Sunday, November 11, 2018

Measuring Boats - Oodochi, Kochi

Spent much of the day yesterday in Oodochi, a small town outside of Kochi City where an exhibition of traditional artifacts was stage in a school gymnasium. Three boats from the collection of the Prefectural Museum of History were on display and it was an opportunity to measure them. They were built by two of the men I met the day before, Nakawaki san and Kayou san.

Poster for the day's event.

At the entry a man was demonstrating planing. These contests take place throughout Japan and have enthusiastic clubs that compete to see who can make the thinnest shaving with a hand plane. He invited me to try.

The translucent shaving I produced. Not really a big deal since he had done the sharpening and setup on the plane.

He measured my shaving with his micrometer: 36 microns thick. He told me in a contest he created a 3 micron shaving, and its honestly hard to believe of something less than one-tenth as thick as this.

The display. 

These are tabune, or rice field boats. They were loaded with tools or rice and pushed like sleds.

Here are the boats were came to see. The museum commissioned them from the two builders.

I measured the two smaller boats, 13-1/2 feet and 20-feet long respectively, both built by Nakawaki san.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post how Mr. Kayou wouldn't talk to us. He built this boat and its details were extraordinary. It is one of the most finely-built boats I have ever seen. Kataoka san measured it.

A look in the bottom at the nail plugs.

All these river boats we have seen have a simple door hinged to the top of the aft deck. Kayou's boat has two sliding doors made of highly figured panels, hand-planed to a glass-smooth finish.

A look at the forward deck. All the fits are perfect.

A pair of grown knees serves as the main frames of the boat.

His beams at the rail are through tenoned. I neglected to photograph the visible tenon but the fits were perfect.

His floor timbers are clench-nailed into shallow mortises.

The bailer has an interesting lamination for the bottom of the handle.

This is the rogui, the post the sculling oar pivots on. What struck me was the curved block for the oar to rock side to side. Kayou built this boat for the museum at the end of his career and it may be he decided to show off his skills. Its hard to believe he would lavish this kind of attention on an ordinary fishing boat. There is a phrase in Japanese ude no mise dokoro, or "time to show off your skill." He succeeded here.

Three Boatbuilders In A Day -- the Shimanto River

Yesterday a friend of my contact Mr. Shibafuji took me to the Shimanto River. The itinerary was to meet three boatbuilders there, two working upstream and one down near the mouth. The Shimanto is the only major undammed river in Japan, and its isolation probably explains why there are this many craftspeople building boats. In fact most of the boats I saw on the river were wood, and even the fiberglass ones are modeled on the traditional designs. 

My companion Mr. Takaoka was intrigued by a building he saw on a hill so we drove up. What should be find but a small, local museum with a traditional boat out front. We immediately set to work measuring it. This could be an ideal design for someone interested in building their first Japanese boat.

Note the bow which is a flat board cut at the top into two horns. The anchor line passes through this notch. The boat is about thirteen feet long with very thin planking and two sets of grown frames.

Inside the museum was stuffed with artifacts, all from the region which is deep in rural Japan.

Including a larger version of the boat we saw outside, this one sixteen feet long. This is a fishing boat and the museum had all kinds of nets and traps for catching fish.

These wood-and-glass boxes are interesting...

... a primitive face mask for spearing fish in the river.

Lumbering and charcoal-making were important industries.

Historic photo of a log pile.

Before meeting the first boatbuilder we took a boat ride. The river is very low so the stretch we traveled was quite short. These boats were built by two of the craftspeople we were scheduled to meet.


The waters are about the clearest I have ever seen anywhere.

A short run of rapids on the way back.

Mr. Kawakami, 68, was a house carpenter who took over three years ago from the former boatbuilder in the region. He has built six boats now, for both fishermen and the downriver tour company.

He built the restaurant where we met and his plans, drawn on a plank, were nailed to a post.

As we chatted about boatbuilding he suggested we step outside to see the bottom of a large, old river boat. He said he's taken to pulling nails from old wrecks to replenish his stock.

This is a really bizarre construction detail found on this region's boats. The timber on the right is the bow plank/stem and on the left the bottom planking. The latter is beveled at the end and this is inserted in a notch in the stem. You can see the joint between the two saw cuts. No glue or fastenings are used; when the side planks are fastened it holds everything together. The bow plank is called the neushi and the name may refer to the two points which resemble horns ("ushi" means cow).

From there we went to visit Mr. Nakawaki, the man who retired. He is 83 and a third generation boatbuilder. He built boats 16-20 feet long and says he built 300 in his career. He claimed his father built 1,800 boats!


He had really interesting short tsubanomi for piloting nail holes. I've never seen any like this before.

He built without drawings, relying on memorized dimensions and these patterns for angles.

This was a fantastic little tool: a scribe. You can insert a pencil in any of the notches to get the offset you need.

Interestingly, Nakawaki san had a book in which he recorded dimensions for river boats throughout western Japan.

He also had his ledger of boats sold, with the year, customer's name, length of boat, and price. Here are his pages for 1993 and 1994. He built eleven and ten boats respectively those years for prices averaging about $2,000 USD. If that sounds absurdly low IT IS! However, Nakawaki said he could build a boat in 10-15 days and customers supplied the wood. Still, one of the realities of rural Japan are the hard work and low wages. I've found that while there are still markets for wooden boats customers have an expectation of price that no young person starting out could ever live on. Its a real problem furthering hastening the demise of wooden boatbuilding.

We were trying to get more details on the neushi bow plank and lo and behold Mr. Nakawaki had one, so I was able to get details of the plank rabbets and the notch.

