Living with the Warmth of The Aesthetics of the Joiner’s Art The Pride of Japanese Furniture

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Warmth and solidity, and the burnished glow of wood grain:Japanese furniture has an exceptional presence, Even more so when the wood used is so remarkable. With centuries-old precious woods exceedingly rare today, we vsited the workshop of a cabinetmaker who insists on using only natural wood.

Photos/Satoru Sato Text/JQR

Thousands of pieces of precious wood, gathered from throughout Japan.

The rare natural woods lying in this warehouse have all been drying for more than 20 years. Toshio Oyamada examines a slab from an enormous ash felled in Asahikawa. The giant was estimated to have been about 400 years old.

A massive warehouse surrounded by trees at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Opening the door, I’m surrounded on all sides by piles of lumber, some of the pieces taller than myself, closing in like a mountain range. Pieces of fine wood numbering in the thousands, too heavy for one person to carry, lie covered in dust. Seeing me staring at them wordlessly, Toshio Oyamada says, a bit shame-faced,

“I guess I got a little carried away.”

The temperatures, seasonal changes, dryness of the air, and other conditions around Mt. Fuji make the region ideal land for storing and working with natural wood. While the area prospered as a center for handmade furniture through about 1955, it eventually bowed to the popularity of steel furniture, and one by one the region’s skilled cabinetmakers disappeared. It was in the late 1980s that Mr. Oyamada decided to revive cabinetmaking here at the northern foot of Mt. Fuji, spending nearly a billion yen to buy up choice wood from around the country, and devoting himself to building furniture. He does more than just make furniture himself; to nurture a new generation of traditional Japanese cabinetmakers, he’ s supervised dozens of young people, and invested his own funds. And yet, not even a handful of them have fully grown into the craft. While cabinetmaking certainly requires dexterity, in fact it is solitary work that also requires a great deal of patience. The only way to become an expert joiner is to repeat the same tasks over and over, building up experience. It’s difficult to expect young people today to have the patience to get that far.

Mr. Oyamada was born in the town of Fujiyoshida in 1938, the sixth of eleven children of parents who owned a gardening business. After graduating from middle school, he served as a live-in apprentice at Ito Woodworking, in the Okuchi section of Yokohama’s Kanagawa Ward, and there he learned the basics of cabinetmaking. Under the master’s supervision, he learned to identify the properties of various woods, how to cut wood within the smallest tolerances and match hand-crafted interior fittings, and even acquired the techniques for creating curved kumiko (mullion work), which require sophisticated design skills. Mr. Oyamada, with his dexterous fingers and his powerful attraction to the beauty of wood, rapidly improved his skills, and eventually struck out on his own while still a young man.

After about 1960, however, a more Western lifestyle began taking hold, particularly in the cities, and orders for fittings and joinery work fell precipitously. Against his will, Mr. Oyamada put away his woodworking, and made a switch to working with steel, boilers, and construction. This proved a success, and he soon saw his company performance soar. Once his business was doing well, he got the itch to return to the fitting and joinery work he’d once put away. In the latter half of the 1980s, he turned his ample funds to collecting fine wood, and eventually poured himself into cabinetmaking with an even greater fervor than before.

With the 1990 enforcement of regulations which brought about the collapse of the bubble economy, however, his once-thriving company took a turn for the worse. This brought about a serious cash-flow problem, as did his having gotten “a little carried away” with his wood collection. Fortunately, his family came together to weather the crisis, and all is well today, but as always, his “hobby” faces some stiff criticism.

In fact, Japanese furniture can be quite expensive, and is costly to make. There is no doubt, though, that all who see it and touch it are immediately captivated. This is nothing less than the product of the art created through the meeting of solid wood and the joiner’s craft.

Cabinetmaker Gi-ichi Takemoto hand-planes a slab too large to fit into a machine. It is difficult to make such a large surface level, and even for a skilled craftsman, the work takes time. The slab easily weighs over 200 kilograms, and a crane is required to move it.

This heavy, Japanese-style sideboard (W2100 x D600 x H1200) won an award for excellence at a nationwide furnishings exhibition held in 2011. Zelkova with a lacquer finish. The top panel is a single, solid piece of wood, and the legs are also thick, giving the piece a sense of weight. The doors used as shutters to the left and right are made of strips of wood cut in a narrow wave-like shape and woven together. While they look like a single piece of wood, as seen in the photo they can actually be rolled up. It takes a full day to produce just one of these wavy strips, and all of them together required four months of work.

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