Wajimaya Zenni Two of Two

The planting, rock and lantern at the entrance follow the style and brevity of the other enclosed garden spaces within the plan of the building.
Wajimaya Zenni—Testimony to Culture
In addition to being an architectural gem, the Wajimaya Zenni machiya is testimony to the artistry, skill and dedication of those who have produced fine lacquerware in Wajima over the centuries.

Wajima lacquerware is renown for its durability.  It is equally well known for the artistry of its decorations.  But few people are aware of just how much effort was put into selling the ware.

There are still hundreds of registered traditional crafts in Japan that have been in existence for more than one-hundred years.  Many of these are small concerns employing a few craftspeople supplying a limited and now dwindling market.

Wajima is lucky because while production levels of true lacquerware have regrettably fallen in recent times, it still has an “industry”, which contributes in no small part to the economy of the city and the Noto Peninsula as a whole.  It is the pride of Wajima and of the nation but how long has this been the case?

The old storehouse flanks what is now the main entrance.  The weather boarding helps to protect the plastered finish of its walls.  In the event of a fire in the vicinity, the boarding can be removed, so that the plaster could really do its job—to be fireproof.
Rather than wait for customers to come to them, agents from Wajima lacquerware workshops actively sought buyers.  It began during feudal times when Japan was ruled by a Shogun and the country was divided into fiefs administered by feudal lords.  The countless wealthy nobles, warriors and even merchants with status who occupied the upper echelons of society at the time all needed lacquerware and the market was ready to be tapped.  Tea aficionados, poets, performers and other cultured people too, were always in need of something new and interesting with which to thrill their friends and associates, although the representatives of the lacquerware workshops in Wajima did not have free rein and unrestricted access to this stable market.

Under the eave of the entrance this pierced illustration is a triumph—so much said with so little.
There was actually plenty of competition.  Lacquerware production centres up and down the country, some of which still exist, would certainly have fended off outsiders.  Each one had its own strongly guarded techniques and distinctive designs and patterns but none had the durability to match that of Wajima lacquerware.

Inside the entrance at the front of the building, the glow of the true lacquer and the delicacy of the screen-work is breathtaking.  The rooms to the left are arranged one behind the other, while the passageway leading to the back of the building flanks them to the right.
Sending representatives on marketing trips for two to three months of the year to actively sell the creations turned out by Wajima’s workshops had what was probably an unexpected benefit.  The skilled and very knowledgeable representatives of the workshops became a kind of clearing house for matters of style, culture and fashion among the nobility and intelligentsia of the country, simply because they visited so many people who mattered.  They were trusted and tended to have direct access to the aristocracy and were welcomed by the high and mighty.

The maki-e plaque, the paper on the fusuma screen, and the grill transom set the tone of quality of the first room.  Open transoms are common in traditional buildings, as they allow a much needed movement of air during the hot, humid summer months.

This fusuma sliding screen with its translucent paper and fine screen of wood ensures visual privacy.  It also prevents anyone standing to listen to any conversation beyond the screen.  A shadowy silhouette of an eaves-dropper standing by the screen would alert people beyond of their presence.  There just might have been some need for such secrecy.
It was the highly accomplished and knowledgable nushi, literally “those who applied the lacquer”, who had the skill and knowledge and could therefore take on the job of selling.  It was these men who also found it necessary to at least try to better themselves, so that they might pursue if not actually match the sophistication of their clients.

To describe this kind of decoration as “fretwork” is a mistake, as it is not cut with a fretsaw from a single piece of wood.  It is assembled from many pieces of wood to form a pattern that could perhaps be called “fretwork”, given its delicacy.
The rooms of the Wajimaya Zenni machiya became “classrooms” where staff were tutored.  It was here too perhaps that they passed on information about the needs of the customers they had visited while on their travels, so that the workshop could develop products to better meet their client’s needs.

The intricate fretwork close to the ceiling is almost exactly mirrored by the way that the shade of the lamp is constructed—not immediately noticeable but an indicator of just how much care has been taken with the interior.
And so this pattern of sales and production continued and was copied by other craft producers.  Today there are workshops that have there own outlets, while others sell through departments stores or specialist shops.  Some lacquerware makers sell through galleries and yet still others only make items to order.  All of what these dedicated professionals do is a testimony to culture.  And so is the Wajimaya Zenni machiya.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Wajimaya Zenni One of Two

The narrow facade gives no hint of actually how deep the site is.  The gable end with a lean-to extension is typical of machiya in the region.

