Rope a Building

Rope.  I’ve been aware that it is a core material for making kura* for a long time.  But it is highly uncommon that restoration of kura gets to go so deep as to restore the core.  Often destruction is chosen instead.  I’ve been hanging out this week with Toyohiro Furukawa, of Yamaga, a town in Kumamoto Prefecture.  Because of his abilities, he has been blessed with multiple requests of kura restoration.  I’m here at just the right time to have spent a day working with him on a current project, which allowed me to get some first hand experience on two different sakan** skills:  whole-bamboo core restoration, and an understanding of how namako-kabe*** are achieved.

[* typical throughout Japan, kura are thick earthen walled, fireproof storehouses, with large, whole bamboo lengths at the core, bound by rope (mostly rice straw, also palm), covered in earth and more rope, usually finished with shikkui lime).  **sakan are the earth laborers.  *** namako-kabe are a criss-cross pattern of tile and lime that you see here and there.  I never knew how much I didn’t know about them : ) ]


This residential storehouse was badly damaged during the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake.  Aiming for a restoration that will hold up longer than it has been standing so far (100 years-ish), Furukawa will increase the thickness of the wall from the original by using more rope in the construction, for a final thickness of perhaps 23cm.  Before, it varied here and there, but in general was around 21cm.

Throughout the country, there are regionally unique kura construction styles to serve as case studies, and Furukawa has studied a large number of them.  As alluded to above, a typical kura restoration only goes so deep, not much deeper than the finish surface, certainly not all the way to the bamboo.  So he has scavenged reading material and harnessed his understanding of his craft to achieve a restoration he can reasonably trust will give the structure more than double its current lifespan.  With this knowledge, and great intuition, he faces each job site and creates what he senses will be the appropriate tie, using what he senses to be the appropriate size and make of rope.  The day I was there, he made up the tie style he had me do while we were on break.  (Please scroll over photos from here to get detailed explanations of happenings.)

When he first came to rescue this kura, the whole bottom half was finished with namako-kabe, which is how he will finish it again.  Before coming to Kumamoto I had only ever noticed straight criss-cross lines for namako-kabe.  Here, most of them are a funky octagon shape.

There is a little attached hallway to the west of the little kura, a modern kitchenette and bathroom addition.  It was raining, so that enclosed area was chosen for removal on this day.  My first surprise: The tiles are all square!  The second surprise: they are practically side by side, like, uh, tiles.

Furukawa for now is considering finishing this particular wall section from top to bottom with ohtsu (lime+clay) instead of with tiles at the bottom. That water drip line jutting out the middle there was loose and no longer necessary, so it came off, along with the rest of the shikkui.  Even Furukawa is puzzled by the layers upon layers of shikkui that decorate the exterior of the whole kura.  They really do not adhere well plastered over one another like that.

The bottom area beneath where the tiles were was so unhinged, Furukawa removed all the loose stuff, and cut away the bamboo that had rotted.  Watching his process here was even educational.  I hadn’t realized how handy a tool the vacuum can be.

The nails serve a more temporary purpose than the rope.  While they will keep the bamboo in place for a little while, their presence there at all causes the bamboo to crack and weaken.  Then, over time, they will rust and rot and serve no purpose at all.  However, the massive amount of rope provides insurance that the binding for the bamboo will remain solid for a long time, and nothing is going anywhere.

This is where the work for this day ended:


Furukawa will come back and continue wrapping more rope around the old bamboo, but first needs to chink out as much of the old solid arakabe plaster as he can reach, so he can get the rope around.  I envy his long fingers’ ability to get around all this bamboo as quickly as he does.  Also, he needs to scrape off the white leftovers of the lime plaster’s lime + fine sand primer so the next layer of nakanuri brown coat plaster will stick.

In all my experience so far, I’ve never had this chance.  I’m super grateful to this man for giving me the opportunity to work on something so unusual.  He is not one to easily invite people to work with him, mostly working alone, and I feel very honored.  Here I am, clearly happy.  Also, because he called me 27 years old ~.~


Too bad I live so far away, I get the feeling he would have me back.  I would love to learn more with him.

FB Japanese Plaster Craft Page!

Sorry, this is not a post, but a shameless promotion of a newly made Facebook page, Japanese Plaster Craft.

I was encouraged by Kawai Takami, the carpentry master at Suikoushya International Craft School in Kyoto.  With the help of his bilingual apprentice and the passion of people from around the world, through crowdfunding he opened a tiny little gorgeous carpentry school last spring.  Students from around the world come for 1-month courses.  Four students per class, each class is full.  I think he said all classes for this year are booked already.

He is gradually making the walls for his workshop, using traditional materials.  I went to his workshop for a second time last Sunday to guide an enthusiastic international group in plastering the base layer to the substrate of tied bamboo.  (The first time I went there were mostly local Japanese people eager to plaster.)

To tell the story of how I met Kawai-san and this school would reveal mysterious magic of the universe.  Let’s just suffice it to say that he has presented me with options I never, ever thought of.  Options that will provide access to training for more people with simple hunger for knowledge on sakan plaster craft.  Two years ago, he didn’t even know there was a Facebook, but his apprentice did.  His apprentice was a part of a group on FB that adores and admires Japanese carpentry craft.  Seeing the enormous worldwide interest in daiku carpentry work, he was inspired to help people access the craft, and he had the support network ready to put him to work!  Within a month and a half from starting crowdfunding to rent the space and build the foundation of the school, the first class was opened in April 2018.

