Friday, December 7, 2018

Hita, Oita and Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Cormorant Fishing Boats and Bamboo Crafts

Heading north through Kyushu my next stop was Hita, Oita Prefecture. Cormorant fishing boats are used on the river here, like elsewhere in Japan, now just for summer tourists to watch. I agreed to meet a friend’s father who lives nearby and he had some contacts at City Hall who helped us locate one of two local builders. This man then met us at the river and we looked at a boat he built. Mr. Matsumura had been a truck driver who became interested in boatbuilding. He told us the last professional boatbuilder stopped working thirty years ago and he and another craftsman have kept things going. The boat I decided to measure was one he built twelve years ago and he said it was exactly like the former builder’s boat, but he added since then he’s changed the design slightly, widening it a little bit to give the boats more stability. He also uses common wire nails and screws instead of traditional boat nails.


He took us to his house where he had boats in a variety of sizes, including tiny three meter version he says is for one person. I decided to measure a small one, perfect if someone wanted a Japanese style dinghy.


Talking to Matsumura san while my contact looks on.


While I was measuring the cormorant fishing boat one of the fishermen came by. He showed us how he stands far aft when poling the boat, and wedges his foot under a beam in the bottom.


After measuring I left for Beppu, a city nearby where I planned to stay for the night. For several years I’ve been corresponding with Stephen Jensen, a Middlebury College alumnae and the first foreign graduate of the Oita Bamboo Crafts School. English readers interested in bamboo crafts will enjoy scrolling through his blog; he offers a lot of great information in English. 

I am very interested in how crafts are taught in Japan, especially in light of the crisis facing crafts taught through a traditional apprentice system. It turns out the bamboo school has been in existence since 1939. For the most part, western-style craft schools are a very recent thing in Japan, so this was a surprise. Earlier this trip I met a furniture-maker near Mt. Fuji who is opening a woodworking school he hopes will be based on many principles of apprentice training. My own college Japanese boatbuilding courses seek to marry training styles of Japan and the West.

The current program is two years, with twelve students admitted. The program is tuition-free, though students have to buy specific work clothes and a set of tools. From the short tour I got I could see the influence of the apprentice way of learning. First year students spend months at the start simply learning how to split and prepare bamboo. They finish the first year learning how to make a series of small baskets, typically one type a month. Only when they have mastered the basics do they move on. After a full year of instruction they begin to experiment with their own designs.

Second year student with her bamboo sculpture

Examples of high quality bamboo work in an adjacent gallery.


From Beppu I traveled to Asakura, Oita to see the cormorant boats there. What I found were boats identical to those I saw in Hita, and indeed, when I talked to one of the boatmen he told me all their boats were sourced from Hita. He was an elderly man, and said he had no memory of boats actually being built in Asakura. One major difference is the fishermen in Asakura use outboard motors, so the boats have some framing aft to accommodate the motor.


A close-up of the framing supporting the outboard motor.

The next day I reached Iwakuni. Early in the trip I’d seen the cormorant fishing boats here and met the builder but did not have time to measure one. These are the last boats of this type I am seeing in Japan this trip, so I spent the afternoon measuring one along with one of the small ayu fishing boats that were laying nearby. This boat was quite similar at first glance to the boat I measured upriver on the Takatsu River.

The cormorant boats share the same basic shape as the boat I built in Gifu last year, though they are made entirely of cedar and are shorter. They also have three planks per side rather than four. The bottoms are also completely flat athwartships, unlike the slight curve from side to side in the Gifu boats. A boatman came along and we chatted. He quickly acknowledged a direct link between the Gifu boats and these.



The boats that carry tourist who watch the fishing are quite lovely too. They are also a similar style to the ones used on the Nagara River in Gifu and Seki but the boatman pointed out here the bow rises higher due to the river conditions.

Small fishing boats along the river.

Iwakuni is most famous for its arched timber bridge.

The small fishing boat I measured.

Now off to Guilin, China in a few days where I hope to see the cormorant fishing. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Another River, Another Boat: Kuma River (Kumagawa)

After leaving Nagasaki I drove through a series of islands to get back to Kumamoto Prefecture. I wanted to head up the Kuma River (Kumagawa) and see if I could find any cormorant fishing boats. I knew of a downriver boat company that still used wooden boats.

Like all the rivers I've traveled in Japan this trip the Kumagawa was gorgeous: crystal clear water and stunning scenery. 

No wonder the Japanese maple is so celebrated. Here its December and they still hold the height of their colors.

Outside of the town of Hitoyoshi I found this boat at the side of the road. From what I have learned this trip a classic river boat design: long and narrow with a wide, plank bow, a simple three-plank cross section, and just a few beams for framing. I love them all.

Here is the tourist boat fleet. In talking with the boatmen I learned there was no cormorant fishing in this area and also they no longer have a boatbuilder who can supply them new boats. I found one in fiberglass. I made it clear to them I'd be more than happy to discuss building them new boats.

Nearby were several fishing boats, the same type I'd seen at the side of the road. The boatmen said these were fishing boats and the fishermen used nets to catch ayu.

Interestingly there was a very professionally built fiberglass version laying alongside two wooden boats.

I was trying to figure out how I'd measure a swamped boat (I've already baled a couple of boats to measure them) when I found these two up on the waterfront road.

This boat had a couple of slight differences from the derelict boat I'd seen at the side of the road: The bow plank is slightly curved and also has a very slight hourglass shape, something I only realized when I measured it. Also this type has much more sheer than the other river boats I've seen this trip.

