing in a matte-black moonlight. When I tap two pieces together, the high, plinking tone is metallic yet muted, as if the charcoal was reabsorbing the note.
When it burns, it gives off a sound like thin panes of glass being slowly cracked at a very great distance, or ice thawing far out on a pond after a long winter chill.
Takebayashi tells me of the phenomenal number of ways it is used. You can put a piece in with cooking rice to improve the taste, mix it with soil in the garden to make plants healthier, or add it to tap water to absorb chlorine and other toxins. The extract or “vinegar” of charcoal, a byproduct of the charcoal baking process, can be used to intensify the flavor of foods, to heal wounds more quickly and to make the skin smoother.
But the main reason Takebayashi makes bamboo charcoal is as a material to place under the floorboards of a house. “Charcoal absorbs extra moisture during the summer, and then releases it during the winter,” he explains. “It also fills the dwelling with positive, relaxing, invigorating energy. This happens because of the release of negative ions.” According to recent research, negative ions (often present in large quantities after rainstorms) help people feel better by increasing the production of seratonin, a brain chemical responsible for mood.
Takebayashi still works for the electric company and lives in his same house in the housing development, yet it’s clear that through his spiritual pursuits and frequent pilgrimages to India, his making of bamboo charcoal by hand and his deeply philosophical outlook on life, his evolution has been profound.