Reflections on Japan

Though we were in Japan for only a few weeks, it is a country that leaves a deep impression on those who venture there. Japan is not an easy place to characterize and we’re still trying to sort out everything we observed while there, and more importantly, what it all meant. Japan was, and remains, a place of mystery for us. Where else do you see obnoxious blinking gambling parlors erected next to serene Japanese Zen Gardens? Where else can you be surrounded by endless towering buildings of glass and steel, yet it the humble tea house – a building made from wood, bamboo, and earth by highly skilled craftsmen – that is most revered? And where else is the training to become an earthen plasterer as vigorous as it is to become a surgeon? Though these things may seem odd to us in the West, it has taught us that a culture needn’t abandon its past in order to embrace its future. Indeed, standing before a 600-year-old wall of clay that has stood tall through hundreds of earthquakes and nuclear war, is a good reminder of exactly what can be gleaned from our past, if only we listen. So listening we were.

Many things drew us to Japan but this trip was focused on traditional Japanese architecture. We can tell you that as natural builders in a place that has a rich history of using natural materials – clay, lime, bamboo, and timber – and even more, a profound appreciation for the craft of taking raw materials and caressing them into works of art, it was refreshing to see so many wonderfully preserved traditional buildings, as well as a surprising number of modern earthen structures, including straw bale, cob, and adobe buildings. Many of these buildings, especially the historic ones, are so stunning to look, expressing such beautiful form, that to the casual observer, it may not even be apparent that this awe-inspiring structure they are gawking at is made from humble earth. Luckily for us, our friend Kyle, who just happens to have completed a PhD looking at “hygrothermal environment of straw bale walls in Japan“, and who’s been working as a traditional Japanese plasterer, took us under his wing and provided us with a mesmerizing look into the world of Japanese natural building.

Kyle, who grew up in Wisconsin, and his Japanese wife, Kazuko, took us to places 99.99% of tourists never see – the inside of Japanese tool stores, temples made from straw bales, and to the home of a renowned Japanese plaster craftsmen. On one occasion, we visited a tool and aggregate supply store in downtown Tokyo. We still reflect on this visit and the ceremony that surrounded it. Prior to arriving there, we met Kyle’s friend Midori, whose PhD work focused on vernacular architecture in Japan. She was jubilant about the opportunity to visit this place. This family shop, we were told, was the premier supplier of natural building materials in Japan, providing generations of craftsmen the materials used to carry out the ethereal works we saw all over Japan. This was a real treat.

Upon walking into the small office, both Kyle and Midori presented gifts to the shop owner; Kyle giving daikon radishes he had grown himself. Everyone exchanged bows and a life time of thank yous (“ari-gato”), then we were directed to take a look around. The office contained collections of Japanese trowels, many of which were hand forged by descendants of Samaria swords makers. Upstairs hung sample boards of exquisite plasters done by Japan’s most accomplished plaster craftsmen, while in the adjoining room were shelves of colourful bagged clays from all over Japan, spanning the spectrum from bright orange to green. We could see the large yard piled high with sifted sands and various aggregates, and Kyle informed us you can even order a dump truck of premixed, fermented clay plaster for your project! Oh, did we wish.

Our next stop was to the Nihon Minkaen Open-Air Folk House Museum (click to do a virtual visit), located in Kawasaki city, adjacent to Metropolitan Tokyo. This splendid collection of old Japanese folk houses does wonders to capture the essence of traditional Japanese architecture and aesthetic. The 25 houses, mainly farm and merchant houses from the 17th through to the 19th century, were collected from all over Japan, deconstructed and reconstructed at the museum site. It was wonderful to see this collection and learn about the design and function of the buildings, as well as the tools used in the construction. This is where we also learned of the term ‘Fusin’, which literally means “communal efforts”. As was the case with ‘barn raisings’ all across North America prior to WWII, in Japan, new houses, rebuilds, or re-thatching (re-roofing) were lead by professional craftsmen but with the mutual aid of the residents in the village. The ‘Fushin’, a Buddhist term meaning “to request an act of charity far and wide”, is the act of coming together as a community to build a house. In this way “dependence”, at least as I see it, is in a lot of ways freeing, as it was not incumbent on every person to know how to build a sound home (a task that takes a huge investment of time), but as community members, each person has a role to play in addressing the shelter need. And just as I do not endeavor to be a farmer, for this I know takes an incredible time investment too, I relish in being able to help grow some of my own food and in supporting farmers that grow good clean food! This symbiosis worked well in the past, and it appears we’re beginning to rediscover the tremendous benefits that come with doing things together, not as consumers but as caring, useful, productive community members.

And that leads nicely into a wonderful concept we learned about in Thailand, though uniquely Japanese, called Satoyama. Though Satoyama refers to the landscape where forested mountains meet terraces of rice, it is the symbiotic relationship between humans and non-human life that is so remarkable. It’s a landscape where humans have enhanced (read, enhanced, not diminished) the landscape to not only provide for their own needs, but to enter into an elaborate dance with birds, amphibians, and other mammals to create a mesmerizing and abundant landscape that has persisted for thousands of years. It affirms that humans are not inherently destructive; that it is possible to live in abundant beauty while also meeting our own needs. The notion that humans and the “environment” are at odds, that for people to prosper everything else must suffer, is utter hogwash. It’s a lie and we mustn’t believe it for a second. In fact PeeJo, the founder of Pun Pun and the man who first introduced the concept to us, uses Satoyama (and the film by David Attenborough (Pt 1 & Pt 2) that so eloquently describes this place) to show chemical rice growers in Thailand that there are real, viable alternatives. He say’s that the film touches people’s hearts, inspiring them to find ways to nourish the land instead of spraying it. They see first hand that life creates conditions conductive to life and Satoyama gives them a model to foster this in their own lives.

From the profane to the profound, Japan offered plenty to reflect on. People have asked us, if you could bring an aspect of Japanese culture back to Canada what would that be? We both had to think long and hard about this. For Ashley, it was an appreciation for process. In much of Japan quality still counts for something, and the craftsman responsible for this quality are revered. In the West we want everything fast, big, and most of all, cheap. Cheapness, as we’re coming to see, cheapens all life. As for what Heather would bring home, well, she appreciated the graces of Japanese culture. The little exchanges – the warm, moist serviettes before a meal, the complementary cups of tea, and the warm smiles you receive upon entering a shop. In both cases, it’s about gratitude. It’s about serving what serves us, whether people or ecosystems. In the end, everything nourishes everything else.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Japan

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for your view into natural building in Japan. Do you know of any books or other resources in English on natural building in Japan.

    1. admin Post author

      Much of what has been writen on Japanese natural building has unfortunately not been translated. We did find one book titled "In Praise of Mud: A Guide to the Earth Walls of Kyoto", which we used a as a tour guide for locating projects around the historic city. It's interesting, though especially so if you have a chance to see the projects in person.

      Another book is Emily Renoylds' "Japan's Clay Walls: A Glimpse into their Plaster Craft", a revealing look into her year as a plaster apprentice in Kyoto. I hope those are of interest.



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