Feature Mondays – Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Japan

Friday 6 July 2018

Japan in late spring and the trees are in full leaf everywhere: in the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo; in the Kenroku-en, those glorious gardens in the heart of Kanazawa; and across the countless acres of deciduous and coniferous woodland spreading over more than two thirds of the nation's rugged land-mass. On the fringes of the woods and forests wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) is in full bloom, its pale purple blossoms hanging from the trees like trails of Japanese characters.

Behind Kobe, the city built around a deep-sea harbour an hour away by suburban train from Kyoto, the wooded hills rise up in a gamut of greens to meet the sky. At the top of the city, only a few minutes' walk from Shin-Kobe, the new railway station on the Sanjo Shinkansen line, stands the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in its brand-new purpose-built home set in its own leafy grounds, with tree-clad Mount Rokko as backdrop.

The Takenaka Corporation

The Takenaka Corporation, one of Japan's leading architecture, engineering and construction companies, first opened Japan's only museum of carpentry tools in 1984 in Nakayamate, Kobe, to mark the 85th anniversary of its incorporation in the city, home of the firm's first headquarters. But the company's roots go back to the beginnings of the Edo period when a shrine and temple carpenter in Nagoya named Takenaka Tobei Masataka was put in charge of construction and building maintenance by the ruling feudal lords in 1610. Since then, the firm's activities have spanned centuries of construction from the traditional Japanese woodworking methods of the Edo period to the most advanced technologies of today.

The Takenaka Corporation now boasts a state-of-the-art technical research institute said to be the largest in the world, including a wind-tunnel testing laboratory and a large-scale earthquake simulator. It has long-term plans for environmental action to 2050 that take into account the well-being of inhabitants and to promote creativity and sensitivity in design to produce a built environment which is 'close to human'. Its declared targets are to set up a zero-carbon pilot project by 2020, construct zero-carbon buildings by 2030, and carbon-minus buildings by 2050. “Takenaka,” so the company asserts, “is not just building buildings, we are building the future.”

Why the museum?

What made a go-ahead company renowned for its innovative landmark buildings publicly display such a special interest in traditional carpentry? Why this link with the past? Clues may be found in the philosophy of the corporation that converges with that of the museum. If, on the one hand, the Takenaka Corporation built the Tokyo Dome, Japan's first large-scale stadium, with an air-supported membrane roof, it has also undertaken, after painstaking excavation and research, the rebuilding of the 8th-century Daigokuden Imperial Hall in Nara using traditional methods. One of the largest examples of wooden architecture in Japan, the hall's base-isolation and earthquake-resistant clay walls help ensure that the building meets contemporary building standards.

Until the Meiji period in the late 19th century, Japanese architecture was predominantly of wooden construction. Thanks in part to the skill and techniques of its carpenters, Japan evolved a unique way of working wood and their tools undoubtedly played an important role in the development of architectural styles. Through constant use and the repeated sharpening of their cutting edge, tools wore out and were replaced making their preservation rather uncertain. Modern technology – mechanisation and electrification – caused hand tools to be used less and less.

Aware of the potential loss of one part of the nation's culture through the gradual disappearance of hand tools, the Takenaka Corporation, with its own history dating back to 1610, established the museum. The corporation's official prospectus, published in July, 1984, was very clear in its resolve: “The Museum has two main purposes: firstly, to collect and preserve excellent tools from the past; secondly, by researching and exhibiting these special tools, to convey to future generations the spirit and attitudes of traditional Japanese carpenters and blacksmiths. By permanently undertaking these activities, the Museum will continue to contribute to the preservation and the further development of Japanese architecture.” How inspired it is then that the museum should be the brainchild of a leading construction company. The firm's looking into the future is counterbalanced by its looking into the past – into the legacy of craftsmen down the ages not only in Japan but in the wider world.

The new building

Outgrowing the old building in Kobe, the museum relocated to a residential area of the city, opening on 4 October, 2014 in a 19,000 sq.ft building. Designed by three of Takenaka's own architects, it subtly blends traditional craftsmanship with modern structural techniques. The heavy tiled roof, for example, is borne by upward-curving steel beams hidden from view by the vast lobby and lecture theatre ceiling of narrow serried rafters made in Nara cedar that lends lightness and gracefulness to the structure. The museum's leaflet challenges the visitor to identify whether a given element of the building employs traditional or contemporary skills in the woodworking, plastering and tiling.

Preservation and research

If one of the museum's main objectives should be the preservation of traditional hand tools from around the world, the museum was not built so much as a shrine to relics of the past but as a temple to the wonders of wood and to the ingenuity of man building with it.

