THE GENIUS OF JAPANESE CARPENTRY
Twenty-four years have elapsed since the first edition of this book was released in 1989. Working on a new edition of a book that meant so much to me after an interval of more than two decades has been a rare opportunity for revisiting an extremely formative period of my adult life, for reevaluating my earlier ideas and ideals in light of what I have learned and experienced since that time, for reconnecting with people, with Nara and Yakushiji, and for correcting a (thankfully small) handful of mistakes. It has meant reliving the years I was in contact with Master Nishioka and the countless hours I spent in his workshops and on his building sites, as well as the months taken up with producing the first edition of this book, my first book ever, and reconsidering the many decisions I made about how to best tell the story. More than anything, however, it has meant reflecting on the many changes that have occurred at Yakushiji, in the world of Japanese temple carpentry, in Japanese society, and in myself.
The biggest single change is that Tsunekazu Nishioka died in 1992, just a few years after this book was first published. The buildings in the Sanzō-in subcompound of Yakushiji were almost fully complete by then, and one of Nishioka’s last official acts as master carpenter of the Yakushiji complex was to officiate at the ceremony commemorating the placement of the first column of the reconstructed surrounding corridor of the main temple complex. Nishioka made a special trip from the hospital where he was being treated for cancer in order to participate. Years earlier, I had already had an inkling that Nishioka was in a race with death, and perhaps that was reflected in some of what I wrote then. He was already in his mid-eighties when we first met, and was planning work which he expected would require two or three decades more to complete. I remember one day, in particular, when our discussion turned to time, and he pointed out how brief a human lifespan was compared to the thousand or more years of a living tree or of a well-built temple, and how that sense of perspective guided his work. On his desk was a familiar pad of gridded paper on which he was calculating dimensions for the reconstruction of the Great Lecture Hall (Daikodo), a very large building whose commencement still lay years in the future. Nishioka expected it would take nearly a decade alone to find suitable timber. Not quite sure that I was understanding correctly, I asked him, “So you’re preparing everything so the work can be carried out even if you’re not here?” Whereupon he grinned and said simply, “Of course.”
And it has been. Under the guidance of Nishioka’s chief apprentice, Mitsuo Ogawa, the Great Lecture Hall, the largest building at Yakushiji, was completed in 2003. It is spectacular and overwhelming in its size, grace, and beauty, and I truly regret not having been present during its construction. And there the project has basically stopped. At the time of this writing, the 1,300-year-old East Pagoda is undergoing its 100-year maintenance, being carefully disassembled and checked for signs of damage. This work is scheduled to take until 2018. Half of the surrounding corridor has been completed, and there are no immediate plans to complete the rest. Nishioka drew plans for a new bell tower and sutra repository, but no preparations appear to have been made for that work, nor for the remaining monks’ living quarters. So, in fact, those who visit Yakushiji today will probably see all that will ever be built there. The reconstruction project seems to have ended a decade or so sooner than Master Nishioka had intended.
Figure 5 A corner of the Picture Hall under construction, viewed from inside.
The Picture Hall (E-den), the construction of which this book describes in detail, was designed to have religious murals on its expansive interior wall surfaces, transforming the building into a space for contemplation, reflection, and religious education. The painting of these murals was entrusted to Ikuo Hirayama, one of the most highly regarded painters in the contemporary “Nihonga,” or “Japanese painting” style. This style of painting uses traditional organic and mineral pigments, and while some of its practitioners hew closely to antique styles of imagery, others, like Hirayama, became known for a looser, more personal style. Hirayama, who accepted no fee for this work, made dozens of pilgrimages to Buddhist sites along the Silk Road, and inspired by what he saw and experienced there, he envisioned a series of wall panels based on mystical mountains taken from Buddhist lore, with ceiling panels of lapis lazuli flecked with gold-leaf lotus petals and images of the sun and moon. He completed this monumental series in 2001. It was his life’s work, and he wrote very feelingly that he intended the works to be a spiritual experience for viewers. Hirayama died in 2009. It is a bit painful to note that the E-den was used as intended for only a few years, as an open space that could accommodate groups of worshipers as well as solitary seekers who could immerse themselves in the visually evocative surroundings. But full-height glass walls were soon erected along the line of inner columns, and a climate control system installed to further protect the paintings, forcing viewers to file through and view them from several meters away. I am certain that if Nishioka were alive, he would have vigorously opposed these measures, and I expect that Hirayama would have as well, as would have the late Abbot Kōin Takada, whose enthusiasm gave birth to the Yakushiji reconstruction project and to the Sanzō-in as well, and who personally asked Hirayama to undertake the murals. These three men were each greats in their spheres, and each struck me as a person of deep understanding and vision. Where what they have accomplished together at Yakushiji is exquisite, it is because each enabled the others to realize their highest ideals. Vision like this rarely survives its possessor.
