Of Weather and Bamboo

Kamiozawa on Route 38
Keeping out the weather…
On our first trip to Japan in the summer of 1974 Lou and I had to deal with high humidity and high temperatures for the first time as well as lashing rain relieved by some days of amazing sunshine and brilliant light, the like of which we had never encountered in the UK.  That was a mere impression of the meteorological conditions of the country.  It was not until we went to live there in 1976, however, that we were to experience the idiosyncrasies of the climate, its muses, delights and physical realities as well as the perennial changing of the seasons.  In a sense it was the beginning of a 24-year experience of monitoring the weather and climate.

With every passing year we began to know what kind of weather to expect and to feel as upset as the locals when an assumed pattern of weather did not transpire.

Of course, living on the outskirts of Tokyo and close to the Pacific coast of Japan had a significant influence on the kind of weather we became acquainted with.  Spring, for example, occasionally brought a flurry of snow but more importantly we enjoyed the glories of the cherry blossom, all be it for such a short time.  Balmy evenings on the other hand were a bonus.  As the air temperature and humidity rose so we actually became aware of the apartment we were living in because we could smell it.  Not an unpleasant smell at all but a mixture of aromas originating in the tatami matting and the fabric of the timber framed apartment building that was our home.

After drizzle...

The rainy season followed with heavy downpours or constant drizzle, high humidity and leaden skies.  It would occasionally feel chilly despite what the thermometer might say.  Then suddenly summer burst on to the scene around the middle of July and Tokyo then regularly had temperatures, which never fell below 25 degrees centigrade, even at night.  Although summer could be wonderful it was energy sapping, too.  September was the month when typhoons periodically raced across the main islands of Japan but after that threat had passed it was autumn.  The draining heat and humidity of summer were gone.  A lack of appetite was replaced by a healthy desire to eat seasonal dishes and to savour drinks that were no longer simply consumed to assuage a thirst.

Autumn is not only about the colour of the trees.
Autumn in Tokyo was wonderful.  The cold mornings and evenings were refreshing and the sunshine during the day lifted the spirit and warmed the body.  The humidity levels had dropped.  In Tokyo at least this was a growing trend as we moved into winter.

The average winter temperature in the capital is five degrees centigrade and therefore similar to that of the UK.  The level of humidity, however, is low, really low.  This in particular brought with it a problem.  With so many timber buildings fire has always been a threat even in modern times.

A heavily plastered store house style shop was a 
way to combat fire.
The traditions of winter in Tokyo were still strong when we were first there.  Loaded with a small wood-fired oven, the hot sweet potato man would come round in a small truck as the glow in the west was reaching its zenith and was often followed by a small fire truck.  We were all urged via a loudspeaker to make sure the gas stove was safe and any fires were properly extinguished.

In Edo—the former name of Tokyo—conflagrations were a constant threat especially in winter.  Some effort was made to stem the ease with which fires started and spread as far back as 1609, when an administrative edict outlawed the use of thatched roofs in favour of wooden shingles.

With so many timber built houses, inns, shrines and temples in close proximity to each other coupled with an endemic use of candles for light and wood-fires for cooking and heating baths, the capital was often ravaged by fire for much of its history.

Strong winter winds would fan the flames just when the humidity was at its lowest and large swaths of the city would be laid waste with considerable loss of life in some cases.  As a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666 that raged for three nights, it is said that only six people perished.  This low number was probably because working class people were not registered and many of those who died were incinerated in the intense heat.  It did, however, result in stricter building laws.

The inter-locking doors kept the flames out.
What is recognised as the worst fire in Edo, broke out on 18th January 1657 and resulted in the death of more than 107,000 souls.  Timber, nevertheless, continued to be the main building material until the introduction of brick and stone toward the end of the nineteenth century and steel and concrete in the twentieth century.  Even now, however, it is not unusual for winter winds to whip up flames and destroy several traditional timber built properties.

Historically fires have broken out in many urban locations in Japan with devastating results, including in Wajima.  A fire there in April 1910 wiped out 1200 buildings, highlighting just how easily the wind and dense building patterns can lead to the spread of fire.  In this case the wind was the result of the Foehn effect, when air crossing a high mountain range warms up quickly as it descends at speed. 

Unlike the Pacific coast of Japan, the winter wind off the Japan Sea brings snow, rain and generally unpleasant conditions to the Noto Peninsula.  Some of the fishing communities facing the sea have for sometime striven to ward off the cold, buffeting blast which makes its way across the Japan Sea using nothing more than densely packed culms of a freely available thin variety of bamboo, or in some cases more sturdy culms closely arranged to form a fence.

