[ Douglas' report ]

Douglas
My connection to Japan is through traditional culture. I am a boatbuilder, writer and researcher, and for the last twenty-five years I have been studying traditional Japanese boatbuilding. For me, part of the magic of Japan is the way a modern society with cutting edge technology still maintains its ancient culture. Of course this is largely an urban/rural divide. Japan's smaller cities and countryside are where one can most easily experience a slower pace of life, where things move to the rhythms of traditions. In Japan there is a special reverence for the past. I am very grateful that my work has allowed me to experience this traditional way of life.

In 2014 I was building a boat at a museum in Kameoka, Kyoto and I met a sendousan from the Tenryugawa Funakudari. He had heard about my project and came to Kameoka to meet me, and also invite me to Iida, Nagano, to ride the Tenryugawa Funakudari. I was impressed with the passion he expressed about the life of the boatmen and the river.

It would take three years, but I finally did come visit Iida in 2017. Within a few minutes of arriving I was walking to the river's edge to board one of the boats that would take me downstream. What a pleasure it was for me to see wooden boats built to traditional designs tied up along the dock waiting to receive passengers. I think most foreigners visiting Japan feel as though their experience there is a constant back-and-forth between what is modern and traditional. Here I was in Iida, which is soon schedule to become a stop on Japan's new maglev train line, about to board a wooden boat for ride down the Tenryugawa.

The boat pushed off into the channel and the river quickly began to sweep it downstream. The boatmen, at both the bow and stern, expertly controlled our craft as it entered the first of several cascading stretches of white water. Despite studying traditional Japanese boatbuilding since the 1990s, this was my first time heading downriver in an authentic wasen.

Over the course of twenty-three visits to Japan spanning twenty-eight years I have apprenticed with seven boatbuilders: in Sadogashima, Urayasu, Tokyo, Aomori, Okinawa, Iwate, and Gifu. In addition I have traveled to all of Japan's forty-seven prefectures, meeting and interviewing over fifty boatbuilders. My teachers were in their seventies or eighties at the time I studied with them, and for six of them I was their sole apprentice. In addition, I have also built five wasen in the United States: two as exhibitions at museums and three for Japanese gardens (ていえん). The last century was a pivotal time for this craft: the devastation of World War II forced one more generation to assume the work of their fathers, but the rapid recovery and ascendance of the Japanese economy starting in the 1960's pulled the children of these men into the corporate jobs of a new Japan. In a single generation the apprentices the craft depended on disappeared.


Douglas report
I was working as the museum boatbuilder at the maritime museum in San Francisco when I accepted the invitation of my college roommate, who is from Hiroshima, to visit Japan. On that first trip I met several boatbuilders, and became exposed to a world of craft both mysterious and alluring. I met craftsmen who possessed extraordinary skills, yet also discovered the craft was only transmitted via an ancient apprentice system. Eventually one of the boatbuilders I met invited me to be his student, and in 1996 he and I built a taraibune, a unique boat still used on a Sado Island in the Sea of Japan. In 2003 the Kodo Cultural Foundation, with funding from the Nippon Foundation, published my first book, The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman's Methods (Shokunin no Gihou; Sado no Taraibune)

The goal of my book was to provide people with a step-by-step description of how to build tub boats. It included my drawings, which record my teacher's methods for laying down the lines (すんぽう) using shaku, the same measuring system he used. I also included instructions for braiding the bamboo hoops. Since its publication my book has been used by craftspeople reviving barrel making, and Sado Island's new professional taraibune builder has told me he learned taraibune entirely from my book.

The techniques of boatbuilding, as in many Japanese crafts, is shrouded in secrecy. Most of my teachers used no drawings whatsoever, working entirely from memory. Drawings, where they did exist, were left intentionally incomplete. The goal of my work has been to document as much as I can - essentially writing the secrets down - in an effort to preserve the designs and techniques of boatbuilding.

It was my first teacher who taught me the phrase "nusumigeiko." He told me he used to sneak into his master's workshop at night with a candle and study his layout (sumitsuke). He finally managed to learn his master's boat dimensions, but he also realized his master was drawing lines that made no sense, intentionally trying to confuse his apprentice.