So this facebook page is the first step in gathering people who have an interest in sakan work, at the encouragement of Kawai-san. If you’re not on Facebook, it is understandable.  But many people are, and it has proven a great worldwide platform to connect those with like interests. (I’m currently desperately trying to get it to pop up on google searches…do I have to pay somebody?!)

Tell your friends!

Chris’s Tea (mini) Castle Restoration: Asagi Shikkui

Typically during work, I would not get a chance to document the steps taken to remove and refinish plaster on a wall, since we’re moving quick and it’s not my place.  That is one reason why I am so thankful that my friend Chris bought the little house he had been renting for the last 12 (14?) years.  It’s an old gem.  Probably near or past 100 years standing, it was certainly a tea house at its initial creation.  It was certainly designed by the same person who designed Moan, a Kyoto destination tea house on the top of Yoshida-yama, a hill which asserts its presence in the east of Kyoto valley.  The roof design is complex, and mind-blowing.  A hop skip and a jump away from the Philosophers Walk by Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavillion) and also to Kyoto University, had Chris not taken the leap to purchase this ramshackle tea house, the owner would have very certainly seen to its demise.


Every now and then I’d run into Chris by the river and he would tell me about his place and ask if I could come by to assess his walls, which he wants to replaster.  I was so excited for him when I finally did make my way this past April.  It’s a teeny thing.  It’s so precious!  It’s in need of so much love, and here he is committing to give it.  Thanks to Chris, it will be beautiful again.  It is an honor to be a part of the restoration.  May it provide joy for another hundred years.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Plasters used:



Aratsuchi: heavy clay-rice straw for patching on bamboo lathing (makes arakabe)

Mizuzuri:  Clay slip.  Mostly earth (no additional sand) and some rice straw. Very wet mix. (not pictured)

Nakatsuchi: brown coat mix, more sandy, shorter rice straw fibers (makes nakanuri)

Sunabai: lime, seaweed powder, manila hemp fibers, fine sand (0.3mm), used as a primer before the lime-based finish

Asagi shikkui:  shikkui (lime, seaweed, fine hemp fibers) with a touch of blue clay (Asagi) for finish.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This blue tea house.  I’ve seen more than a few tea houses, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that is plastered in blue on the outside and inside.  (Typically, the inside of a tea house would be an earthen finish, as would be the outside, so this place was special from the get.)  The blue is a clay, called Asagi.  I’m fairly certain that the worn out surface is Asagi with a touch of shikkui.  The application is thin, and not as lasting as lime.  This may have been replastered once since the original build, or not.   It was so weathered that it was powdering off at the touch.


Asagi is hard to come by, and quite expensive.  As fate would have it, the company I’m with, Tanaka Akiyoshi Sakan, did a job on a temple perimeter wall which left a vat of material which was shikkui with a touch of Asagi.  Tanaka oyakata donated the material to Chris’s project, which was extremely kind and super duper lucky for us.  I had already been given dried nakatsuchi from Sato oyakata, who I worked for between last November and March this year.  His support in my education and growth has been phenomenal, and I am indebted to him for so much. (Sato Sakan is also where Tanaka oyakata trained, spending his initial ten years in this craft there.)

Phase One: Removal and prep for brown coat

Step 1: Remove



The drop below the wall was long and onto a neighborhood road.  Breathing in the dust of old plaster is not particularly pleasant, nor is creating a dusty workplace, so walls were wetted before scraping.  I held a dustpan under my scraping hand so as not to drop below, with a collection bag nearby.  There were a lot of hemp fibers in the mix.  It is necessary to get all the old finish off that’s patchy, but if it’s only vaguely coloring the brown coat beneath, it can stay.  I aimed to scrape as evenly as possible, and identify areas where the plaster was floating, removing just as much as minimally necessary.  Around the edges, this can often reach the bamboo lathing.

Step 2: Wash.  Bucket of water with horsehair brush (or equivalently soft brush) works well. (The photo above is right after the wash step, hence the darkened wall.)

Step 3: Patchwork

This is where aratsuchi comes in.  Ordinarily, you would let this application completely dry.  Here, time constraints meant only letting it dry til the next day.  Wet the edges adjacent to where patching will happen.  For better grip of the next layer, notching is necessary after aratsuchi is applied.



Part of the plaster had a severe crack, and proved to be floating.  Underneath was a nuki.  (Nuki are thin wooden boards, maybe up to 1cm thick, and up to 8cm wide.  Often they are included just horizontally, but here also supporting the walls vertically.)  There was no nuki-buse, a process of laying mesh to prevent cracks where board meets earth.  I really don’t understand how such a seemingly high-class structure didn’t get this treatment to begin with.  I’ve seen a lot of old walls revealing hemp fabric reinforcement (nuki-buse) on these parts.  I did not want to remove the whole wall to perform this step.  I did the best I could think of, in a situation quite less than ideal.



Step 4: Clay slip (mizuzuri) / mesh where necessary

No photos of this, but the consistency of the plaster is quite similar to clay slip, plus some soft straw.  The idea is to make a layer that absolutely binds the new plaster to the old.  You severely wet down the old plaster, where your spray water (or brush water) is basically cascading down the wall.  Only do small sections at a time, because you want your substrate really really wet.  Use a small trowel, to get as much pressure as you can (reasonably without breaking the wall underneath of course) to really rub in the new plaster to the wet old substrate.  This might be considered the most important step.  (Although I’m not exactly sure which is NOT the most important step : )

This is also where mesh goes over any cracks.  In this case, I also meshed some areas where the aratsuchi patch was long/large, because of its shrinkage factor.

