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One of the beautiful aspects of Japanese culture is the dichotomy between, yet the harmony of, modern technology and steadfast tradition. On one hand they create things like smart toothbrushes and virtual girlfriends, yet their hundreds-of-years-old temples and homes are cherished and preserved, as are many of their age-old customs. Structures such as the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto and Todai-ji in Nara have stood for hundreds of years thanks to more than just preservation, however; it’s at least partly down to the careful craftsmanship that went into them to begin with.

Traditional Japanese carpentry is not just a trade, it’s also an art and a science. Carpenters are able to build tables, houses, even great temples, without the use of a single nail, screw or other metal hardware− giving it strength and durability. China Uncensored, a web series devoted to bringing serious issues about the Chinese Communist Party to light in a parodical style, took a break from their communist offerings to show a video about Japanese carpentry from an unaired show called Journey to the East. In the 25-minute video we learn about the art and its place in the modern day, specifically modern-day New York, thanks to a traditional craftsman named Hisao Hanafusa.

Head carpenter Hasao Hanafusa is continuing the tradition of Japanese woodworking.

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The video follows Mr. Hanafusa, his shop Miya Shoji in New York City, and some of his customers. Although the shop specializes in furniture, as opposed to buildings, the philosophy and process is much the same. Mr. Hanafusa emphasizes that Japanese carpentry isn’t about using nature to work for you when making products, but instead working with nature to accomplish your goal. This is seen in simple ways, such as keeping the natural curves of the tree for aesthetic purposes, to more complicated and philosophical ways, such as using the wood from the bottom of trees for the bottom of structures to keep the order of nature and also to prevent warping, which could occur because “trees don’t grow upside down.” Traditional carpenters don’t see the wood they use as dead trees, but as trees given a second life, a life that is visible through the expansion and contraction of the wood, even after being turned into furniture.

This slab of wood has to dry completely before being made into furniture.

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The process all begins with the tree. First the tree is cut into slabs and dried for 10-20 years (!!), then the craftsman chooses the wood and sees what he can create with it. He doesn’t choose the wood for the specific project, he chooses a project he can accomplish with that specific piece of wood. Again, going with nature, not against it.

▼ Hand chisels are a key tool when creating joints.

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Once the project is set, instead of inflicting the wood with nails and screws, they put pieces together with joints carved directly into the wood that must fit perfectly together, like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, a process made even more difficult when using traditional hand tools as opposed to the accurate power-tools available today. Although more time-consuming and difficult to use, the carefully tended traditional tools allow for closer, more personal care to the wood.

Traditional hand planers can get a cleaner shave than power tools.

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This all-natural style allows for a strong structure due to the pieces expanding and contracting together, sturdiness proven by the resistance to the destruction of even earthquakes. Inevitably, wood gets worn and weathered, but that adds to the charm of the piece in wabi-sabi appreciation of imperfection, which “inspires the viewer to contemplate the passage of time and the imperfect nature of life.”

The table may not be perfectly rectangular, but that’s part of the appeal.

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Japanese carpentry preserves the uniqueness of each craftsman’s artistic and innovative talent, something that has been dwindling since the start of the Industrial Age. It’s amazing that the trade, started in the Golden Age of China (Tang Dynasty, 6-7th century), has lasted so long. An original goal of the innovative designs of many Buddhist temples was to create structures to house large Buddha statues without obstructing the view with too many vertical pillars, thus the advent of the interlaced joinery in the roofs of many temples that still stand today.

▼ There isn’t a single nail in this whole temple. Amazing!

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Next time you check out an old temple, farmhouse or even a piece of hand-made wooden furniture, remember the countless hours spent by some craftsman caring for every inch of it. It’s pretty cool and brings a new level of awe, aside from the simple beauty of the facade.

For more detail and insight, watch the video!

Source: YouTube (China Uncensored)
Images: Screen shots from Building Without Nails: The Genius of Japanese Carpentry