Saturday, August 31, 2013


There is absolutely no way this project could have happened without the help of three people here in Japan: Koji Matano and Yoshiko and Takumi Suzuki (  Koji helped me with the original application to the Festivale and did all the pre-Festivale communications and negotations.  He also arranged to have our timbers logged, milled and transported.  We stacked and stickered the wood last January and earlier this summer Koji had the monumental task of planing it to thickness using a large portable power plane.  He also composed the name for our boat.

Then came the logistics of setting up a house for us here in Takamatsu.  Yoshiko found a rental through a friend and by the time I arrived the house was ready to go.  Throughout the project Yoshiko cooked delicious meals for us, delivering wonderful lunches every day to our shop.  She was also instrumental in making our launching successful.  It was her idea to create hundreds of gifts for every spectator, which added a wonderful ending to our ceremony.

Working with Takumi was a great pleasure.  He had previously studied with Koji building a wood/canvas canoe, and he also took canoe workshop at the Wooden Boat School in Maine.  I was impressed with his skills but mostly with how seriously he took this project.  It was very gratifying to me to see him recording in his notebook, frankly a reminder of my work with my teachers in Japan.  It would be my pleasure to somehow build a boat with him again.

Shinsuishiki - Launching


The typhoon veered away and we had a calm, overcast, but hot and sticky morning for our launch ceremony, called a shinsuishiki.  Takumi’s canoe guide teacher drove three hours up from the Shimanto River with his canoe trailer to carry our boat to the marina, where the students from Nihon University carried our boat into the water.  We had a large crowd of Bengalis and Japanese artists and people from the community.  Japanese musicians played as well as Bengali musicians.  

Fram Kitagawa, the force behind the Setouchi Festivale, gave opening remarks and Koji Matano, who was instrumental in making this project happen, created and announced the name of our boat, which is HOUYUU.  The name means “friendship,” and we were all thinking of our Bengali friends, who really inspired us with the skill and warmth.

In lieu of a Shinto priest I presided over the ceremony.  I cut a large mortise in the after beam of the boat for a funadama, essentially a boat shrine.  In it I placed, wrapped in white paper, 12 antique coins, paper figurines of a man and woman, a home-made dice, and a packet containing azuki beans, millet and oats.  I sealed these items up and then poured sake on the funadama.  As mentioned in an earlier posting, these traditions were those given to us by Tsuda san, the 84-year old boatbuilder from this area.

Often small gifts are thrown to the crowd at boat launchings, such as candy or rice cakes.  Yoshiko came up with the idea of taking leftover wood from our project and making small blocks painted with the flags of Bangladesh and Japan, and stamped with the boats name and the word for friendship in Bengali.  The first passengers included Koji, Yoshiko, Takumi, Fram Kitagawa and the site coordinator Cato san, and as we rowed along the waterfront we threw the gifts into the crowd.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Copper covering is not used universally on boats throughout Japan, but its often seen, particularly in more urban area.  I’ve been told this had mostly to do with how wealthy the fishermen were, and whether or not they could afford it.  The chokkibune I built in Tokyo had a lot of copper covering: the nail heads, any exposed endgrain, beam ends, and most seams above the waterline.

As far as authenticity, we may have gone a little overboard with our copper here, but what we did does represent what is done in Japan.  We cut shallow mortises around the nail heads for copper, and I covered the steam rabbet.  We covered exposed endgrain in the framing at the stern and also capped exposed beam ends.  Its a nice affect, and the next time you look at Japanese wood block prints you will immediately recognize what the rows of neat rectangles are.  In those days they were often painted black with ink.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tsuda san

Tuesday Koji, Takumi and I, along with our recent volunteer Shiten, drove over to mainland Japan to see Tsuda san, the 84-year old boatbuilder I first met in this region ten years ago.  In many ways he is responsible for my being here, because when I learned that the Setouchi Festivale was looking for foreign artists to collaborate with local craftspeople I wrote him requesting his help.  He had aged considerably since I first met him, but he finally agreed.  Our project was accepted but then his health deteriorated to the point where he had to move to assisted living.  Luckily the festival organizers decided to keep the project.

Our trip took us over the Seto Nai Kai Bridge, at the time it was built the longest bridge in the world.  I last crossed it twenty years ago, not long after it opened.  The views of the Inland Sea are gorgeous, and we had a beautiful day.

Almost from the moment we sat down with him Tsuda san was asking about our boat, how it was constructed, and making sketches explaining how he built boats.  It was an interesting conversation and we learned several things.  Tsuda san would have been great to have at the project for his expertise.  

I quizzed him on how he conducted his launching ceremonies.  The local museum curator has been advising us, but interestingly Tsuda san’s traditions varied from what the curator had been describing.  I have decided that in his honor, we will follow faithfully Tsuda san’s protocols.  I will describe that in a future blog posting.

We have a typhoon bearing down on us, so our Saturday launch is in jeopardy.  Nevertheless I am responsible for installing certain shrine objects in the boat, so that will happen regardless.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Light of Day

We are in the final week of work before launching.  Now its all about tiny details all over the boat.  One of the main details is covering our nail heads with copper plate.  I got the rubrail and caprail on the last couple of days and today we put plate over those nail heads.  We will probably get all the nails at the chine done tomorrow.  

I decided to move the boat out of the shop and onto horses in front.  In part because we borrowed a ro (a sculling oar) and I needed space to see how it fit.  Its basically too short and of funny proportions (its OLD).

We enlisted the art students from Nihon Art University.  They are here polishing several cars to a mirror finish.  We had three bars under the boat and they ganged up on either end and had no trouble carrying the boat.  One photo shows their professor and a student.

Just before we wrapped up an elderly man stopped by whom we have seen regularly.  He asked who was going to scull the boat at the launching and he was quite surprised that I am on the only one among us who knows how to do it.  Then he idly mentioned that he used to scull his boats, and that he still had a ro.  I pressed him and found out he has three of them, so we’ve made arrangements tomorrow to go to his house and check them out.  He seems very amused that we might borrow one.

Bits and Pieces

Anyone who has built a boat knows that once the hull is finished there is far more work to be done to finally finish the boat.  And its time-consuming.  Japanese boats are remarkably straightforward in many ways, but nevertheless things still take time.

Takumi spent a couple of days fitting beams and floorboards.  We left them rough sawn for traction and arranged them in the traditional way, though we got creative at the stern where the hull narrows.

I installed the rubrails (koberi) and caprails.  We used clench nails for the koberi, or properly I should say we clenched the nails that we had.  In my experience clenched nails in Japan are copper, made of flat stock like the steel nails.  We were given some small steel nails and so I decided to treat them the same way.  

They are set in a shallow mortise on the outside that gets a copper cover later.  Inside the hull I cut another mortise for the nail to lay in so it would stay flush to the inside face of the planking.  If we had copper nails I would have bent the tip and sent it back into the planking, but the steel nails were pretty stiff so I omitted this step.  

Also forward I built a steeply sloping foredeck called a kappa.  In this part of Japan there are commonly seen on small boats.  I need to get an explanation for this arrangement, which is pretty unique.