“Unwandering, my thoughts, Like the carpenters’ lines of the Hida craftsmen, Lead straight to you.”
-reads an excerpt from Japan’s oldest book of poems, the Man'yōshū.
Japan is known for placing great importance on its cultural heritage and traditional values. Honing the consonance between creativity and cultural crafts, Japan House, London is currently hosting an illustrious exhibitionーThe Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayamaーoffering a lens into the centuries-old Hida wood crafting tradition. The exhibition commenced on September 29, 2022, and will be on view till January 29, 2022. From raw material acquired from the Hida dense forests to the tools that were used to craft the creative past, and the resulting design establishments, the exhibition simultaneously celebrates the essence of Japanese craftsmanship and narrates the story of an enduring woodworking culture.
“The fabled woodworking tradition of the Hida region of Japan–Hida no Takumi–continues to inform the present and future of industry and design in the area. The densely forested mountains which surround the city of Takayama have for generations continuously provided the gifts of nature which have helped maintain the livelihoods of its inhabitants,” says Simon Wright, Director of Programming, Japan House. The design exhibition animates the centuries-old craft locale, as an immersive passage imitating movement through the densely forested Hida region of the Gifu prefecture in the city of Takayama, Japan. What unfolds is the story of a vibrant woodworking tradition that dates back to the eighth century CE. Acclaimed for their clean lines, creative joinery, and elusive intricate carvings, the people of the Hida region were renowned for being supremely dextrous, with the skills of Hida carpenters placed at a level where they could be exchanged for the imperial capital’s taxes. Many famous shrines and temples witnessed across Nara and Kyoto in Japan, were built with the extraordinary skills of these craftspeople. The exhibition is divided into four different zones—products, technology and innovation, people, and woodcraft techniques and materials.
“This heritage is a constant thread throughout the history of this region providing a respected woodworking lineage and our story for The Carpenters’ Line,” expresses Wright. The exhibition displays different materials and wood-crafting techniques that continue to benefit contemporary creative furniture design industries across the world. Presented, is an assortment of sculptures and ornaments created using ‘Ichii ittō-bori,’ a type of wood carving technique that involves carving wood from a single tree and embracing the natural, uncoloured grain that shines through in intricate details. Elemental references to the ‘Mageki’ Japanese wood bending technique are also showcased. Traditionally, for Mageki, the wood is first steamed and then bent using a mechanical press, after which it is secured in a mould to cool down. Extraordinary details of masterful joining techniques and latticework are platformed across the gallery space, translating the heritage craft into works of art.
The Carpenters’ Line also embraces the beauty and usefulness of products crafted using Hida craftworks, as found in Japan. Visitors can also witness the delicate Hida-Shunkei lacquerware, often designed using hinoki cypress, sawara cypress, and Japanese horse chestnut wood and finished in clear lacquer while walking through the exhibition. Complementing the lacquerware is the intricate Kumiko latticework that offers exceptional intricacy and skill, by fitting thin wooden strips using nails or glue to create the decorative artwork. Several craft techniques are embodied in Yatai—the large ornamental floats which are often paraded around during the spectacular Takayama Festival.
Along with the exquisite wood works and techniques, the exhibition also draws special attention to the craftspeople of Hida, who are at the heart of the exhibition. Various displayed poetic excerpts, artworks, sketches, soundscapes, and visual accounts shift the spotlight to the people whose livelihoods were governed by woodcraft, summing up the beautiful exhibition, that functions as a doorway into the lives of the craftspeople.
The Hida craftspeople are still thriving in the region and with Japan extensively platforming their craftsmanship, their work continues to transcend local realms and onto the global stage.
Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama will be on view till January 29, 2022, at the Japan House, London.