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.

A Shipwright and a Treasure

My last day of Golden Week vacation I surprised myself by going to Kobe.  I was drawn to visit Douglas Brooks, who has been stationed at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum over the last month building a wooden boat based on a design that is native to the tsunami disaster zone.


Douglas Brooks speaks with an 82 year old, 4th generation ship builder who was visiting the museum that day.  The rest of this man’s visit was spent in a wheelchair, but for this conversation he was upright and lit up! (By the way the back end of the boat has a bend that’s created through a firing process.)

There is only one man in the region who knows how to build these boats anymore, which have been used for harvesting abalone and sea urchins.  90% of these handmade wooden boats were completely destroyed five years ago.  Douglas has a passion for wooden boat crafting and deep commitment to preserving Japan’s rapidly disappearing, completely unique vernacular.  We began corresponding by email nearly a decade ago.  This was our first time meeting face-to-face, and I am greatly appreciative to know him and his wife now.  We traverse the same respect for the utterly unparalleled crafts of this land.


We both wonder, how do you pass on these skills, earned from time consuming, painstaking labor, to an interested audience with an unshakable habit to want the results of their desires instantly?  Douglas says we have lost our ability to observe, and in his boatbuilding classes back in Vermont he is employing the art of “no-talking.”  It has been transforming the students’ lives.  You’re not aware that you lack the power of observation until you are faced with a need to observe, and realize you cannot remember what you just witnessed.  Then again, with craftsmanship formed over centuries, it is not so simple as that.  Each part of the body has a different job, and must perform the motions unconsciously and simultaneously.  It takes years to develop this muscle memory and ability to subconsciously draw from the knowledge database in the mind/body.  In my case, I want, no I need to convey that I may never teach Japanese plaster finishes, which is the only thing that most of the interested audience is concerned with.  Is that very unsatisfying to you?  I want to present it in a way that everyone walks away deeply satisfied, more skilled than ever.  But only rarities see the value in washing buckets.  Few want to spend months preparing the materials, recognizing the skill set that can only be developed with this tedious task.  But really, that is what it takes to know what you are supposed to do when it comes time to put plaster on the wall.  It really does take years to learn this stuff.  Anyone who says differently just doesn’t know.


A display of the bones and the basics of a tea house.

To add to the treasure box that was this meeting is the box itself.  The museum.  Talk about tool porn (pardon me, how else to say?)!  Especially for carpenters that are into hand tools.  This museum has taken great effort to present the traditional building craft of Japan in a way that engages people of all learning styles, from children to elderly.  There are touchables and videos in each area of the displays, each part extremely well done (and in English too!).  There’s a hands-on lab where I could spend days making spoons, musical knickknacks, boat replicas…  And of course, the almighty classical earthen plaster craft display.  Set it in your calendar, they will have a special exhibit on plaster tools in September this year!


This is a rammed earth wall by Kusumi Naoki, son of the man above. Opposing this is another one of these, two stories high.

And last but by no means least, the main floor’s exterior and interior were plastered with Japan’s shikkui lime (using seaweed paste) by none other than the crew that is training your truly, Shikkui Asahara.  My delight that they had a hand in this incredible museum came from a place of utter unastonishment.  Of course they did.  They are among the best, and this museum is all about displaying the best, at their best.  Come to this museum.