Wajimaya Zenni—Architectural Gem
Japan is made up of four main islands and some 4,000 smaller ones.  In area it is only marginally larger than the State of California and only a little bigger than Italy.  The amount of land which is readily habitable, however, is small.  Roughly 80% of the population live on 18% of the land area and most of that is along a coastal strip.  The population of more than 126 million is living at a density of some 347 people per Km2 (897 per mi2), almost all in urban areas.  Compared to the Netherlands where some 500 people live on each square-kilometre, Japan is better off but do any of these statistics help to explain why the traditional buildings in Wajima are built so closely together?  The Japanese themselves do often refer to their country as being semai or “small and narrow”.  So is that one of the reasons?  Do they all feel that every speck and spot of available land must be used to the greatest effect?  Sometimes it certainly seems so.
A plan of a typical machiya  to be found in Kyoto combining a domicile and work-place.  The street is to the right and the most private rooms are to the left at the back of the site.  The three openings ensure that the interior is well ventilated, well lit with natural light and has pleasing views into garden spaces.

The sliding paper screen door gives access to the corridor, which extends to the back of the property.  It would be used by household members but the main wooden door would only be opened for the privileged or to bring some large object undercover.

In old, well established villages, towns and cities all over Japan many buildings conform to historical plot lines and are very close together.  In some places land taxes were based on the width of frontages, which gave rise to a distinctive urban building plan.  Resigned to a narrow frontage there was, however, nothing stopping householders building premises reaching far toward the back of a plot.  This can famously be seen even today in the more traditional districts of Kyoto.  Buildings with such plans are called unagi no nedoko meaning the “place were eel’s sleep”.  Such buildings are often homes as well as places of business and are generically called machiya.  Literally this translates as “townhouse” but the term in English refers to a “tall, narrow traditional terraced house with three or four floors”.  Unlike a machiya, townhouses are seldom homes and places of work.

Toward the back of the property a simple garden
characterises the open space in front of the main storehouse 
to the right.  Here too light and air gain access to the interior.
The narrowness of the plots is, of course, a drawback.  During the hot humid summer months in particular any breath of air is welcome and openings in the plans of machiya facilitate this.  Wajimaya Zenni machiya is no exception.  Built in 1910 and having fallen into disrepair, it was extensively renovated in 1990.  Its overall plan is typical of a machiya—closed in on both sides, narrow and long—and punctuated by open spaces, which at least provide some welcome air and daylight to penetrate the interior.

The rooms of traditional buildings are generally illuminated by the light which ducks under the eaves and is then reflected off the lightly coloured tatami matting.  With this particular building the builder has sort to maximise what little light enters one of the “garden courtyards” by using a white plaster plinth at ground level to reflect a little more precious light into one of the main reception rooms.

The delicate screen-work helps demonstrates the status of the space and also provides a degree of privacy—the interior was a stage of whispers and animated silhouettes, which might only have had form but no identity to most members of the household.
The white plastered plinth at ground level helped to reflect what little light there was on a dull day into a reception room.
The elements of this simply designed garden would be as actors on a stage, changing their appearance with the light through the day and seasons, taking on a new guise with a shower of rain or flakes of snow.  The garden is an encapsulation of nature framed by screens and openings, and different every time it is visited.  Like a camera we capture a moment in time and leave something of ourselves there to be visited at a future date.

This particular garden courtyard is dominated by a large lantern, very little planting and flat boulders.  The flat stones are a common feature in each of the open spaces within the plan and are most effective—not too overpowering and yet they contribute to the character of these open spaces into which rain and snow may fall.

A composition of true lacquered timbers and plaster—the more public space flanking the partitioned rooms extending to the much more private spaces toward the back of the site.
Being a “house of true lacquer” most of the exposed timbers are lacquered.  The interior glows and with soft natural lighting the overall impression is restful and calm.  The sense of space is considerable despite the narrowness of the site.  This may be due to the way that each of the spaces are only partitioned from each other with fusuma—paper covered sliding screens.  Also, the loosely enclosed spaces arranged one behind the other from the front to the back of the property are all flanked by a space like a thoroughfare with a lofty ceiling.  From the main front entrance footwear can be worn in this corridor acting as a passageway for household members and for those engaged in the workshop toward the back of the site.

The location is special and the limitations of the site were used to advantage.  The building is a gem.

Wajimaya Zenni is open from nine till four except Wednesdays and from 29th December to 3rd January.  It is located close to the waterfront at 1-82-3 Kawai-machi, Wajima City.  The main building is not open to the general public, although special viewings can be arranged. There is, however, a gallery where products can be viewed.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Out and About on the Noto Peninsula

At the main gate to the most sacred part of the temple compound, stone, wood, metal and nature combine to excite the senses in a subtle yet satisfying way.
At Sojiji….
Formally one of Japan’s most prominent Zen Buddhist temples, Sojiji still maintains an air of restrained grandeur.  It was originally founded in 1398 but a fire right at the end of the nineteenth-century was devastating and the main administrative functions were then moved to a temple in Yokoyama.

