Hiroshi Miura: Wood Philosophy

, 2010/02/04

Japan has an overwhelming tradition of carpentry. It’s easy to notice that nature itself, and trees in particular, have a sacred place in Japanese cosmology. Shinto is one of Japan’s ancient religions, a ‘religion of the forest’ which places Heaven in Nature and in forests specifically. It is, along with Buddhism, the one of main religions of Japan.

It might be hard to grasp how deeply the development of crafts is related with this old tradition of nature worship, but it could also explain why when holding an object of Japanese craft, one is moved by it’s gentleness. Japanese popular crafts (or mingei as Soestsu Yanagi called it) are not so much about perfection(a concept maybe easier to understand for Westerners) but about understanding and respecting the nature of the materials that take part in it. Empathize with the tree before turning it into wood.

Hiroshi Miura is an 83-year-old carpenter living in Asakusa. We met him last year thanks to a friend who introduced us. Our friend used to live near his house and workshop in Asakusa and would pass by everyday on her way to school, she was fascinated by a circular wood fish bowl he had at the door.

Miura is, of course, amazingly talented: he has been working with wood since he was old enough to hold the miniature kid tools his parents gave him so he could make his own toys. He started out making bathtubs, the family business, and as years passed he started building wooden miniatures. Although many craftsmen of his generation have been recognized by the Japanese government as National Living Treasures, he didn’t, and he doesn’t seem to care: ‘Being a Living Treasure is something that comes from outside,’ he says, ‘so I’m fine with that.’

Every object we got the chance to see in his workshop was as gentle and delicate as one would expect from such a level of expertise: there were miniature boats that floated and Lilliputian water mills (based on the ones he saw when traveling in France) that worked. There was a reproduction of a helmet once used by someone from the Royal Family that was decorated with feather-like shavings of wood, thinner than paper, gently quivering inside the glass box they were kept in.

At 83, he is still working and is friendly with people interested in his work. Miura-san knows a lot about Japanese and Chinese aesthetics, and is willing to talk for hours about crafts, art, the joy of carpentry and his devotion to wood. He said to us: ‘The relationship with the material is the most important [thing in my work]. For me that is the respect for wood, because it’s usually quite old, much older than me and has all the history ingrained in each ring and I can tell what happened, if there was an eruption or something, from the narrowness or the texture of each one. So, respecting wood is really important. There’s no bad wood, its just how you use it.’

Miura’s atelier is located at Kotobuki 2-chome. Tel: 03-3844-6856

Mercedes Villalba is a poet and artist currently living in Buenos Aires. She also studies Antrhopology and ocasionally writes about plants, arts and crafts. Since 2008 she has collaborated with Julian Gatto in a multidiciplinary project called mejunje. During 2009 they spent three months in Japan doing a research residency, an ongoing installation at NOW IDeA.



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