Sunday, February 12, 2017

Toishi-Sharpening Stones and Kyoto Crafts

Yesterday was my last full day in Kyoto, most of which I spent back in Kameoka. My friend Harada sensei took me to visit the shop of perhaps the last full-time miner and maker of sharpening stones in Japan. It was pretty fascinating. Afterwards I stopped at the Gallery of Kyoto Traditional Arts and Crafts, which showcases work by students of the Kyoto Crafts University. I highly recommend the gallery to visitors to Kyoto, as I guarantee you will be amazed by the work done by students in all realms of craft and design.

My friend Yamauchi san and his girlfriend live at the edge of Kameoka's valley backed up against the foothills. Yamauchi san is the boatbuilder for the Hozugawa Kudari but also is an avid hunter. He has a side business butchering and selling venison and boar meat. He had just gotten a deer that morning and he served me some raw venison.

Note the winch for hanging carcasses.

Raw venison with wasabi and soy sauce. It's good.

Japan is overrun with deer and boar, a real problem as an urban society doesn't produce enough hunters and the forests are growing back providing perfect habitat. Yamauchi san can take one deer a day during a 90-day season! We've had some interesting discussions about Japan's gun control laws since he owns a rifle, but in talking to him this time I learned he gets most of his deer with traps.

I never knew Japan had vanity plates, though its numbers only. Boar is "enoshishi" and meat is "niku." You pronounce this plate shi-shi-ni-kyu or roughly "boar meat."

My friend Harada san drove me up into the mountains to an idyllic little village. The stone supplier has a lovely little storehouse, or kura, in front of his house.

The farmhouses here are quite large, with high-pitched roofs. This one has tin roofing over the old thatch.

In front of the house is a massive cedar which merits its own shrine venerating the tree. 

Thatched-roof farmhouse with clay tile overlay.

The stones are beautiful to look at.

The miner's family has been making sharpening stones for four generations and the man's two sons are helping him now. He claims this one vein is unique in Japan and yields the best quality stone. He acknowledged there were veins in Hyogo and Nagasaki as well, but I've heard from craftsmen that none match the stones from here.

We spent some time discussing exactly what kind of stone this was, and consulting computer dictionaries came up with mudstone. Another word that came up was tuff, but it seems like it would be too soft by definition. Harada san did some later research and also came up with slate.

He was telling me his stones run from 7,000 to 10,000 grit, so they are very hard. The finest synthetic stone I own is 5,000 grit, and it will give an edge a mirror polish.

Unfortunately we didn't have time to go to the mine. He said he spends three days a week mining and three days cutting stones in his shop. He said about 50% of the material he removes from the mine ends up as waste.

This small, unpretentious stone was $750.

This is his retail shop and he also has a website.

His very old stone saw.

The stone supplier is on the right, wearing my wasen baseball cap. 

I was a bit embarrassed coming because I knew I couldn't afford his stones (most are well over $1,000), but he was so taken by the story of my work he gave me these two small stones, 3,000 and 9,000 grit. The larger stone comes from Hyogo and the smaller, harder stone is one of his. 
NOTE: As a follow-up I went to his website and here is the page with his stones and prices. Basically drop the last two zeroes for a rough cost in US dollars, but this means his stones start at $750 and go as high as $7,500!

The road leading to his mine. This May he and a friend will be opening the sharpening stone museum in a culture hall nearby. There's a museum for everything! (Update: the museum is now open and the website is:

Back in Kyoto, student work at the traditional crafts center.

Wood carving. They also have an entire program in Buddhist religious carving.

The matchlock rifle is NOT functional. This is Japan, after all.

The stock is lacquered and decorated with gold leaf.

One floor features students working on display. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Kyoto and the Log Raft Event

My first stop after arriving in Kyoto was the Tourist Information Center where I picked up a city map. I saw some posters for Fushimi Inari Shrine, a place I'd never visited. They showed it in the snow, with suitably gorgeous photographs. As it turned out, that night Kyoto had snow, and when I saw the next day had dawned clear and crisp I thought Inari Shrine was the place to go.

Kyoto my first morning.

The shrine is famous for the thousands of torii gates that form tunnels on the paths leading up through the shrine complex. Its also famous for its veneration of the kitsune, or fox, and statues of foxes are everywhere.

The writing on gates denotes a donor.

Anyone who saw Christo's remarkable installation in Central Park of vermillion gates realizes he had to have been inspired by this.

I found a side path up to the top of the mountain, which passed through meticulously cared-for groves of timber bamboo and cedars.

You lift the rock and make a wish, and if it becomes heavier or lighter your wish is given.

Bamboo and cedar.

That afternoon I took a short train ride through the mountains to Kameoka. I built a small river fishing boat here in 2014 that I wrote about starting here. The main tourist business in Kameoka is the Hozugawa Kudari, a fantastic river boat journey through the mountains from Kameoka to Arashiyama, at the northwest corner of Kyoto. I heartily recommend it for a spectacular glimpse of wilderness Japan.

Seven years ago the boatmen of the Kudari began studying how to make the traditional log rafts once used to transport timber from Kameoka to Kyoto. The history of the rafts may go back 1,200 years. At the time there were two men left alive with first-hand knowledge of how the rafts were built and used. The last log runs were in the mid-1950s. In 2008 they produced a video of the building of their first log rafts.
View of the old district of Kameoka, called Hozu, like the river.

The tourist boats in their basin. The day's event was to build a log raft and take some practice runs down the basin. The group only occasionally makes actual downriver trips due to the danger.

The current tour boats are fiberglass, but based on the traditional design. You can see one wooden boat near the back. The traditional boats had uncharacteristically narrow bottom planks, an effort to facilitate repairs. Given the punishment the boats take unfortunately its just not financially tenable to use wooden boats. Tour boats have operated on the Hozugawa for 400 years. The company makes one new fiberglass tour boat each winter, retiring an old one.

The log raft is made of twelve sections and is 150-feet overall. This was the traditional size and length at least as far back as the Edo era, according to surviving written records (about 1700).

The forward section is built with a tiller to steer the raft. The lashings are wisteria vine. The only metal fastenings were hand-made staples they run the vines through. Those were made by a local blacksmith, a man I was fortunate to get to know. On this visit I learned he passed away last August. You can see him on this video making the staples for the log raft group.

These rafts are all made of a single layer of logs. Back in the days moving timber these sections might be three or four layers deep. The names of some of Kyoto's major avenues reference the days when massive volumes of timber were transported there.

A group of university students was on hand with their anthropology class for the event. The boatmen published an excellent book on the history, design, and construction of these boats.