Phase Two: Brown coat (nakanuri)  [warning:  I skipped chiri-mawari / go-around and soko-ume / filler coat due to time constraints.  I have commented on why that was an unfortunate move at the end of the post]

Much of Japanese architecture aesthetically requires reveal of posts, beams, and any structural wooden elements that make up the edges around the sections of walls.  In the case of these walls, the reveal on the sections after removing just the finish left me room to plaster another brown coat and finish, and still have the requisite reveal (called “chiri“).  This is not always the case, and often you have to remove the previous brown coat for appropriate restoration.  In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think these walls had ever been replastered except for an odd patch here and there.   (Plaster archeology can be mysterious and revealing, at times confounding, at times wondrous.)

Step 1: Taping — makes for easier cleaning and doubles as an ink line

The size particles of your nakanuri mix determines how thick your brown coat will apply.  In this case the plaster materials had gone through a 3mm sieve.  Ideally, this would mean a 5-6mm brown coat, as the plaster goes on in two passes.  However, in old buildings, foundations move and wood moves.  The wall shifts slightly over decades, but the bamboo lattice framework is still solid.  The best thing to do for an aesthetic result is to tape according to reveal.  This means that some areas will get a thicker application than others.  Where the application will be thicker than 5mm (in this case), it is necessary to do a filler pass before the standard two-pass process.  At times, a part of the wall is bulging and only allows for one pass, in which case that part is skipped at the first pass and plastered only on the second pass.  (aside — Japanese tape is so varied and well designed, in degrees of stickiness for all kinds of situations.  Anyone want to do an export/import business?)

higeko and ready for nakanuri

Walls were taped and higeko-d here on day one, so nakanuri could begin right away on day two. From this photo, Aratsuchi patches got another day to dry. Not ideal, not absolutely horrible.

Step 2: Higeko at corners

Tanaka Sakan likes to do at least “sumi-san (corner-three)” with higeko.  Higeko are the little brad nails with hemp fiber tied in lengths.  These are nailed into the wood at the level of substrate, close enough that the threads, spread in a V-shape from the nail, can overlap the thread of the next higeko, forming an “X.”  On site, they embed these threads into the first pass of the chiri-mawari, or go-around — a sandy mix beveled around the edges.  At this project, I did not have the time to do that step, so instead I chose to embed the threads after the first pass of the nakanuri, or brown coat.  Also, I did not have enough higeko, so some areas only got one or two at the corner.  Also, I used higeko along edges where excessive aratsuchi was needed, as a measure against cracks where shrinkage was more likely to occur.

Step 3: Plaster nakanuri brown coat

Step 4: Clean edges

Step 5: When walls are leather hard, pass over surface with a trowel that is not jigane made of iron (hanyaki works well, forged with a little steel)  This helps catch any minor undulations, which are slight enough to be worked out by passing over the area a few times.  This ensures a flat surface for the finish pass.



Phase Three : Finish

Step 1: Tape

Shikkui goes on in two passes, after one pass of sunabai.  All said, the thickness of this combined process amounts to about 1.5mm (about 1/16 of an inch).  This material, with the splash of clay, is a bit of a different creature.  I found I was better off taping to 2mm, because at 1.5mm plaster was still covering the tape, causing me more work fixing edges after tape removal.  Because the plaster has some clay, I was advised to hit it only once after evening, rather than my customary three times, which would compress it a little more.  Less compression = thicker application!

Step 2: Sunabai 



This material is scraped on thin with a stiffish trowel.  After covering the surface, you go back and even out the moisture in the layer. The weather (aka the time of year) determines the amount of seaweed in the mix.  Hotter climate makes a faster drying time, so you want a little more seaweed glue.  The weather and the angle of the sun affects the wicking of the moisture, as does the substrate, so how you work the surface changes slightly in each situation.   Sometimes you have to step away to let moisture wick out.  The goal is to have a less-than-wet-but-definitely-not-dry, evenly moist surface with zero dry-out spots (which are visually noticeable because they turn bright white). Once evening the layer begins, this is a “fast and furious” step, evening out the moisture, scraping where the material has extra “bulk” and moving it to where it could use more. It’s good to clean the tape of sunabai when done.

Step 3: Two-pass shikkui

Considering how thin this layer ultimately becomes, I’m always surprised at the thickness of the application each pass needs to pull it off.  It requires a well-worn jigane (iron) trowel, to prevent the trowel from catching into the material.  It’s such a pleasure to work with this combination of material and trowel.



The first and second passes go on in perpendicular directions from each other.  This is to help the hemp fibers in the plaster cross over each other and make a stronger finish.  Lately I’ve taken to plastering the first pass vertically, and the second pass horizontally.  (In the past I went horizontal, then vertical.)



After the two passes are applied, it’s time to even irregularities, filling all the cat faces and making sure you’re not leaving any holes or high spots.  Since this is shikkui with a touch of clay, working it too much will cause variations in color.  I was advised to level everything out, then just hit it once with a finish trowel.  I think what I ended up doing was:

After applying the second pass,  I went over the surface vertically-ish from left to right, followed by horizontally-ish from top to bottom, to level out the variations of the plaster.  The “ish” is because there’s a need to go diagonal in places as well, dictated to you by the surface as you move the trowel.  Below is a video intended to give you a sense of that bit of the process.  If you were watching someone who has done this longer, you would see more controlled finger positions, faster movements.  I’m still in training, and can pull it off, but I do wish I could show you close up of someone who’s been at it longer, for a better example.   What you can see is where the trowel passes over the same spot multiple times, the “spot” (aka cat face) goes from visible to invisible (aka, surface variations are evened out) :


heap of fibers

heap o fiber clumps removed from material

Sometimes, moving plaster around isn’t enough to fill tiny areas missing plaster.  Tanaka Oyakata gave me a great tip about using the plaster that slightly cakes to the back edge of the trowel to fill in any pocks on the wall.  This is preferable to using un-used plaster because the amount of moisture in the material is similar to that which is now on the wall.  If you used plaster off your hawk, it’s comparatively pretty wet, and the slight variation at that spot can prevent an even finish.