The earthquake of 2007, however, also took its toll but thankfully much was saved and repairs are ongoing.  A walk around the grounds reveal interesting vignettes, many of which are peerless while others are variations of similar assemblages to be found at temples up and down the country.  Nevertheless, the somewhat secluded location combined with the arrangement of the buildings is engaging.

Under the shelter of the gate, open-work screens add character to our passage through to the inner compound.  The ageing wood is rugged almost rude against the vivid green of newly unfurled leaves of an acer.
Weathered wood, acer leaves, stone and tiles as if on a stage-set.  Each tells a story.  Each are as they are only for that fraction of a second as the shutter opens and closes.
The main entrance to the Worship Hall is made all the grander with is Chinese style Kara-hafu gable and carvings.  The main roof beyond betrays the enormity of the space of the hall it covers.

Inside the Worship Hall and expanse of tatami matting is regimentally arranged.  The way the light reflects off the tightly woven igusa reed covering adds further to the interest of the arrangement.  Beneath the reed is tightly bound rice straw, which gives slightly as we walk across it.
Although Britain is well known for its antiques, it is shabby-chic or vintage items that are currently so fashionable.  This door epitomises the style.
A collection of materials which speak “quality” and should age gracefully.  A namako-kabe storehouse wall with its raised plaster grouting to dark stone tiles is a common finish for such buildings.  What is it called in Japanese?  It is a “sea cucumber wall”.  My guess is that it was named by a plasterer or by some cheeky carpenter and stuck.  Beyond glazed roof-tiles, wooden boards and boulders create a more rustic and less severe array.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Tin Shinkansen

Over the cab reads, "Wajima, a happy place!" and "Lower the taxes!"
A bit of fun
Born in 1872, William Heath Robinson had actually wanted to be come a landscape artist but soon realised that such a career would not pay the bills.  So, he turned to book illustration.  Things went well to begin with but his main publisher suddenly went bankrupt forcing Robinson to seek other outlets for his work.  Knowing that some of the smart magazines at the news stands in the early part of the twentieth-century paid well for large intricate and humorous illustrations, he started to draw for all he was worth.

His illustrations of crazy contraptions, peopled by deceptively ordinary folk caught the imagination of the British public and sealed his success.  Having well drawn people in them was pivotal.  It tricked the viewer into thinking they were looking at an illustration of something “real” while effectively speaking it was an illusion.  The figures help to make the unbelievable believable, at least until we really look carefully.  Although immaculately drawn, Robinson often depicted absurd, overly complex machinery, although complexity per se was not enough for him.  His devices were often cobbled together, forming an assemble of various unrelated parts, bits and pieces that did the job but would not usually be allied or even share the same domain.  It was this and his popularity that finally resulted in his name entering the English language—Heath Robinson:  ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated in design or construction.

You may ask where is all this is leading?  Well, the “Tin Shinkansen” modelled after Japan’s iconic high-speed Bullet Train exactly fits the expression—it’s a bit Heath Robinson!  Well, yes but in this case it is not necessarily a condemnations.  Those who dare to do something out of the ordinary are actually making a statement, producing something that is a game changer, a creation that may promote a shift in the way people think and consider the world around them.

Ryoanji temple garden, Kyoto
Some of Japan’s most famous designers and architects have done just that.  Although we do not know exactly who “designed” the famous stone garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, for instance, it has certainly made its mark.  A number of buildings by Kenzo Tange and others in Japan have changed people’s ideas about architecture and influenced countless other architects the world over.

Two of the venues designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Will the Tin Shinkansen have the same effect?  Its doubtful.  It does, nevertheless, make a difference to the city-scape of Wajima.  Some call it detrimental.  I call it “a bit of fun”.  Something to relieve the less than genial streetscapes of some parts of this capital of true lacquerware and by which many cities in Japan could also benefit.

Postcard held by Stevenage Museum in their archive.
The collection of ephemera in Wajima reminds me of a building I knew as a child.  The Woodcarver’s Cottage that used to stand beside the main trunk route between London and Scotland was a landmark and something completely out of the ordinary.  The garden as well as the walls of the cottage were decorated with figures, birds and animals.  A Santa was attached to the chimney and a witch on her broomstick floated against the sky from the gable end wall.

They were all made by a Mr. H MacDonald but sadly time has swept them all away.  It is, however, still remembered affectionately by elderly locals and inevitably the neighbourhood where it once stood is a sadder place without it.

So, let’s raise a hurrah for Heath Robinson and Wajima’s Tin Shinkansen and to all those who seek to make a difference, something to break the mould and something to raise a laugh or at the very least a giggle.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except where noted.

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.  Thank you.