In this photo you can see the curve of the bow (in profile) and also make out that hourglass. The bottom of this boat is covered in fiberglass. But the most interesting thing is the hollow in the bottom. If you sight down the chine you can see how in the middle of the boat the bottom rises up slightly. I might have taken this for deterioration, but luckily a fisherman I talked to in Shimane (see my earlier blog post on the cormorant boats of the Takatsu River) told me about this feature. Later someone told me the reason was the hollow traps air and provides buoyancy, an explanation that I don't think holds much water. However yesterday a cormorant fisherman in Hita, Oita Prefecture (subject of my next blog post) told me this makes the boat easier to turn. He said working alone one stands all the way in the stern of the boat, lifting the forward half out of the water. In a sense the bulge in the bottom aft is the only part of the bottom immersed, and it acts like the rocker of a smaller boat, providing turning ability.

Here I am measuring a cross-section. I've been assuming builders' stations were located at beam locations, and indeed at these spots most of the dimensions are easy-to-remember numbers. This is typical of Japanese boatbuilders, who have to memorize dozens of dimensions. Also this trip it continues to be confirmed that river boat builders never used drawings.

Historic photo from fifty years ago showing the fleet of boats of the tour company. They are down to just six now. Sad, because a river ride would be a gorgeous trip. They couldn't take me because they said they needed at least four passengers to ballast the boats safely.

An even older photo. Boats have been taking tourists downriver for one hundred years, though obviously the river was a vital avenue for moving cargo for much longer. Note the sails in the background.

Back to the coast and heading north toward my next cormorant fishing river, I stopped to see the fleet of utasebune, sailing trawl fishing boats. These are very dramatic boats and there is still a small fleet fishing. This one was grounded waiting for the tide to turn. Note the two long spars laying on deck. You'll see in the following photos how they were used.

Found an amazing derelict.

I noticed all the gear was still on board. No one bothered to strip the hull of useful material.

The sails were still hanked on!

Another derelict showed details of construction. The hulls are built of thick planks (about 2") bolted to heavy sawn frames, but still edge-nailed in the Japanese fashion between frames.

Two utasebune are used as tour boats. Spectators ride one and watch this one fishing. This boat is forty years old and the hull is fiberglass.

And here is what they look like, with the sails close-hauled moving sideways pulling the trawl net. This type of fishing was quite common in the Inland Sea region, also in Urayasu on Tokyo Bay, and here in Kumamoto. There is also a similar type called a hobikisen, (literally sail-pulling-boat) on Lake Kasumigaura near Narita Airport. I am in conversation with a group on the Inland Sea that wants to build a new one. Wish me luck!


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Goto Islands (Gotojima) Back To The Land

On my way south to Kyushu to see more cormorant boats I stopped to see someone I'd met in 2016 when I taught a series of boatbuilding workshops in conjunction with my exhibition of boatbuilding at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. Miyazaki san lives on Gotojima and he described a remarkable life he and his wife have created. He also wanted to introduce me to the island's last boatbuilder.

It began with his house, a 200-year old thatch roof farmhouse from Hiroshima, which Miyazaki san bought and had disassembled and brought to Goto. This, remarkable as it is, was just the beginning.

His rocket stove, which rests on a plastered base. The flue gases run through a baffle in the metal drum, then through the ceramic bench before finally reaching the brick chimney base, which acts as a heat sink, before finally exiting up the flue pipe you see here.

A view of the interior, a combination of traditional and modern rooms.

Behind the house Miyazaki san built a workshop for his son who is a cooper.

The son apprenticed with the last cooper on the island and inherited his tools. He's also part of a consortium of coopers who now travel throughout Japan build large-scale barrels principally for soy sauce companies. They also invite trainees to join them.


His longest joiner plane is simply a regular plane dropped upside down into a mortise in a long, straight hardwood timber.

Innovative handle for a bucket.

He sells his work through a website. Here are small bucket staves glued and clamped.


He challenged himself by building a taraibune, the first type of boat I studied in Japan.

The island's boatbuilder made this 12-footer in less than two weeks.

The beam ends come through the planking and are capped with copper.

Yamaguchi san holding his father's stem pattern. He is 69 and apprenticed with his father building wooden boats, but the local industry switched to fiberglass soon after, so he spent his career building fiberglass boats. Miyazaki san has hired him to teach him how to build a boat, a project they are doing in January. Yamaguchi san told me his father lost his left arm in the Battle of Iwo Jima (less then 2% of the Japanese defenders survived) and came back home, apprenticed in a shipyard, and then started his own. Yamaguchi remembers having to hold the nail and nail set while his father swung the hammer. He said he started helping his father at age twelve.

Miyazaki san's other son is a blacksmith. He apprenticed with an older craftsman too and bought his shop and tools.

His main product are kitchen knives.

Miyazaki san showed us his supply of thatching materials. He plans on building a smaller, thatch-roofed house on his property, where he also plows with a steer, grows rice, and owns two horses.

Miyazaki san showed us where he cut the thatch for his house.


The islands are beautiful and the waters are clear and warm.

Back at the house Miyazaki san has been practicing ripping logs into planks using the maebiki, the traditional ripsaw. I helped him finish one cut. Trading off we cut one meter in about an hour. The unusual saws were a very important development in Japanese architecture, as they greatly increased the output of sawn timber, replacing two-person saws.

I went up into the attic of the house. In the old days families raised silkworms in these upper spaces.

To my surprise, I found the flue pipe from the stove. The chimney does not penetrate the roof, instead the smoke fills the attic space (and sometimes the house) and slowly percolates out through the thatch. This is necessary because the smoke keeps bugs out of the thatch and also keeps all those lashings holding the bamboo to the rafters tight.

One last look at the house. These kind of homes are sitting abandoned all over rural Japan. Miyazaki san paid nothing for the house but obviously had to pay for the disassembly, trucking, and disposal of what he didn't take. Still....