On the island we met Mr. Shinsho, who is building about a 12 meter boat for Miyajima. He is 73 and a third generation boatbuilder. His great grandfather was a temple carpenter. His material is from Miyazaki and 12 meters long. All his planking and keel are made of full-length material. His shop has stone and concrete walls, no windows, and a dirt floor. He’s one month into building this boat and figures he has two months to go.
To bend the lower planks he uses a burner, but he spreads rice hulls (nuka) mixed with water on the plank to reduce the charring. He said it took one hour to bend the planks using props, etc. He mentioned this was the difficult part. The planking is .15 shaku thick and he said he could bend in the uwadana without fire. The keel is .30 thick.
He’s built about 200 boats, fishing boats up to 12 meters with the largest 16 meters. In recent years he’s been very busy building boats for festivals and shrines, the result of the disappearance of boatbuilders throughout the region. His frames are kusanoki. He works seven days a week. He was very quiet at first; he just kept working while we watched. Koji san slowly tried to introduce me, explaining that I’d studied boatbuilding throughout Japan. After about an hour he suddenly started asking me questions about whether or not I’d done certain things with my other teachers and how they did things. He’d listen to my answer, say nothing, and continue working. This went on until he announced he was headed home for lunch.
At a restaurant Koji, Akiko and I talked about the island. From a high of 2,000 people it now has 360. Fifteen years ago it was 500. It has become a bit of a magnet for I-turn people (Japan’s term for back-to-the-land types) who can manage to make a living doing some farming, gathering seaweed, or fishing. Its hard to buy a home on the island but rent is as little as 5000 yen ($40) a month or you may live in a house for free in return for maintaining it. For forty years the islanders have been protesting the plan to build a nuclear plant on the island facing the village. On the mainland you can see many infrastructure projects paid for by the electric company but the island has refused all such offers. To accept these offers would give tacit approval for the plant. Islanders have staged protests and been arrested. So far the power company hasn’t been willing to face the protests and start construction.
We returned to the shop and spent the last few hours of the afternoon with Mr. Shinsho. At one point he handed me his tsubanomi and had me make a nail hole. He asked more questions and answered mine. Mostly we talked about techniques and he was interested in knowing what other boatbuilders in Japan did in comparison with his methods.
Both he and Hashimoto (see previous blog post) are benefiting from the disappearance of craftspeople. Shinsho said he thinks he has two years of work. Ironically its a very good time to study boatbuilding in Japan with craftspeople this busy, though with everyone in their seventies and eighties these opportunities won’t last for long.