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




4 thoughts on “Dragon Spirit Training Grounds

  1. Hello Emily — I am enjoying reading your posts. Your dedication to your apprenticeship is quite inspiring. All the more so, to me anyway, because you don’t seem afraid to share the lessons in humility that come with sincerely trying to learn a craft. Plus, all the details you provide about the various processes make it real. One thing I’m wondering: do they ever add a colorant to the lime-plaster? And is it only used on exterior walls? There’s a story hidden within those undulating dragons, don’t you feel?

    • Hello Jim! I’m happy to hear from you, and glad that you are finding something interesting in the posts. Yes, pigments are added to the lime. The most common is ink, to make it black. There are two ways of making the ink: one from charcoal from pine (I think) and the other from the smoke of oil, I think rapeseed oil. It is a very slow process, making the ink very expensive. I’ve seen cheap calligraphy ink used in the shop too. I think you can use any pigment you like with lime. There is a saturation point beyond which you can’t bring more color out of each pigment, so that is your limit. Also, clays are often used with limes to make pigmented walls.

      As for the exterior/interior question, yes, lime is used both inside and outside. Typically (i.e. traditionally), lime or clay/lime plasters are used where body parts or clothing are more likely to touch the walls, like kitchens, hallways, entryways, and bathrooms.

      If I’m ever on another job with the crew of the construction company that sponsors that temple, I’ll ask if they know about the origins of the Dragon Spirit. There is definitely story in those undulations!
      Be well!

  2. you should write a book oh wait, you already have 🙂
    my dear friend, you have such a sweet way of sharing your self and your experience.
    i love reading your posts

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