By the way, as you go, you run into little hunks of hemp fibers that got knotted.  These have to come out, or they cause trouble.  It’s typical to end up with a little pile on the hawk.


Once all seems well, you step away for a bit to let moisture wick away before switching trowels for the final hits.  I’ve become accustomed to using a 0.4 stainless/honyaki? trowel (it’s not stainless, cuz it rusts if it’s not cared for, but it’s not honyaki cuz it’s too stainless…I don’t know what it is).  At Shikkui Asahara I used this trowel, but at Tanaka everyone uses honyaki for the final pass on shikkui, and I need to do the same.  I’m on my way to figuring that out.  Here, I stuck with the tool I was accustomed to, since I hadn’t applied a shikkui+clay finish before.  Using the 0.4 to go over the surface from left to right, then right to left, methodically from top to bottom.  Then, remove tape, fix edges.  Then, a final stroke over just from right to left, methodically from top to bottom.  Done.

dried and not

In the photo above, you can see the surface varies in color where the trowel has “hit” and “not hit.”  This is because the surface is not entirely even, with the trowel missing the slightly lower spots.  This indicates that I have a lot of room for improvement.

For starters, I know that I didn’t do all the steps to build the nakanuri up.  I did not have the time to do soko-ume.  Soko-ume is done after chiri-mawari (the go-around).  If your nakanuri is designed/mixed to go on 5mm, then the soko-ume, done with basically the same nakanuri material over the aratsuchi, is applied as needed so that the nakanuri goes on evenly, and then shrinks evenly as water evaporates.  Because I didn’t do the “soko-ume” filler layer, the variations in depth of the nakanuri layer created undulations upon drying, because thickly applied areas shrank more than thinly applied areas.  I could tell when I was applying the sunabai over the nakanuri that my substrate was not flat, and I understood then why soko-ume is very important, and always performed.  Had I had the time and materials to do everything “right” (chiri-mawari plus soko-ume) I would have gotten a better substrate for the finish, hence, a better result in the end.

For here, at this project, under these circumstances, I am not unsatisfied with the result, and Chris is super happy, which is nice. There will be slight undulations, visible if you stare, far far above the road where people and cars commute.

The plastering on this house will be an ongoing project as I can make time and as Chris can plug away at areas he feels confident he can work on, like the arakabe, and anywhere else he wants to play with.   I’m glad to have been “forced” to do the back of the house, the part least seen, first.  Now I know I won’t be skipping any steps to make the front finish a little prettier.



Mizugone Learning Day

Mizugone — water-mixed.  This is considered the most difficult of finishes in Japanese plastering.  Why?  It’s just water, earth, sand and straw…

However, the ingredients are super fine, and the plaster goes on super thin.  You have to get the substrate perfect, or the finish will be wonky.   This is an “okkake” finish at this workshop, where the finish coat is applied directly after the brown coat has just dried enough.  Your tools have to be of the right make, shape, and wear for each application, or your material won’t apply well.  (A plaster applied well allows for success of the next application.)  As always, you’re battling with time sucking away your plasters’ moisture via substrate and air as you go.  All of these factors, and probably a few I’ve missed mentioning,  make this the most difficult, fine finish to achieve.  So much so that people come from around the country to Kyoto Plaster Guild’s Skills Training Course to learn from Master Okada, a grand puba of this timeless, centuries-old Japanese plastering.  Most of the craftsmen who come to this class are repeat offenders.  I’ve participated once, two years ago (well before I even started understanding what it was about), and today I was given the opportunity to join the class as an observer. [Reviewing my photos, I’m bummed that I didn’t take close-up photos of the process step-by-step. Instead, I have video. See below.]


One super cool aspect of these workshops is that we get a chance to meet each other.  While in the past, joining these classes has been a bit of an awkward experience for me, this time, with so many familiar faces and fun spirits, it was like family.  Playful jokes abound, but these do not outdo the juicy enthusiasm each person brings to the opportunity of upping their game.

Last week Sunday, the group gathered for the first of the two-day course; two days separated by a week; plasterers only have Sundays to spare.  This is a hot group of avid learners.  Last week they finished right over a wet go-around (where you use a sandy plaster beveled around the edges, preventing shrinkage when the water evaporates).  They also did the go-around for the panels they would plaster today.  These dried, prepped panels were thoroughly wetted before work started this week.

After watching a full demonstration from Master Okada’s ace, Hara-san, the group got to work.  Master Okada’s team made rounds to guide folks who were having trouble.  I was busy watching and taking notes while everyone was working, but I got good video of Hara-san.  It’s about 4 1/2 minutes, edited.  Have a look!


Butterfly, Birds, and Innovations

Has it really been two months since I’ve been on a job site?  It feels that way.  (It’s the visa thing, prohibiting me from working, therefore can’t get necessary accident insurance.  I rely on small job sites that have a personal relationship with my crew.)

