Meet the woodworkers of Hida Takayama

By Gianfranco Chicco

A great way to learn about other civilisations is through their material culture, and since its inception, Japan House London has been hosting exhibitions on exactly that. Its latest exhibition, ‘The Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama’, opens a door into the extraordinary craftworking legacy of central Japan.

The Hida region is covered with trees. During the Nara period (710-794 CE), local authorities were unable to pay their taxes in rice (a common currency back then), so they offered to fulfil their duties to the Emperor with woodwork instead. As a consequence, Hida no Takumi, the craftspeople of Hida, would travel to the capitals of Nara and later Kyoto to build everything from temples to palaces, or create objects like the shaku, a sceptre made of yew wood used during the Emperor’s official enthronement ceremony. With time, these skills went from being an essential means of livelihood to highly sought after, renowned throughout the country.

The tools and techniques developed in those early years didn’t remain stagnant. In the early 20th century, the technology of bentwood was introduced to the region and companies like Hida Sangyō started using it to make furniture out of buna (beech). This wood was abundant in the hills of Takayama, largely because until then it was considered useless for making things compared to sugi (Japanese cedar), hinoki (Japanese cypress) and ichii (yew).

“What has happened, especially since WWII and the increase in consumerism, is that companies like Hida Sangyō have expanded their efforts to feed into this new lifestyle that Japan was pursuing,” explains Simon Wright, director of programming at Japan House London. “So, just like the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 were a turning point for the popularity of electronics and technology, products for the home like furniture [for] your television set and your refrigerator, became aspirational lifestyle signifiers.”

The exhibition looks into the material, of course, but also the people, the techniques – such as chigiri, the famous butterfly joint used to hold two or more pieces of wood together – and products. It highlights how the growth and ongoing success of these businesses is based on turning early craft practices into innovative industrial technology, where designers make new things to meet the changing needs of a domestic, and now global user base.