Mostly architectural historians by training, the curatorial staff have a vast reserve collection at their disposal: “We have collected more than 30,000 items from Asia and Europe, of which almost 20,000 are tools,” says Dr Marcelo Nishiyama, the museum's chief researcher. “We only put around 1,000 tools from our collection on show.” Yet the research work is ongoing and the search continues for quality tools from around the world. “Of European tools, we have collected more than 2,000 items, mainly from England, France, Germany, Austria and a few from Italy,” enthuses Dr Nishiyama. “Now I am hoping to start on the Scandinavian countries. Also I am gathering tools from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.”

The exhibition

The exhibition gallery on two underground levels is divided into seven sections. In 'Tools and Handwork' and 'Exquisite Works of Master Craftsmen', visitors are invited to look closely at the tools themselves, and in sections like 'Learning from a Master Carpenter', visitors learn about how the tools are used in the building process. A huge showcase in the 'Tools and Handwork' section displays a traditional carpenter's standard set of hand tools from the early Showa period. There is a surprising kinship with the double-page engraving of a set of French tools reproduced in Bergeron's Manuel du Tourneur from the early 19th century, some 125 years earlier. The tools' functions of boring, smoothing and sawing are the same even if the ways of working the tools may differ, sometimes considerably.

One of the most captivating images of our visit is of a Japanese plane – one that is drawn rather than pushed – from which the broadest shaving imaginable is escaping like a rippling sheet of finest gauze. The finish to the planed block of wood is crisp as opposed to the dull smoothness of sanding, but it is only achievable with the sharpest plane iron honed to perfection on a whetstone.

At the time of our visit the museum was holding a special exhibition 'Tools of a Master Craftsman' that featured a remarkable selection from the work of the revered blacksmith and tool-maker Chiyozuru Korehide (1874-1957), whose family were swordsmiths prior to 1876, when the samurai lost their right to wear swords. Besides beautifully wrought plane irons and chisels from his output, there is a life-size model of his smithy or workshop on permanent display.

A full-scale model of one of the ornate pillars from the Golden Hall (kondo) of the Buddhist temple Toshodaiji in Nara stands in a dominant position in a central void and may be viewed from the ground floor as well as from the lower level. Here is a supreme instance of carpentry done with the precision and pride of a cabinetmaker. A few steps away from the foot of the pillar there is a well-appointed workshop, where practical events for both adults and children are provided under the guidance of the museum's resident temple carpenter.

The nearby section 'Making the Most of Wood' provides one of the most enduring memories of the whole museum. A stand of tall logs chosen from the main types of timber used in Japanese wooden architecture presents an image that is almost totemic. Each log has been sawn along its length and then planed smooth to show the grain as it changes across the heart of the log. At the foot of each upright log stands a transparent plastic bin full of shavings from the log. You can lift any lid, dig your hand into the shavings and scoop up a handful to feel and to sniff: Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica); Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa); red pine (Pinus densiflora); Hiba cypress (Thujopsis dolabrata); tsuga (Tsuga sieboldii), a conifer which has insect-proof properties; chestnut (Castanea crenata); zelkova (Zelkova serrata); Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata), each has its own subtle and evocative fragrance.

The section 'A Journey through History' provides the visitor with a history of hand tools from Stone Age axes and adzes through to Japanese hand planes, whereas the section 'Tools around the World' offers a small but informative display of European tools with a sample German timber-building structure. 'Traditional Beauty of Japanese Wa' features a delicate 'skeleton model' of part of the teahouse building that still stands within the museum complex and had been designed and built by Kaichiro Usui in 1958 for the Takenaka family, whose home once stood on the site of the museum.

Wa conveys the Japanese sense of harmony. It is a feeling that pervades not just this section but the whole museum. The director, Kenzo Akao, and his staff deserve all the plaudits they can get for creating what is arguably one of the best specialised museums to be seen anywhere. Through good, uncluttered and well-labelled displays skilfully divided into digestible self-contained sections; through well-written and clearly spoken audio guides available in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese, through touch-screen videos of carpenters performing various tasks, the world of woodworking is brought to life. To Western eyes the museum encapsulates aspects

of the Japanese character: attention to detail; the quest for perfection; respect for natural materials. You come away feeling satisfied that you have learned something and have a better understanding of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. As we made our way out of the museum at the end of our visit, we spotted on the main reception desk the dispenser for adhesive tape – it too had been beautifully fashioned in wood. We stepped outside the museum and the great doors of adzed chestnut planks shut silently behind us.