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.


2 thoughts on “Butterfly, Birds, and Innovations

  1. Hi Emily, I just discovered your blog, and I already feel deeply indebted for the chance you give us to gain insights on earth plaster craftmanship in Japan trough your posts. I am moved by the attention and respect given to materials and tools, by the spirit of beauty and durability infused in their work. I hope to be one day able to attain that level in my practice as a natural builder. What have you been up to since last february ? Hope you are doing well, Jordan from Québec

    • Hello Jordan! I was just alerted that I am missing notes I get through my website. I didn’t see this until just now, so sorry for the long delay! I’ll try to adjust my settings so I know when some one writes. Sumimasen! So I’m remaining in Japan for another three years, continuing training, and also (for visa purposes) started a PhD to normalize/legalize earth building. Busy! and highly thankful for the help all around me. I’m so happy to be able to share this amazing craft with people like you. Thank you for sharing your feelings with me, it helps me appreciate it all anew!
      Sending best wishes from HOT Kyoto!

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