In Iida, boats have been taking passengers downriver for over one hundred years. The river has been a vital conduit for trade and commerce for centuries. The first commodity was lumber. Four hundred years ago construction of temples and palaces in Kyoto let timber merchants to this region in search of lumber. Logs from Oshika village were sent downriver for the construction of Houkoji Temple (1608). Soon after Toyama village supplied logs for the building of Edo Castle in present-day Tokyo. Once river transportation was established, a constant flow of a wide range of local goods was traded to markets in Osaka and Tokyo.

Ironically one of the first people to popularize traveling down the river by boat was a foreigner. Walter Weston (1860-1940) was an English missionary who traveled Japan extensively and wrote mainly about mountaineering, but after


Douglas report
visits to Iida in 1891 and 1893 he wrote about traveling the Tenryugawa on the Funakudari.

Weston's writings reflect what we now take for granted: the river as a place for recreation. The Tenryugawa is perfect for enjoying a connection with nature or boarding a boat and feeling the full power of the river. For me one of the most amazing things about traveling down a white water river is actually seeing and feeling the river descend. It is literally a long, watery ramp; at first you think your eyes are playing tricks on you. The Tenryugawa's water has a milky-blue appearance, due to the fine silt being carried downstream. Carried by the waves one instantly appreciates the power of the river and you become a part of one of the most dynamic processes in nature: the slow carving of the valley by the river's never-ending flow. The sandy banks of the river at the outset of the trip give way to a gorgeous stone gorge. The Funakudari offers a priceless perspective as you travel beneath high rock walls. Mixed with groves of timber bamboo swaying in the wind it is like a garden.

After my trip I looked at historic photographs of the river showing various types of boats. Of course the gorge was instantly recognizable. I could also see the strong similarities between the boats in photographs taken a hundred years ago and the boat I rode.

In 2019 I had the chance to come to Iida and spend a week working with the Tenryugawa Funakudari's boatbuilders. Most winters they build a new boat for the company. The boatbuilder and his apprentices also work as boatmen, so they have an intimate knowledge of the design and construction of these boats, as well as they environment where the boats operate. They also have a deep appreciation for the history of the Tenryugawa, a river that has been vital to moving goods and people through this region.

In 2017 I worked with the last builder of ukaibune in Gifu. The builder designed his boats from memory, relying on a few wooden patterns for specific angles. In the West we call this building "by eye" but Japanese say "by intuition" (かん で).I recorded all the dimensions, angles, and techniques, which will be published in a forthcoming book. The historic photographs of boats on the Tenryugawa resembled the boat I built in Gifu, and I was told the boat designs and techniques found on the Tenryugawa originally came from the Nagaragawa and Kisogawa in Gifu.

I wasn't' surprised to discover that the Funakudari's boatbuilders also work without plans. They also use just a few wooden patterns and all the dimensions are memorized. Yazawa san, the master, has two younger apprentices. One day an older man visited. He stood for a long time silently watching us work. I had a suspicion who he might be, confirmed when he came forward to help one of the apprentices. He was Yazawa san's master. At that moment, three generations of

craftspeople were working on the boat. I thought, where in Japan can you still see something like this?

The Tenryugawa Funakudari is now one of the last places in Japan where people can experience these traditions in their entirety. From the forested mountain slopes above the river comes the wood the boatmen use to build their craft. The boats and passengers create a scene on the river that has existed as long as anyone can remember. Through it all runs the Tenryugawa, the watery thread that ties together the people and this place, running inexorably to the sea.



Douglas Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer, teacher, and researcher specializing in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. Since 1990, he has been researching traditional Japanese boatbuilding, documenting the techniques and design secrets of the craft. He has built boats with seven elderly boatbuilders from throughout Japan; he is the sole apprentice for six of his teachers.
Brooks is the only non-Japanese listed in a 2003 Nippon Foundation survey of craftsmen capable of building traditional Japanese boats. In 2014, Brooks received the Rare Craft Fellowship Award from the American Craft Council in recognition of his work in Japan. His work has also been honored by the Japanese Ministry of Culture.
Brooks has published four books and numerous articles on Japanese boatbuilding. His most recent, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, is the first comprehensive survey of the craft. He is a 1982 graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut with a B.A. in Philosophy, and a 2002 graduate of the Middlebury College Japanese Language School. He lives with his wife Catherine in Vergennes, Vermont.
For more about his work see:http://www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com

 

 

 

 


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