Their effectiveness is sufficient and enduring enough to have become an architectural feature that has attracted the interest of many a tourist to the peninsula.  They look good and function well.  They at least keep some of the weather out.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

The bamboo screens can be seen at Kamiozawa and Ozawa along Route 38, which leaves Wajima and hugs the coast westward.

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Lower Tokikuni Residence

Nature, Culture and History
Farmhouses and some other folk houses in Japan are called minka.  They are usually the epitome of vernacular architecture, being climate conscious, regionally modified and stylistically varied.  The Tokikuni house satisfies all of these headings and was designated a National Important Cultural Property in 1963.

The garden flanks the north-eastern elevation and brings light into the darker side of the house.  But was the garden always here?
Although it was extensively renovated in 2005, it is thought to have been built in the first half of the eighteenth-century.  No records exist to proof this but experts have dated it from the style of construction and the materials used.  It has also undergone a number of alterations over the years, some more recent than others.

Smoke from the hearth would have drifted up through the open rafters and left the building through the small gable end.  The two entrances are roofed with shingles held down with boulders.
Like many other buildings of this type the roof is an eye-catching feature.  It has a hipped and gabled roof and is thatched with reed, both of which can be seen on minka in many parts of Japan.  Nevertheless, what sets it apart from other buildings with a similar heritage is its size.  It has a combined floor area of some 357 sq. m.  Some of the interior is divided into a honey-combe of rooms of various sizes and purpose.

Part of the daily routine of the house would be to visit the Altar and Shrine.
The space floored with tatami matting is extensive and accounts for almost half of the total area of the building.  The tatami is mostly laid in formal patterns, except for one area with an open hearth where the arrangement is more utilitarian.  It was here that the day to day running of the house would have been conducted in sight of the Buddhist family altar and a Shinto Shrine, at which household and local deities may have been worshiped and respected.

An area of happiness and joy as well as hard work during the dark winter days.
A surprisingly large area is, however, given over to a beaten earth floor.  Winter on the Noto Peninsula can be especially unpleasant.  Relentless rain storms and blizzards driven by icy winds off the Japan Sea are the norm, not to mentioned depressing leadened skies.  This large open space was therefore used during inclement weather for various jobs and even for events attended by the local community, such as to celebrate the New Year or other festivals.  Standing here the sights and sounds of past gatherings fill the air and mingle with the scent of woodsmoke and the earth beneath out feet.

A sturdy column with a patina of age is located slightly off-centre in this space.  Called the Daikoku-bashira, it is the “main column of the house”, a “mainstay” of the home and hence a term which is also sometimes used about the main breadwinner of a household.

The building roughly faces south-west and there are two entrances protected by separate roofs.  The westerly one opens onto the large area of beaten earth.  The easterly one, however, was originally reserved for the use of visitors of rank and status—a priest, a local village headman, a nobleman or woman and even a warrior of some standing.  In fact, although the house is built in a folkhouse style, it has the bearing of a warrior family home and the facilities needed for a person of samurai rank.

There are, for instance, two rooms in the south-east corner with a tokonoma—a decorative alcove in front of which an honoured guest would sit.  It can only be supposed that with two such alcoves, the choice of which room to use rather depended on the rank of the visitor—who goes where.  “Should we put his lordship in the best room or the second best room?”  Somehow I think protocol would already have been written for such an eventuality.  Nevertheless, both can be reached sequentially through other rooms or along a tatami matted corridor.  The “best room” not only as a tokonoma but also has a shoin window, a featured borrowed from priest’s dwellings and the homes of the noble and royal.

One of the finely crafted double sided transoms gracing the rooms of status in the house.
Sadly, the only plan I have been able to find of the Tokikuni house does not indicate where the bathroom was and indeed where the toilet facilities were either.  In a number of traditional Japanese buildings I have visited and surveyed a toilet was often located behind a tokonoma and reached by stepping out onto an open veranda where, close by there would be a water-basin to rinse the hands before returning to the seat of honour.  Looking at the plan, I can only suppose that a visit to the toilet meant a long walk along the rather narrow open veranda under a projecting lean-to roof.  In which case, an excursion to the toilet in mid-winter would certainly have been something to avoid.  I cannot imagine, however, that such needs were not given due consideration.  I just need to do more research.