Figure 6 Detail of the beams and rafters of the Sanzō-in cloister, or surrounding corridor.
Of the many changes I have observed since 1989, one of the most gratifying, though puzzling, is the growth of Nishioka’s reputation since his death. When I was studying with him, I rarely encountered people who were aware of him and his work, and those that were tended to be specialists in temple construction or historical preservation, or otherwise involved in related fields. At the time, it was painful to see how extremely under-appreciated the field of Japanese carpentry was in its home country in general, and temple carpentry in particular.
Nishioka struggled with misconceptions and criticisms while alive, being called to defend the cost of his projects and the time required to complete them, and to justify on social and ideological grounds what skeptics considered a dangerously backward-looking approach to culture. So the growth of his reputation and the vastly increased awareness of his work in Japanese society at large since his death brings with it a twinge of irony. But it cannot be denied that his name and the significance of his life’s work are now familiar to a much wider public than they were when he was alive and sought support. Nishioka is now legendary at home. He wrote several books during his lifetime, and all of them continue to sell well. He is the subject of an excellent and well-received documentary released in 2012, for which I was happy to contribute texts and to participate in public discussions. There is a well-run study group devoted to his work and thinking, and many of the tools and notebooks that laid on his desk or on shelves in his workshop when I visited him are now in the excellent Takenaka Carpentry Museum in Kobe. Witnessing this apotheosis, and thinking back to the 1980s, I remember vividly how bewildered I was that no one seemed to know or care that such a person existed. But I also recall that the man who sat before me so often telling stories about his youth, or who took time out to walk around the old buildings at Yakushiji, pointing out what was well or poorly done, was, more than anything, patient, kind, humble, and always quick to laugh.
That period of encounters with Nishioka changed me in ways I have only begun to fully appreciate. I probably would not have been as receptive to him personally if he had not been such a normal and unassuming human being. And I want to stress that although I declined his offer to become a carpentry apprentice, fearing, with justification, that my personality was not suited to years of unquestioning obedience, he made a place for me among those he was teaching, and found ways to teach me what I was ready to know. In the process, he gave me my life’s work. I treasure several letters and postcards he wrote to me, always in brush and ink, particularly a note of congratulations he sent me after the publication of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry. He had addressed it to “Azby Brown, Sensei,” in effect anointing me as a teacher in my own right, though I was still young and only a graduate student. That meant more to me than anything because I had not sought it, nor had I expected it. And as honors often are, it was also a less than subtle nudge and a challenge to improve upon what I had already done. I have often said that I wrote this book partly to repay the immense debt I owe Master Nishioka, as a student to a teacher. And now, more than twenty years later, I realize that this debt is never really repayable.
Figure 7 A carpenter works out interior details of the Sanzō-in Octagonal Hall.
Among the ways that Nishioka gave me what has become my life’s work was the opportunity the experience provided to learn about the process of making books, which was a very new avenue for me at the time. In particular, I realized that to do the subject justice I would need to present descriptive text, good photos, and well thought out drawings together. I shot over 1,000 photos of various aspects of the work at Yakushiji, most of them in black and white due to the cost of film and processing, made quite a few sketches of the various elements and connections, and was given an excellent set of plans. Master Nishioka also allowed me to make xerox copies of his detailed notebooks of drawings and measurements. Despite my architectural education, I still had to teach myself how to make clear exploded-view drawings of the structural assembly process with its dozens of complex joints. I remember that hot summer well, sitting on the floor in my non-air conditioned room in Tokyo, a towel wrapped around my head to keep dripping sweat from spoiling my inkwork. I saw lots of room for improvement then, and see even more now, but as time has gone on I have developed something of a knack for that kind of drawing, and have used it in each of my books since then. The desire to convey Nishioka’s work clearly turned me into a writer and an architectural illustrator of sorts, and even when my subjects have been contemporary buildings I find that the effort I expended honing my three-dimensional visualization skills back then has stood me in good stead.