From there we drove downriver and found Mr. Kayou. In his yard were two old yakatabune he built. These are party boats and note the bow cut off and leaning against the end.

Unfortunately Mr. Kayou is very hard of hearing and he made it clear he had no interest in talking to us. He is 87 and has been retired for about ten years. His wife was kind enough to tell us a few things. Kayou is a third generation boatbuilder and most of his boat were eight meter fishing boats.

She showed us this model her husband made of a senba, a local sailing cargo boat used to transport charcoal downstream and take rice, soy sauce, and miso upstream. She said her husband's grandfather used to build them. The model is 1/10th scale so these boats were 13.2 meter long, 1.8 meters wide and .55 meters deep with a 6.25 meter mast.

Not all days are like this in Japan but over the last twenty-eight years here researching boats I have had many extraordinary visits with craftspeople. Sadly, this last generation of boatbuilders has almost disappeared.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Lake Biwa: Strange Boats and a Ryokan

On my way from the Tokyo region down to Hiroshima I stopped for a day and a night in the Kyoto area. My friend Mr. Koji Matano builds western style boats on the shores of Lake Biwa and he’d written me earlier this year saying he’d found a boatbuilder and two old boats. I thought it was worth stopping to meet the craftsperson and see the boats. Lake Biwa had a completely unique style of boat, called a marukobune (not to be confused with marukibune, which means dugout). These boats feature a bizarre bow construction best described as stave-built. There are also some other oddities about these boats, so I was eager to take another look at them and talk with the boatbuilder, Mr. Okumura.


Koji tracked the boatbuilder down after finding this builder's tag nailed to the transom of an abandoned boat.

No point in trying to describe the bows of these boats. The photographs illustrate things better than I can describe. The side planks are nearly straight but where the hull rounds to the bow the planking runs at about a forty-five degree angle. These planks are not curved; the bottom is faceted to receive them. Koji had earlier discussed this with Okumura and he said first you construct the bottom (five planks edge-nailed together) and then fasten the stem to it. The bow planking starts at the stem and proceeds aft. We noticed the first two planks are parallel-edged, but the last one is tapered, which makes perfect sense as a shutter plank fitting tightly to the side planking. Everything is edge-nailed and then nails are driven into the sides through the aft edge of the shutter plank.








Hard to see, but a wedge is visible in the seam running horizontally across the center of the photo.

Copper covering the seams where the covering boards meet at the bow.

The first question would be: how does the builder get a watertight fit in the bow planking? Readers of this blog are familiar with the Japanese technique of running a series of saws through the seams to make a tight fit, and while this is probably possible here it seems problematic. As we looked closely at the boat we were going to measure, we noticed long, thin wedges driven into these seams from the inside, running from the bow about half way up the angled seam. I think this may have been a technique to back up caulking (Japanese caulk their boats from the inside), or it may have been a later repair. You can see copper covering seams and on larger versions of these boats every seam in the bow had a strip of copper covering.

Messing about in boats... as they say.

Transom construction of these boats is interesting too. The planks do not overlap the sides of the transom; rather the transom rests on the bottom and covers the end of the side planks. The nails come from aft through the transom and into the end grain of the planking. The joint is wrapped in copper so you can't actually see it in this photo. Twenty years ago I interviewed another boatbuilder on the lake and he said this was to avoid splitting the planking. One could argue the fastening are now at the edge of the transom but the transom is thicker and more resistant to splitting. I built a boat two years ago in Himi, Toyama called a zutta tenma which had the same construction.


We stopped to see another boat, actually a nicer design in much more original condition, but its swamped and pretty impossible to measure. Notice how it has a clear curve to the sheer, unlike the boat we measured which has flat sides that only rise up at the bow. One mystery was we could not see any sign of a fastening between the aft bow plank and the side planking.




We went to see Okumura san and had a brief chat. He stopped building boats decades ago and runs a boat rental business. Off to one side were were surprised to see a pile of lovely lapstrake wooden rowboats, the remains of his original rental fleet (now his boats are fiberglass). Okumura san designed and built them, but what was really fascinating was discovering that he fastened the transoms the same way! Note the line of small fastenings at the end of the planks; which indicate a rabbet runs around the edge of the transom. He said these boats were framed in keyaki and planked in hinoki. They seem in great shape for their age (about thirty years old). We also noticed on one boat a symmetrical line of scarfs in the planking, each successive scarf hitting the adjacent frame. That breaks some cardinal rules of boatbuilding but the hull was fair and it hadn’t seemed to cause any problem. The plywood paddle boards sitting on top of the boats were for people to sit on. Little did Okumura know he’d invented the stand-up paddle board!


Okumura san and his lumber pile. The material is up to thirty years old.

His original lapstrake rental fleet and plywood surf boards.

A rabbeted transom!


A final thought on these boats and their strange construction: Okumura san told Koji that in this region there were few professional boatbuilders. People worked a wide variety of trades and had to be farmers, fishermen, and carpenters. These techniques may have been developed by people cut off from notions of “standard” boat construction. These boats may also descend from the single-log dugout. Elsewhere in Japan I’ve seen very unusual boats which followed on dugout traditions.

My host here let me stay in a traditional property he renovated. We toured his latest project, a 125 year old inn built right on the water. He’s five years into a complete restoration. As much original material as possible was saved and restored. Some spaces were completely renovated and modernized. The huge clay oven was built new to replace the original. The back rooms on the first and second floor look out on the lake, as does a first floor bath.















This modern kitchen counter was designed with a footwell on one side where people sit on the tatami floor on one side of the counter, while there is an even deeper floor on the other for the cook to stand. The owner eventually plans to reopen the property as an inn. The owner’s website has historic images as well as images of the restoration (click on the Portfolio page).