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In Central Japan, the 1,300-Year-Old Art of Carpentry

By Guan Tan

 
 

In the Gifu prefecture is a city called Hida. Here, a shot overlooking the Nissin Furnitures facility.

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Nestled in the city of Hida is a quiet facility with towers of wood crowning the entryway. Nissin Furniture Crafters has been making wooden chairs, sofas and tables for the past 70 years. In here, carpenters draw from the art of 'Hida no Takumi', an honourable title for the humblest craft. 

The title has existed since the Nara period, approximately 700 AD. "Hida no Takumi are craftsmen who had superior skills in wood crafting," a representative from the factory explains. "Their wood works were admired for its highest quality." 

In Japan, every region speaks its own language of wooden furniture. Traditionally, furniture companies specialised in "wardrobe closets or dressing tables." Yet in Hida, the history of carpentry "started from chair making".

In every chair is a wealth of time and patience. The chairs are strictly crafted from Japanese oak, beech, and walnut woods. Every tree is allowed to grow for a minimum of “60 to 100 years”. On occasion, “we use trees of 150 to 200 years old,” the representative explains. 

“Once the trees are cut down, the trunks are made into lumber – which are naturally dried for one to two years.” The drying process is punctilious – moisture levels of every piece of wood has to be “less than 10 percent”. It’s a method singular to Hida. “Due to its geographical location, [the] Hida region receives strong [northern] winds in February and March every year.” These summer winds draft from the mountains, with the “appropriate amount of humidity”. Later in the year, the woods are left to withstand winter winds. “The wood is exposed to [the] four seasons throughout the year, which makes tough timber.” 

After a year-long drying process, “they will be made into various parts of chairs, tables and other furnitures”. The team of 68 wood workers will rein the dried timber into the facility. 

Characteristic to traditional Japanese furniture, there are no nuts and bolts involved. All parts are joined by intricate, convoluted wooden joineries – an age-old technology that was incredibly modern in its time. 

It’s interesting to note that the average age of these wood workers is 40. “The youngest is 18, and the oldest is 76,” the representative quips. It makes sense. To even qualify as a wood worker, every staff has to undergo “three to five years” of training. To be considered a skilled wood worker, “it takes over 10 years of experience”. 

Unlike other gentrified countries where traditional crafts are expiring, the Japanese are fiercely protective of their design history. "The young come from all places to Hida, wanting to learn the skills of Hida crafts people.” 

“Hide furniture is not just a brand, but a tradition running through generations,” the representative continues. The Hida art of carpentry has rippled through the carpentry industry in all of Japan, including “building one of the most iconic historical building, such as the Todaji temple”. 

“It’s close to our lives – as an identity,” the representative adds. Perhaps this is a lesson that neighbouring countries can draw from the Japanese, that traditional crafts should be intertwined with the community’s identity. And when it’s done this way, traditional crafts will find longevity.