Whenever we spoke, Master Nishioka managed to frame issues in terms of time and the environment, particularly calling attention to how things like wood change as the years pass. The fundamental environmental soundness of traditional Japanese carpentry practice, and the awareness and sensibility they reflected, made a lasting impression on me, and in some ways became the keystone of all my later work. That and the sense of continuity spanning ages has informed my design and other creative work as well as my writing. And after over a decade investigating modern and contemporary Japanese architecture, it was this ember of awareness that led me to return to these core themes several years ago when I renewed my research into the sustainable practices upon which traditional Japanese crafts and lifestyle were based for what became a book called Just Enough. That book very neatly bookended this one, and it feels to me like the culmination of decades of study that began here, in Nara, with Master Nishioka. I have received many requests to speak over the past couple of years about both Nishioka’s work and traditional Japanese sustainability, to share with both Japanese audiences and overseas groups what I have seen and learned. This has been extremely gratifying.
Figure 8 A close-up of one of the doors of the Great Lecture Hall, with its gilt-bronze nailhead covers. The smoothly rippled surface left by the yariganna (spear plane) can be clearly seen.
I was happy when Tuttle asked me to prepare a new edition of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, and also a bit concerned, because book production technology has progressed extremely rapidly during the interim between the first edition and this one. The most significant change is that we have been able to include more photos than before, and more in color. This also has posed a bit of a challenge, since so many of the original photos were shot in black and white, and designing attractive layouts that include both color and black and white is a bit tricky. But I think the book’s designers have proven themselves up to the challenge. I have also taken the opportunity to include some new material, particularly photos of work that was completed at Yakushiji after the first edition was written in 1989. And I have added a number of pages inspired by the teachings for carpenters that Master Nishioka inherited from his forebears and which he had described beautifully in writing before his death. In summary, almost all of the original material remains, a handful of photos have been exchanged for better or more recent ones, and there is a bit more of Nishioka himself here than there was in 1989.
Thinking back to who I was and what I was interested in when I first came to Japan almost three decades ago, and what I have spent my time immersed in since then, about both the results I have managed to realize and the opportunities I may have let slip by, I am struck by how little of it I could have foreseen at the time. I am glad it all happened, and I still feel my debt to Tsunekazu Nishioka deeply.
Nishioka inherited a wealth of oral and written guidelines for the master temple carpenters of Hōryūji temple that have been passed down from generation to generation, and which he received directly from his grandfather. Quite a few of these guidelines deal with technical aspects, such as the use of tools and the preparation of materials, but a number of the most significant are instructions dealing with the mental and emotional aspects of the work, such as leadership, compassion, and spiritual preparation. In these sections, we will discuss several that Nishioka considered particularly important.
“A person who doesn’t appreciate Shintō and Buddhist thought should be quiet about the design of religious compounds.”
According to Nishioka, because the design of religious buildings is based on spiritual concepts, unless a carpenter understands and respects those ideas and practices, he really cannot play an important role in their design and construction. This is true, he said, for any kind of work. Whatever a person is involved in making, it is essential to have a good grasp of its underlying meaning and purpose. Because of this, “understanding” is the first essential ability a temple carpenter must have.
“When designing a temple complex, find a site that suits the requirements of the ‘Shishin’ (Four Gods).”
“The ‘Four Gods’ are a Chinese concept
deities related to the four compass directions:
Seiryu (Azure Dragon):
Presides over spring and the east.
Suzaku (Vermilion Bird):
Presides over summer and the south.
Byakko (White Tiger):
Presides over autumn and the west.
Genbu (Black Tortoise):
Presides over winter and the north.”
Nishioka described these deities as metaphors for natural forces associated with aspects of topography and the environment, geomantic principles which have practical implications. The Azure Dragon (Seiryu) is a pun that also means “clear stream” in Japanese. According to Nishioka’s tradition, a good temple site will have a stream or river to the east, which is important primarily as a water supply that should make use of spring floods. The Vermilion Bird (sometimes translated as “phoenix”) refers to a lake or marsh to the south, on ground slightly lower than the temple complex, which is important for adequate drainage during the rainy season. The White Tiger symbolizes a wide road to the west of the temple, important for transporting materials easily when the temple is under construction and for preserving its prominence and status in future generations. The Black Tortoise, usually depicted as a tortoise and snake together, is a mountain shaped like a tortoise’s shell. Unless there is one to the north of the temple complex, the complex will be too exposed to the northern winds of winter.