Between all my practice panels, and an upcoming skills test at the Plaster Guild’s training school, I’ve managed to make good use of my time in the warehouse, honing what I’ve learned so far with various earth and lime finishes.

AND, I cannot tell you how relieved I am, and how fun it is, that I am OUT! Today my ani (older brother, though he is younger) likened me to a butterfly come out of the cocoon, and we both laughed because it’s quite possible that any week now this butterfly may have to revert back to the chrysalis.

Starting last week, I’ve joined a replastering project at a sweet little local temple not far from my home in Kyoto, built in the early 1200s.  Two crows were hanging out in a pine tree, talking about the day’s happenings.  Their voices carried words to a monk resting under the same pine, and he understood it was the day that Kumagai Naozane would die.  It was truly so, and to honor the messengers, and Kumagai, a temple was built.

Does this mean I am occupationally bringing home 800-year-old dust?  perhaps…  I have been playing sparrow the last couple of days, working in contortions above a hidden roofline to apply a decent clay-sand-straw nakanuri, the substrate for the shikkui lime plaster to come.

Did I already mention how much I am enjoying this?  What a great discovery it is every time I find plumb/level/flat, my hand-forged jigane (iron) trowel following my body’s command with my shoulders, arm, wrist and fingers in positions completely foreign to me until now.  Joyful sensation!

And truly, it is all about the jigane.  There aren’t that many blacksmiths that hand-forge jigane anymore.  Sugita-san, in Miki-shi in Hyogo Prefecture, took the helm of the forge from his father, who if I understand correctly is a Living National Treasure.  I ordered a 210mm trowel in the summer, with the handle placed to fit my hand.  The first time I used it I was a born-again-believer. Some things are unmakable by machine, and a really great iron trowel is definitely one of them.  The more you use them, the better they work, as the edges soften, allowing for smoother glide.   I, um, ordered 8 more, various sizes, shapes, and metal.  I hope the order is ready by the end of February.  If not, I remain happy and thankful that Sugita-san is so well employed.  His success is success for all earth plaster lovers.

Something else that delights me about the job is the substrate over which we are currently plastering.  It’s called arakabe panel.  Arakabe  refers to the first application of earth in the traditional wall framework, a fermented clay-straw mix that is applied over bamboo lattice to form the first layer of solid earthen wall in a structure.  A company called Maruhiro spent 30 years developing a product that could be installed like drywall panels, but made with earth-based materials.  (If I’m remembering correctly, the ingredients are clay, newspaper… and sand?)  They had a vision to replace the time-consuming and now costly traditional arakabe construction with something suited to modern building practices.   They also wanted to create something that would suit the standards required for maintenance of structures that are National Treasures and World Heritage Sites.  They succeeded.

I have been very intrigued by this development of arakabe panels, not least because the son and grandson of the man who spawned the idea are my classmates at the Plaster Guild school.  One of these days, when I return to the cocoon, I’m going to take a little flight to the factory that makes these panels and get some nitty gritty details to share with you.

Yes, the worksite is dark for now, covered in scaffolding and tarps.  I look forward to seeing it unveiled once the work is done.  Oh, anyone want 260-year-old roof tiles?  The roofers are giving some away to willing takers. I am so tempted to take one as a souvenir, a future-home accent piece.  Too bad each one is heavy like a rock.

Extinct Revelry of the Highest Class: Sumiya

Unassuming in its grandness from the outside: Sumiya.


The imagination cannot possibly do justice to the reality of what these walls must have seen.  And these walls!  No where is room after room so intricately designed to meet a mood, all under the same roof.  (And you know, since you are reading this blog, that these walls are made of the gifts of the earth. Conjuring the crafters in the mind invokes salivation. Abalone inlay on dark grey clay… bright blues and reds all but gone from the region now, but putty in the masters’ hands then.)  Wait, abalone inlay?  Why, yes, 270 year-old abalone inlay in a fine clay wall, my dear.  Your great grandmother wasn’t even born yet.



Bless the Bucket

This roof — removed from its original location because the Shogun wanted debauchery moved to another quarter of Kyoto back in 1641 — has seen two additions in its near-400 year lifespan.  To think, it may have been crushed to dust a few decades ago were it not for a large bath-bucket, enjoyed by Saigo Takamori, the last Samurai.  Thanks to the bath-bucket’s history, the whole property was spared from being demolished to accommodate the incoming JR train line.


The second floor bans tourist cameras, quite possibly because it is well nigh holy in its creation.  Thank goodness for publications with clout to capture the divine.  I for one am not too proud to show you photos of online photographs, some of which themselves are photographs of books.  This is the power that Sumiya exerts over us.


The first floor also contains magnificence at every view:


The history here quickens the heart of the fanciful.  The atmosphere is exquisite.  Glorious painter and poet Yosa Buson was a patron, as was rebel extraordinaire Sakamoto Ryoma.  The greatest acclaimed performers of their time, the tayu (mighty skilled geisha), entertained un-armed samurai from every clan and their mothers, such as the international star, genius Yachiyo Tayu.  A peace zone, swords were left at the door, please.  (Ahem Francheska, I just had to.) Strictly for the pleasure of the senses, burning enough candles to light up the night, food and sake flowed from the grand kitchen at this ageya, the place to lift you up.

You must visit.  Make reservations to tour the second floor, or you’ll be sorry.  And, pray, take me with you to translate.



When wo/man mimics nature to create what we need

Today’s lesson: humans create really beautiful, useful things when we mimic nature, and meld our creations with Her.