It was Senmatsu, the second son of the main Tokikuni family, who moved out of the family home in the sixteenth-century to set up on his own and his ancestors were eventually responsible for the building of this present premisses known officially as the Lower Tokikuni Residence, with the main branch of the family in the Upper Tokikuni Residence standing not far off.  The Tokikuni’s were descended from the Taira clan, a powerful force which was defeated in the Gempei War in the twelfth-century.  Some of the vanquished ended up on the Noto peninsula, from where their fortunes changed leading to a new hereditary line and the establishment of a heritage of considerable value—the Tokikuni Residences—a confluence of nature, culture and the affairs of history.

Please search Tokikuni Residences, Noto for current opening times, entrance fees, conditions and locations.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except where noted.

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Isaburo Kado—Ascetic Elegance?

Shaded approach to a teahouse
at Omote Senke Tea School.
In Pursuit of Wabi Sabi
Even the Japanese themselves find it difficult to explain the term wabi-sabi, so what chance have I of getting it right?  When translating, nevertheless, I have often had to try.  I have used words like “understated”, “restrained” or “unpretentious” as well as “simple” or “minimal”.  This is mainly because I have been translating material on tea houses or the items used in a tea ceremony.  Anyway, to me it has always been easier to appreciate wabi-sabi than to explain it.  It may also be easier to consider the two parts of this expression independently.  Some people, for example, much prefer to use sabi as a word describing the kind of “elegant simplicity” found in a Basho haiku.  Or, an “antique patina” that only comes with true ageing.  In contrast, wabi is a good deal more troublesome.

Some dictionary translations and definitions are actually quite good.  In my onscreen dictionary, for example, wabi is defined as the kind of “austere refinement” found in tea ceremony.  I would certainly agree with “refinement” but to use “austere” is altogether too harsh.  It is too hurtful and opinionated and coupling it with “refinement” does not help.  To me it would be better to say “non-indulgent, ascetic elegance”.  Yes, you are right.  I’m only playing with words in the hope of finding some expression that better explains what the word wabi implies and represents.  It is better perhaps to use an explanation—“the enjoyment of a quiet, simple life free from worldly affairs” is how my onscreen dictionary puts it.  This is explaining an attitude toward life that I would suggest manifests itself as an ascetic elegance.  But what do artefacts or buildings displaying a sense of wabi look like?

The two teapots here could perhaps be described as displaying a sense of wabi.  They are certainly unpretentious, rustic and formed in a relaxed way that we could describe as wabi.  But to me they have over stepped the mark and have become wacky.  Despite this, they are two things which I bought while living in Japan and I really like.  Sadly I do not know when or by whom they were made.

This teapot, however, was made in England by John Leach, the grandson of Bernard Leach.  He helped to pioneer the folk craft movement in Japan along with Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi.  To me this teapot clearly displays influences from past British everyday household ware combined with hints of the kind of acceptance of the happy accidents in firing and an overall look of pure function that a great deal of pottery in Japan also displays—unpretentious, simple and a celebration of non-indulgent elegance.  I would certainly make this a candidate to be described as exhibiting a sense of ascetic elegance.  In the end, however much something is made to look rustic or unpretentious, it must retain a sense of elegance of a very particular kind to be described with the word wabi.

This alcove in a tearoom of a regular
house amply fulfils requirements.
To me all the items used in the tea ceremony are made to look even more elegant in their own way by the teahouse or tea room with its “sandpaper” textured walls, dim lighting and constrained atmosphere combined with the highly measured behaviour of the participants at a tea ceremony.  Everything is contributive.

Can fine examples of lacquerware take a place on this stage?  Yes, most certainly.  Their elegance alone allows them to act as a foil to the other more “rustically” appointed items.

But so much lacquerware is elegant beyond belief and we would not usually say that it has a sense of ascetic refinement or elegance.  There are, however, lacquerware artist/craftsmen who have sought to explore such possibilities.

The “decoration” is simply smudges from a 
finger dabbed into true lacquer.

One of them is Isaburo Kado (1940-2005).  His standard work is very much in line with very good quality household lacquerware.  Except it hints at rural rather than sophisticated roots.  His more “artistic” pieces explore some of the more rustic and ascetic possibilities of wood and true lacquer.  Whether or not they can be classed under a wabi aesthetic heading is something I leave up to you.  But, Isaburo’s work certainly expands the creative possibilities of true lacquerware into a domain that has always been ruled by ceramic happy accidents in the kiln and epitomised by a tea ceremony bowl—an example of the most contrived for of the uncontrived, but, nevertheless, an example of an ascetic elegance.

Isaburo allowed dribbles of true lacquer to form to 
achieve the kind of look he sought.
The Isaburo Kado Museum is located in the hot spring resort of Wakura on the Noto Peninsula overlooking the waters of Nanao West Bay.  The museum is free to enter and open from 8 am to 5 pm (last entry 4:30 pm.).

