Woodcarving that lasts a century
With but a single thin wooden panel, an infinitely deep world is expressed; the Inami ranma (the panel placed above a lintel between two rooms in a traditional Japanese house) woodcarving techniques are not only an important heritage of Japan but of the entire world. We explore this fascinating world of woodcarving with a master craftsman of Inami woodcarving.
Mr Yoshio Nomura was born and raised in the town of Inami. His father was a stone carver who made gravestones and Buddhist images. There were numerous woodcarving workshops in his neighborhood, and he was in close contact with this craft from an early age. "It seemed only natural when I was young that I choose between going into carpentry or into woodcarving." Mr Nomura decided on embarking on woodcarving career immediately after graduation from middle school and he has practiced this craft for over fifty years. "Learning basic woodcarving techniques takes only about five years, but to become fully proficient in the techniques takes a decade." Mr Nomura stayed in the workshop of his teacher (his master in the craft) for thirty years and opened his own workshop at the age of 47. His workshop today makes ranma panels, decorative panels, Shinto images, and masks for the Lion Dance to name but a few. He will accept orders for any kind of woodcarving. "I guess I really got confidence in my own work when I was about 54 or 55." These words give a glimpse of the depth of Inami woodcarving.
Old tools are beautiful
All of Mr Nomura's tools are well used. Among them are the chisels he first bought, whose blades have been sharpened to their limit--any more sharpening and there would be no more blades. Of course, a single sharpening reduces a blade only a tiny amount. Such short chisel blades indicate how much they have been used and with what energy. He also only uses natural whetstones, whose diminished shapes also testify to their constant and long use. "Old tools are the most beautiful. They are excellently made and have fine curves," he stated as he showed us various tools. The variety and number of chisels is amazing--in excess of 200 in total. He makes most of his small planes and shaves himself. In order to create many different shapes in wood, many different planes and shaves are needed. "More than the tools I bought myself, I treasure the tools my master gave me." The spirit of an Inami craftsman is transmitted in the tools he or she uses.
Here is a small selection of the tools he uses.
Wood from a 100-year-old tree will last a century
The wood used by Inami woodcarvers is mainly zelkova (keyaki) and camphor (kusu). "The zelkova wood with a fine grain lends itself well to woodcarving, but camphor wood is the easiest to carve. However, camphor wood warps easily, and a carver has to be very careful. Camphor wood from Taiwan is soft, but does not have the aroma of Japanese camphor wood." Mr Nomura talked volubly about woods and materials for woodcarving. An understanding of the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of various woods is a fundamental aspect of the woodcarver's art. In his speech, one can sense Mr Nomura's confidence and pride as well as the long decades of experience. "'Wood from a 100-year-old tree will last a century.' This is an old aphorism in my craft." Without doubt, Mr Nomura's work will be vital a century from now. One want to own one his pieces now in order for it to be passed on the one's descendants a century hence.
An album containing the woodcarvings of Mr. Nomura
Study never ends
Since a ranma is placed above a room's lintel, that is, above one's head, it is seen from below, at an angle. The carving and sense of depth of such an architectural piece must be calculated from how it is viewed. The skill involved in calculating and creating the receding planes in the perspective of such a piece has been described as godlike. This same awesome skill is also used for decorative panels and wooden images. The motifs of decorative panels are often the traditional ones of dragons or bird-and-flower scenes. Such panels are executed with an expert combination of delicacy and expressive power. Carvings in the round made by Mr Nomura are mostly the masks (that is, heads) for the Lion Dance, the Shinto deity Tenjin, and Buddhist images. He was carving a Buddhist image on the day of our interview. "The artistic quality of any carving depends entirely on the carver." Next to his worktable were numerous reference works about Buddhist sculpture. Even with his long experience, he continues to study. This attitude coupled with his depth of experience imbues his carving with vitality and brilliance.
Besides openwork ranma carving, Mr Nomura also carves Buddhist images and images of the Shinto deity Tenjin.
Born 1933. A Designated Master Craftsman, he also works as an instructor in the Inami Woodcarving Advanced Training School.