I listened to a lecture by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma at Takenaka Carpentry Tool Museum (yes, I went back.  I can’t seem to stay away).  His talk centered on the future of wood in architecture.  He spoke about being inspired by the ukiyo-e artist from the 1800s, Utagawa Hiroshige.  In these scenes, man, his creations, and nature “toke-au,” melt together.  Like this one: hiroshige_atake_sous_une_averse_soudaine

You can google Kuma-sensei’s own works and see what you think of his versions of blending architecture and nature.  There’s much to be shared there.  I particularly admire the ventilation system in his design for the New National Stadium which is being constructed for the 2020 Olympics.   But really what stayed with me the most from hearing him was this idea of our built spaces dissolving into the scenery.


Like this

The rail system so gently holding that man is not made of wood.  It is hand-crafted pigmented cement, designed to be unobtrusive to the main event — the waterfall, which has cut the beautiful narrow gorge.  There were thousands of hikers today who depended on these easy-to-grab, hardly noticeable rails guarding the path and keeping them safe from the steep slippery drop.  These faux-wood rails are made by sakan, yes our beloved Japanese plasterers.  I love the sensibility — to hide what we need by natural design.  In fine tea house gardens I often see spigots for the gardeners’ hoses which are hidden in a “wooden” stump.  I doubt many others notice, which is by design.   Here too, on this trail directly behind Shin-Kobe station, Kobe’s Shinkansen station, people didn’t notice they were being guided by these vine-like guard rails.  I got a few sideways looks by Japanese hikers, due to my camera being aimed in an unusual direction.  As soon as I noticed I would beam “Japanese faux-wood is amazing!” and launch in to how this “wood” is actually cement.  Each person had the same reaction: “Oh wow!  I didn’t even notice!” and noticeably gain appreciation for their country’s unique aesthetic considerations.  How beautiful is that.


I mentioned we are learning faux wood at the sakan school: gi-boku (faux-wood) and gi-ban (faux wood panel — pictured above in the post).  For the gi-boku project, we were assigned to make stumps to sit on.  Our teacher is renowned for his ability to recreate the famed tea-house cedar post, made from Kita-yama-sugi, a twisty, pale wood when skinned of its bark.  I tried making that for my stump.  It was not easy, and there are many things I would do differently next time to make it more realistic.  You’ve got to be really well-versed in the curvature and textures of different woods to make it work, and know your material and your tools well.  It’s really fun getting into this, and I hope I get many chances to utilize this trickery.


Those are some of my class’s “stumps” on the left. The kote-e (trowel art) you see will be another post, another night (thank you for your patience.)


Maybe in the future, I’ll get a chance to make an outhouse that looks like this:


That would be lovely.


Dragon Spirit Training Grounds

RyuShinDo 竜神堂 Dragon Spirit Temple.  I arrived to this site as an assistant to my master.  I was thrilled for three reasons.  One, for all intents and purposes, he is retired.  It is rare for him to be on a job, yet here we were.  Two, it would be just me and him.  I’ve never been on a job with just him before.  Three, it was going to reach nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit that day (37 Celsius).  Had I been at the warehouse practicing, which was the original plan, I would have cooked and perhaps lost my mind.  It gets crazy hot under a tin roof on a second floor.  And it gets beyond sauna humidity, not only from the regular Kyoto air, but also the plaster sending a jillion water droplets into the immediate atmosphere, where I would be on the move creating my own heat to add to the mix.  Get out? With Oyakata? Yes Please.


We arrived to a closed gate, in an industrial-park-like area 30 minutes south of Kyoto.  Oyakata had the number to the lock on the gate, and another number for the lock on the gate beyond that.  A larger building with an area inside set up to hold Buddhist rituals hid our destination — a small, one-room structure sitting on a platform, which likely enshrines some sacred statue.

The property is under the care of X-Construction Company, a company that works on many temples and traditional buildings.  It seems Shikkui Asahara and this company have worked on the same job sites for decades.  X-Construction sponsors a branch of a temple here, which I can’t tell you the name of because I have forgotten it.  I sort of get it, the construction company paying homage to the spirit-land by sponsoring a temple.  But who uses this space? The (two!) gates are locked.  The yard is overgrown with wild grasses.  Once a year a monk comes to offer prayers for…the company?  Anyway, who am I to question these things.  I’m here to work with Oyakata.


photo taken after prepping the bottom 30cm for a makeover

We walked behind the main hall to suss out the site.  On first impression, I thought —  is that some kind of kote-e, lime-plaster relief, beneath the eaves?  Then I thought, noooh, that’s a poorly plastered shikkui lime wall.  I’ve learned that walls with undulation collect dust over the years.  While a well-plastered (read: no undulations) lime wall will remain bright white for many decades, a white lime wall with undulations will collect soot and dust on its (ever so slight) humps and bumps and make the wall look darker in places within a matter of a single decade.  People might mistake this for an “aged” wall, but actually it’s just dirty.  This dirt, in turn, holds moisture against the surface of the wall, rather than allowing it to follow gravity’s pull down and away.  It is ultimately about the longevity of the plaster work.  With my newly discerning eye, I could see how the plaster undulated from afar.  Tisk-tisk.  [I soon learned the last time this building was plastered was 40 years ago.  With that perspective, I guess this much dust really isn’t that bad.  With that perspective, it makes this much dust interesting.  And a spoiler-alert: this is a story about being humbled.]

