Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anderson Japanese Garden Tenmasen

For the last several months I have been working off and on building a small Japanese boat for the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Illinois.  The Garden looked at the various boats I have built in Japan and chose the tenmasen I built with my teacher in Tokyo in 2002.  That boat was about eighteen feet overall but the Garden wanted a boat less than fourteen feet so I redrew the lines.  I maintained the construction details of the original, including the use of copper plate for nail covers and covering the stem.

I built this boat out of southern cypress, and sourced my boat nails from my friend Tengu Shibafuji in Kochi, Japan.  He is an avid researcher and amateur builder of Japanese boats and has been buying nail stock from former boat shops.  His own blog is well worth a look:

The bottom complete with extra material where the stem is joined.

These boats are somewhat like prams, with wide stem timbers.

A friend who is a blacksmith made my copper clench nails for the rub rail.

These boats feature lots of copper plate, covering nail heads and wrapping the stem.

The boat is framed with horizontal beams.

I hope to get some photos of the boat in the garden which I will post.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saw Sharpener, again

This is now my third blog posting about Nagatsu san, the saw sharpener in Kyoto, but he remains such an interesting part of my travels I can't help but write about him again.  Two weeks ago when I first arrived back in Japan I stopped by his shop to give him a gift: an antique Disston handsaw.  He seemed to appreciate it but a few days later when he attended our boat launching I was stunned as he handed it back to me.  He had cut entirely new Japanese-style teeth on the saw!  AND they cut on the push stroke!  It was absolutely stunning.  He handed me the saw and told me to try it out and come see him again.

I got back to his shop my last full day in Japan and indeed the saw works beautifully.  However, he didn't like how the end of the blade vibrated, so he spent about fifteen minutes hammering the saw with various hammers.  I don't know how this works, but it stopped vibrating.  Then he gave me the saw, saying that he had enough stuff.  I asked him how many hours it took him to re-cut the teeth and he said it was two sessions of four hours each.  He also surprised me by saying he thinks the Western idea of push-style saws is superior to Japanese pull saws.  His reasoning is that pushing a saw requires just one arm.  One is generally working downward at a sawhorse or at a bench.  With Japanese saws the leg is involved holding the workpiece and the saws generally require two hands.  He thinks this is just more cumbersome.  I can't say Western-style saw teeth come anywhere near the quality of cut of the multi-beveled Japanese teeth, so what Nagatsu san did to this Disston is truly the best of both worlds.

He also had an interesting plane made in traditional Japanese style with a throwaway blade.  I've seen Italian planes with razor blades and actually have an old American plane with the same idea, but nothing quite like this.  He said it could be sharpened a couple of times before discarding.

Finally, a few shots of Murin-an, a villa in northeast Kyoto featuring a teahouse and garden.  It was very pleasant and one of those rare Kyoto sights not overrun by tourists.  There were no more than five people there when I visited.


I made a brief trip to Okinawa, in order to conduct some interviews for a future article on the sabani, the traditional fishing boat of this region.  I was here in 2009/2010 apprenticing with one of the last three builders of these boats (see my blog postings from those years).  Sadly, he’s now 85 and I learned he was in the hospital during my visit.  I had hoped to visit him but I learned he wasn’t seeing anyone other than family.

In Itoman, the largest fishing port in Okinawa, the city government funded an expansion of the fishing museum.  They now have a marvelous building in which to display their collection, which includes boats, fishing gear and boatbuilding tools.  The old museum building has been converted into a working boatshop where Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro is building sabani.  He may now be the last builder of these boats, and his clients are the teams that now race these boats.  

Here is a shot of Zamami Island, which lies offshore the capitol city of Naha.  Zamami is where the annual sabani race starts, an open water crossing to Naha.  The race is held every June and this year marked the fifteenth race.  Over forty teams now participate in races throughout Okinawa.  The phenomenon of the sabani race is unique in Japan: the conversion of a fishing boat into a yacht, which has spurred the preservation of boatbuilding and sailing skills.  Sabani were last built for fishing around 1960, when they were replace by Japanese-style boats of wood and fiberglass.  A generation passed before the early racers began ordering sabani again.

Sabani are semi-dugout construction, and with very thick hulls they last a long time.  It is not hard to find old sabani lying around the harbors.  This powered sabani features wooden planing boards, necessary when marrying an engine to what had been a sail and paddle powered, narrow hull.  

A boat similar to the sabani is the hari.  These are festival boats, and have been raced for hundreds of years on Okinawa.  They are the dragon boat is this archipelago.

My teacher retired after finishing the boat we built, and I heard that another builder retired.  If so, then Oshiro san is the last professional builder of sabani.  He told me he has orders one year in advance. 

I got to sail one afternoon in a six meter sabani with its owner, Mr. Tsugaru Ryosuke, and his business partner.  We had a light breeze and later the young woman went out by herself in a four meter sabani.  These are smaller than boats that were ever used for fishing (the consensus seems to be the smallest fishing sabani were five meters).  So this is almost like a kayak.  I measured it as fourteen feet long and two feet wide.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Last week we had a formal launching of the ayubune I built last May (see earlier blog posts).  Ms. Riko Okuyama, the director of the Mizunoki Museum of Art, gave a short speech and then I officiated the shinsuishiki, or launching ceremony.  This was Shinto-based.  

I had met an elderly boatbuilder in May who told me in this area sake was poured on the bow and stern of a new boat.

These small boats were poled only, and let me tell you this is a lot harder than you might think.  Its a bit like the J-stroke in canoeing, where you have to compensate for moving the stern from side-to-side.  Add the current of the river to this and you have yourself a challenge, as I found out.

Luckily Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi, a sendosan, or boatman of the scenic tour boat company (their boats are visible in the background), was on hand to lend his expertise.  He was kind enough to spend over an hour poling boatloads of onlookers in our new boat.  As with anything, seeing an expert in action is a real pleasure.

I finally got the hang of it, sort of.  Our boat is going to be used later this summer by the Hozugawa NPO.  They have moved from activities cleaning the river to teaching children how to fish for ayubune.  I am very glad to know this project has created a boat that will continue to bring people to the river and a deeper understanding of this community's culture.  The Museum's exhibit on the boat is open until October.