Saturday, December 1, 2012

Boats and Barrels - Japanese Coopering

2020 Note: This cooper is now retired but has been assisting younger coopers and clients make barrels. He is probably the person most knowledgable with the craft nation-wide, having done exhaustive study of the craft. A film was being produced about him which you can learn more about here:

See my other blog posts on coopering:

In 1996, after studying with the last builder of the strangely wonderful taraibune or tub boats of Sado Island, I published my first book on that initial research.  Entitled The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman's Methods, I often thought how it could have been entitled The Accidental Cooper.  As the name implies, tub boats are basically barrels, and building them encompasses all the techniques of traditional Japanese coopering.

Luckily I would go on to study with other boatbuilders, building "normal" boats, but I did remain interested in coopering.  There are far fewer coopers left in Japan than even boatbuilders, and this past September I paid my second visit to what is now the last shop still building wooden sake barrels.  Located outside of Osaka in the city of Saki, I had visited once before.  The owner is an enthusiastic historian of barrel-making.

I've been wanting to find a magazine that would accept an article about this man and his craft, so on my most recent visit I spent several hours interviewing him.  If I ever do publish anything I will be sure to blog out it here.....

Three of the workers were putting new braided bamboo hoops on a typical sake barrel.  These are eight feet tall.  The barrels themselves last up to fifty years, but the hoops need replacing every five to ten years.

The man on the left is 86 years old and has been with the company since he was 16.

 Classic patterns used by barrel makers (and tub boat builders).  If you hold the notch of the pattern against the staves, it gives you the curvature of the outside of the stave and the proper bevel for the edge.  The outer edge of the pattern is cut to the curvature of the inner face of the stave.

 Braided bamboo hoops.  This is the most difficult part of barrel making.  The material has to be properly chosen, harvested, split, shaped then braided into hoops.  They have to be sized exactly to fit the barrel.  All this is described in my book, by the way.
I thought this was a nice portrait of the owner of the firm.
The heart side of the wood faces the liquid.  In the case of tub boats the heart side faces out.  Same rule; the liquid is just on the outside of the container.
One of the workmen braiding a hoop.  He starts with four strips of bamboo about 50-feet long.

The firm's owner has been saving old barrel parts.  These are sections of the bottoms of barrels, with writing on their edges.  He's found all kinds of information recorded on plank edges, including date and location of construction, price, owner and even wages.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Japan: September, 2012

I was invited to Japan this September to speak on rural cultural preservation at a conference in Kameoka, a small city outside of Kyoto.  My hosts were the Hozugawa Kudari (Hozu River Tour Boats) and Kyoto Gakuen University.

My first day in Kameoka I attended an all-day workshop on the Hozu River.  The boatmen of the tour boat company have formed a volunteer group to revive the craft of ikada, or log rafts.  These were built to transport logs down the white water Hozu River and deliver materials to Kyoto.

Photo courtesy Ikada Preservation Group

The group managed to find two men who had first-person knowledge of how these rafts were made and, more importantly, had the skills to navigate rafts downriver.  The ikada group spent the morning making three log rafts and teaching students and other visitors.

The afternoon was spent running a short stretch of river with children on board.  The group has run the full length of the river, and the video footage of their efforts is stunning.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I have several speaking engagements coming up.  I will be talking about my work in Japan at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vermont on March 22nd; the South Hero, Vermont public Library April 18th; and then speaking at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine May 10th.  I've also been invited to speak at the University of Vermont to the Japanese Department (open to the public) sometime later in the semester.  I will keep this blog posted, or contact me via my website.

Organizations in Vermont, such as libraries and schools, can apply to the Vermont Humanities Council Speakers Bureau Series to have me come and lecture.  The VHC will fund an honorarium.