We were there to re-finish the two large walls on the north and west sides, and re-finish small portions of the lower edges of the south and east sides.  We started by scraping away the failing plaster on two of the larger walls.  This was not so hard on the wall on the west side, but the north-side wall was an extreme bear, and took us the bulk of the morning to get off. Why was this plaster, supposedly applied with the same material (lime finish over lime-sand), over the same substrate (clay-sand-straw) so much more difficult to scrape away?  All we could do was marvel and sweat, working from every angle to hack off the old plaster.  I taped the edges to prevent the lime from staining the wood. (But I done wrong.  See below as to how and why.)

After the customary hour-lunch at noon, we were ready to plaster.  This was only my third time trying my hand at shikkui, the marvelous stuff that is Japanese lime plaster.  At Shikkui Asahara, it is customized in various ways.  Often it is about a third shell-based lime, two-thirds mountain-based lime.  This gets mixed with seaweed-glue (seaweed boiled and made mucusy) and hemp fibers.  The lime we used here was called abura-iri-shikkui, or oily-shikkui. The hemp fibers were soaked in vegetable oil, and then blended into the lime-glue mix.  This way the lime gains more durability in the elements.

The Shikkui Asahara crew has recently coerced me into working the primary stages of applying the shikkui finish, always with a watching eye, and saving me as the lime reaches the end of its workability and I haven’t gotten it quite right.  Bless them.  I have to borrow everyone else’s tools, because I don’t own worn-down jigane trowels.  Newer jigane trowels, which have unworn, sharp edges, will catch into the material.  They are harder (in this case, impossible) to work with.  You will loose to time, the double-whammy of substrate and air sucking away the plaster’s moisture while you are trying to flush out your surface.  A well-worn trowel, on the other hand, will glide over the lime while simultaneously pulling the material to where you need it to go.  There is also the matter of the hakugin trowel, made of I know not what metal, and completely new to me as of this trip.  It is used to apply and finish the shikkui wall, depending on who you are working with. Different craftspeople have different preferences for achieving the same goal, even within the same company.  I bought two hakugin trowels (different sizes) and had them for this job, but Oyakata didn’t have me use them.

Yes, complicated stuff.   So on my third experience with shikkui finish, I felt lucky to not just have any master, but to have the master, the Shikkui Asahara by my side.

The first application was with sunabai.  Sunabai is a lime-sand mix, and maybe doesn’t include glue?  But then what is the difference between that and sunajikkui, sandy shikkui? Honestly I’m still quite confused about it.  Oyakata first went around the edges to fill the low areas that had come off when we scraped off the old plaster.  Perhaps the movement of the wood over the years caused the adjacent earth to soften more than the field of the wall.

Together we plastered the sunabai as a first coat over the west wall, over the dry substrate.  Once the sunabai is on, you have to watch as the plaster dries.  (You can start the next wall or do some other prep work and return intermittently to check.)  Wherever you see the surface “go whiter” first, (which means it has dried more than the areas around it), you pull moisture with the trowel from the surrounding areas to the drier spots.  This is because you want even suction of your sunabai substrate for the shikkui finish.  Once the sunabai lacks a sheen (but isn’t completely dry), you apply the first pass of shikkui.  If you apply the first pass in a vertical direction, then you apply the second pass in a horizontal direction, and vice versa.  Why? Think…think think.  I was given a few minutes to ponder, but wasn’t coming up with anything so my brother-worker told me:  By plastering each pass in cross directions, you are laying the fibers in such a way that it adds strength to the whole wall surface system.  Ah, I see, yes.  Brilliant.

We finished out the west wall by letting it dry and coming back to it a number of times and go over it again with the trowel of Oyakata‘s choosing.  (I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep track.) We probably returned two or three times to hit the wall before taking off the tape and hitting it one last time.

Oh the tape.  I did a poor taping job.  Rather than going off the existing substrate 1.5mm, as I had been told to do in previous taping for shikkui on other jobs, I somehow took it upon myself to tape right up to the edge of the white mark created by the previously existing lime plaster surface.  It seemed a reasonable thing to do at the time.  But upon removing the tape, it was woefully clear that I had done wrong.  The thin, bright white lime against the wood that was clearly not a part of the surface of the wall had to be painstakingly removed. The more faint white line from the previous lime was something that would just have to remain anyway.  By taping to the edge of that, and making the edges dirty with the new lime, I only created more work: painful cleaning details.  One lesson learned.

On to the north wall.  After hacking off the previous finish, our substrate was crudely ragged.  Oyakata had me flush it out using sunabai, which he treated as the brown coat.  It would need to dry before the sunabai+2pass-shikkui finish would go on.  Thus we ended a hot day.

The following week we returned to complete the north wall and the small areas at the bottom corners of the east and south walls.

We applied the sunabai layer together, and Oyakata guided me in evening out the moisture of the plaster as it dried.  At the sweet time, we applied the two layers of lime, the first in the opposing direction of the second.  Then he left me to the rest, while he took care of the small sections.  WHAT??!!   He would sometimes return to watch me and tell me how to move and what I was doing poorly and what I needed to aim for.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that I KNOW this wall was not becoming flat.  It was intensely covered with undulations, and there was no way to fix it, no matter how I moved my trowel.  And figuring out the feelings and sensations of the wall, traveling through my trowel to my  hand to my arm to my shoulder to my body… what it means and feels like to be gentle with it.  How to recognize where the plaster is softer than the area you’ve hit with the trowel just next to it, so as to let up on the pressure and not cause a different texture there.  It’s all so subtle, and each subtlety is so important.  I learned so much and…

I am certain, that in 40 years time, you will see a dirty wall on that north side.