Split pieces of hiba wood were combined, lacquered and then suspended in front of the view of Nanao West Bay from the Isaburo Kado Museum.
The large chunks generated from splitting pieces of hiba were lacquered and glow in the light from the window.
Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Words and Meanings

The index page for a character search in my Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary.  An antique?  No but pushing 40.
In Architecture, in Kimono
Being a non-native speaker of Japanese I have spent a great deal of time turning the pages of dictionaries, especially when I was translating.  Mind you, if the subject matter was traditional Japanese architecture or craft there were times when even a dictionary was little or no help at all in finding a definition.  An expert had to be consulted or I had to trust very specialist dictionaries or the Kojien—a truly encyclopaedic dictionary of Japanese words and expressions.

Recently I have been using an iPhone App to look up words but even before I went to live in Japan I was using a character dictionary.  My Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, which lists characters and their combinations, has been so well thumbed for more than forty years that it looks more like a highly valued volume from an antiquarian bookshop.  It is, nevertheless, an “old friend” amongst whose pages I have had many an adventure.

Adventure?  Well yes, because while looking up one character I would sometimes come across another definition that was more interesting than the original word I was researching.

Not sobbing but laughing nervously behind 
her kimono sleeve.
I was once doing some translation on lacquerware.  In the explanation of how lacquer was reinforced to form a ground coat, the text explained that tamoto-kuzu, literally meaning “fluff from a kimono sleeve” was used.  Although my Nelson’s did not throw any light on this word, it was a surprise to find this expression in my Kenkyusha New Japanese-English Dictionary—a very weighty volume.  It was especially surprising as craft terms are sometimes so localised, a telephone consultation becomes essential.

In this case, however, the definition I needed was not the only surprise.  Another listed expression was tamoto wo shiboru, literally “to wring out a sleeve”.  The meaning alludes to shedding a flood of tears on parting forever from a sweetheart.

Reading this for the first time, I was stunned.  I immediately pictured a kimono-clad young woman in a samurai movie almost obscuring her face behind the long sleeve of her kimono in fear of showing her true emotions.  She was crying so much that the sleeve had became dampened by her sobbing to the extent, metaphorically speaking, that the sleeve would need to be wrung out.

This little word adventure left a very strong impression on me.  So much so that just now when I checked the dictionary definition once again, I knew I would find the word toward the bottom of a right-hand page.  Yes, there it was.  I once again relived that sense of excitement on first finding these two entries.

The characters for kara-hafu to the left and toutotsu to the right.
A similarly intriguing adventure started with the word kara-hafu.  This is the name of a style of gable found on some traditional Japanese buildings.  Unlike the many gently sloping gables of roofs in Japan, this Chinese-style gable has an abruptly rising line.  What is interesting is that the first character of kara-hafu is also used in a character combination to mean “sudden” or “abrupt”, although with a different reading.

Having puzzled over this for sometime, I finally asked a Japanese friend who is a language specialist if there was a reason for it.  Not being familiar with the term kara-hafu, he simply said, “Oh!  So that is why we use the character for Chinese in the adjective for “abrupt”, toutotsu—the line of the gable changes abruptly!”  The sharply rising line of the Chinese gable, in other words, came to exemplify a sense of abrupt or sudden change.

A fine example of a Chinese gable at Agishi Honseiji Temple.
I came across a magnificent example of a Chinese gable on one of the ancillary buildings at Agishi Honseiji Temple, not far from Route 222 on the Noto Peninsula.  This gable with its “abrupt” change of line gives character and status to the entrance it shades.  As if this splendid building were not enough to make this temple special and worthy of a visit, the main Worship Hall is one of the very few temple buildings in Japan with a reed thatched roof.  It also has a precipitous rake and is in great need of being re-thatched.  It has to be said that in its present state it is a magnificent spectacle, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.  It looks more like an edifice from a Hayao Miyazaki movie in which nature is all powerful and redeems everything from the clutches of man.

Some very fine carving on the gate, frames a glimpse of the 
Main Worship Hall “growing” thatched roof.
Vegetation is slowly but surely taking over the steps.
Miyazaki would perhaps approve.
I am sure that few people will share my enthusiasm for the main topic of this post.  If, however, you have read this far I hope you have found it interesting.  To me finding expressions with such an interesting background is as exciting as discovering an archaeological relic.  There is something thrilling and fundamental about how people choose to express actions, emotions and phenomena with language.  The meaning is locked in the words and waits to be understood.

A dragon hides in the shadow of the eaves of the Main Worship Hall.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.