And I spent that time wondering, perhaps the sakan who plastered those other dirty walls was being allowed a training ground.  Maybe, like me, they were permitted to work on this special home for the Dragon Spirit precisely in order to gain experience, in order to reach a deeper appreciation and understanding of the task at hand.  Maybe, like me, they were really, really lucky to be given the opportunity.  Maybe, like me, by the time they walked away, they were completely humbled.

And you know what?  I’m really glad that we didn’t touch that Hollywood wall above the doorway, the one that looked from afar to be an art piece of troweled relief.  True to its name, Dragon Spirit Temple, there appear to be two dragons emerging from the white clouds, don’t you think?  40 years from now, I wonder how much clearer they will reveal themselves.Version 3



Prelude to the NHK World show: the process to the nakanuri finish

[THE SHOW: Kyoto Walls: Elegance Molded from Earth

Airing on July 7, 2016, on NHK World, Core Kyoto’s classical Kyoto walls episode will include scenes of this nakanuri finish application on site.  The following blog entry describes how the plaster was created, and about the application.  Depending on how they edit the footage shot on site, you will get to see a pro in action with this very plaster, saving me from pretending I can take it to the finish.  The show will be available online for a month. (If you happen to get the NHK World channel, it will show four times on Thursday, July 7th, Japan time.)  It is very exciting.  The channel airs to 170 countries, and 200 MILLION households.  Maybe seeing a white girl speaking Japanese, with English subtitles, will tickle people’s attention.  Maybe they will remember this elegant earthen option when refinishing the walls of their own homes.  I hope you and your friends watch!  I know it will be fascinating.]

Nakanuri is typically just the same as a “brown coat,” meaning, it’s the plastered application before the finish plaster, or the substrate to the finish plaster.  Depending on the structure and the budget, though, it can sometimes be the finish coat itself.  In that case, it is often prepared especially to serve that purpose.  I was able to document the process while Asahara Ichiro and I prepared the two different nakanuri finishes used for the residence that became a special place to me:  the location where the NHK World film crew took footage of my mentor, Ichiro, pumping up the scene for them to film the odd American girl that’s hooked on this classical Japanese plastering stuff.

So, without further ado…



Prepping the materials




Mixing the materials  (the photo on the left tells the most)

Loading the materials



Nakanuri always goes on in two passes with a jigane trowel.  Here, being the finish, it gets a little extra attention.  After the second pass is applied, a 0.4mm thick hanyaki trowel is used to give the right texture.  The crew aimed to barely expose the straw, while it lay at the surface in “just the right way,” a soft way.  Note: no compression.


Big hallway wall, still wet

This was an old house, so most of the substrates that were being plastered were arakabe, or scratch coat of clay/straw over bamboo lattice work.  That means you loose your moisture much quicker than going over something like drywall, which is not so absorbent.  This crew doesn’t even think about keeping the windows closed to keep from loosing moisture to the wind, the way I’ve done for finishes over strawbale walls in the U.S.  They just open the windows right up and welcome in the cool breeze.  They work with that much speed and confidence.  We didn’t use tape on this job except for the walls that were finished with lime or lime-clay.




Anyone who knows me long enough knows I love to dance.

The first bit of advice I ever received from my master Asahara Yuzo was  imparted to me with decided seriousness through a huge smile.  It was maybe our first time ever meeting, in the hallway of Kyoto’s plaster academy.  He said this:  If you plaster while imagining Japanese Noh dancing, your wall will be beautiful.

Naito-san, the currently retired plasterer who is friends all over the world with Japanese-style carpenters that he has worked with over his many decades, lovingly recalls that people call him the Danshingu Purastaaman (aka “Dancing Plasterman”). See his smooth moves here.

Kyle Holzhueter, a serious practitioner of sakan work in Japan and teacher around the world, says this about this video of Kusumi Akira found online: “Notice his efficient movement and almost dance like quality.”

This craft is so hard.  I find myself really struggling every day to get to where I  need to be just to accomplish something better than the last time.  I know I’m so far from being anywhere near the skill level required to do even a basic “nakanuri” brown coat finish.  Word has it that opportunity is coming up here soon.  I’m nervous.


It looks nice, right? But see that slickness at the bottom forward area? That will appear differently than the rest of the wall upon drying, and likely denotes a low (or high?!) area, or somewhere I compressed too much. It has to be even through and through.

I’m really nervous because last week I needed to do what I was doing better than I was doing it in less than half the time it was taking me.  My practice boards are varying sizes.  There’s one certain section that, according to my mentor, should be finished through two passes within half an hour, and even that is pushing time limits if you want to beat the moisture loss, your plaster’s water being sucked away by the substrate while simultaneously evaporating into thin air.

I am stoked to report that even with Golden Week giving me a break, yesterday I got two passes done on that frame in 35 minutes.  But it’s not pretty.  Still… It took me 55 minutes the time before.

How did I get there?

It took this wall to tell me:  Dance.


6×6-ish.  The 30-minute wall in question is half this size.

Telling me Dance.  Telling me I’ll get there by letting the trowel tell me what’s going on with the wall, by letting my dance partner tell me what I need to do to make the right, sure, accurate moves that bring out the beauty.  Alternating pressure and grazes at just the right rhythm, moving quick and slick so we don’t wear each other out.  No tension.  Easing.

Give thanks I’ve still got lots of hours in the studio before I hit the dance floor.  I need all the practice I can get.