Kojiro Kitada, woodworker

The furniture made by woodworker Kojiro Kitada can be seen as a stool, or turned around to become a side table. Depending on where you view it from, it could also resemble a Brâncuși sculpture. 

Kitada’s pieces are carved from a single block of wood at his workshop in Taishi town, about an hour’s drive from Osaka. It is an area bordering Nara Prefecture, which is rich in forest resources and convenient for timber. 

Kitada shares an old sawmill with several other craftspeople. His windswept workshop, lined only by tin walls, is divided into two parts – a building for bringing in long logs and a storage area for the sawn timber. He works surrounded by wood, beginning first by observing the grain. Then, using a chisel and planer, he starts to carve. 

Partly cut logs stacked on shelves
Partly cut logs stacked on shelves © Yasuyuki Takagi
A selection of Kitada’s small wood sculptures
A selection of Kitada’s small wood sculptures © Yasuyuki Takagi

“The punch of the raw wood thrills me,” he says of his process. “When I feel the energy of the wood, I’m aware how much humans have intervened in the creation of industrial-made furniture. The more we process wood to create something identical, uniform, the more the wood becomes detached from nature. I wanted to change that detachment and do something that explores the distance between nature and the man-made.”

Kitada may only be 34, but he has years of experience as a carpenter. He began building houses after graduating from high school, having studied under a master craftsman in his hometown of Kobe; after polytechnic he took a job with a building company. “I could cut and assemble each piece of wood by hand,” he says of his obsession, which drew him to the world of palace carpentry.

Miyadaiku are carpenters specialising in maintaining Japanese temples and shrines, using time-honoured methods of shaving wood and assembling the framework with intricate joints – they produce buildings that are renowned as some of the world’s longest surviving wooden structures. Kitada joined a miyadaiku workshop as a live-in carpenter 13 years ago, and honed his skills there for the next decade. “It was rewarding,” he says, “but even on temple and shrine sites, the drawings are usually done by someone else, and the carpenters build according to the design.” The urge to immerse himself in the entire process led him to go it alone: “I wanted to do everything: from the design and making to delivering. I started making furniture because I thought that even if I couldn’t do this on the scale of architecture, I could do it with furniture.”

Of his love of wood, he says: “It’s a very diverse material. Even in the same species of cedar, the density of the rings and the oil content varies depending on the environment in which it grows. These differences show up in the grain and colour. Each tree has a different pattern. I want to highlight those expressions in my works.”

Kitada observes these patterns, revealing the wood’s knots by cutting curves at right angles to the direction of grain growth – sometimes even exposing the splits in the wood. “At first, I hesitated to make furniture that showed the knots. But there is no superiority or inferiority between knotty and knotless wood,” says Kitada, who determines how far to leave the timber in its natural state, and exactly when to stop modifying. “I want to let the material dictate the expression.”

Kitada at home, surrounded by his wooden pieces
Kitada at home, surrounded by his wooden pieces © Yasuyuki Takagi

The size of the wood cube depends on what he is making, but it is usually 40cm square, cut from a log with a diameter of around 70cm using a bandsaw. From there he cuts by hand. “It’s fun to make furniture based on a design in the beginning, but once you master the knowhow, it becomes routine,” he says. “I have to think of a different way to carve my blocks each time.” 

Kitada’s sculptural pieces are imbued with a modernity that is rooted in traditional miyadaiku skills. His furniture often appears as though made up of two parts, linked together by traditional Japanese joints. “The more skilled the carpenter is, the less likely they are to swagger,” Kitada says of their simplicity. 

“The crafts used for the joints require precision – artistry even – but they are usually incorporated into the beams and girders of buildings and are not seen,” he says. “I want to show the perfection of these techniques in a different form; one that’s relevant to my generation. If I used them in their classical form, such as you’d see in temples and shrines, people would feel the gap in time and the furniture would look weird in contemporary living spaces. I prefer forms that bear no sign as to when and where they were made.”

Takashi Ichikawa, ceramicist

“I want to share in the curiosity and surprise of people experiencing something for the first time,” says ceramicist Takashi Ichikawa of his work, which draws on age-old traditions of Japanese pottery and tea making. “I’m curious,” he adds, considering the moment man first tore a leaf from a tree and decided to make a drink from it – then explored the multitude of permutations that made the experience satisfying. “Eventually the tea leaves were roasted and the brewed tea was treasured as a medicine,” he says. “I’m interested in the evolution of such behaviour. I want to evoke that first feeling of discovery.”

Takashi Ichikawa brews tea near a local pond
Takashi Ichikawa brews tea near a local pond © Norio Kidera

The 56-year-old artisan lives near the city of Maibara in Shiga Prefecture, on the Japanese archipelago, in a village at the foot of Mount Ibuki with a population of just 1,100. Medicinal herbs have grown here since antiquity.

Ichikawa works in a hut he built himself behind his home. The workshop has a wood-burning rocket stove, which feeds a pipe running through the floor to warm the space. He fires the clay, which he digs from the earth, before using a kick pottery wheel to make what he calls “Haji”– high-fired unglazed ceramics (such as the utensils typically known as arita-yaki, bizen-yaki or mashiko-yaki). He has created his own name for them as he does not want his pieces “associated with historical styles”.

The maker’s repertoire is extensive – from cooking pots to utensils for brewing tea and, of course, teapots. He presents his pieces at exhibitions and invites people to use them. There is always an element of surprise: perhaps a noodle dish not typically eaten in Japanese culture or tea leaves that appear in an unusual form, leaving guests to question whether they’re edible or not. “They inspire conversation and switch on people’s curiosity,” says Ichikawa. He begins these experiences by loading his tea utensils onto a self-made cart, which is hoisted over his shoulders onto a backrest. He travels the country, from Hokkaido to Kyushu – occasionally journeying further afield to China and Taiwan. When he arrives at his destination – usually in forests and riversides (sometimes even in the river itself), he sets out tables and chairs, brings out a furnace, a five-stick stove and tea utensils (all handmade) and brews. 

The surroundings couldn’t be further from the traditional notion of the “tea ceremony”, with its formal rooms and strictly defined style and etiquette. But then one remembers that more than 1,000 years ago, when tea drinking began in Japan, it would have been brought outside to enjoy after a day’s farming. 

Ichikawa parties are always unpredictable: “You cannot control nature and there have been times, in strong winds, when guests have had charcoal smoke in their faces,” he says. “Most who took part said it was the most memorable tea, even though some didn’t think the smokiness was particularly tasty.”

Handmade tea-making apparatus
Handmade tea-making apparatus © Norio Kidera

The joy of sharing experiences with others is explored in every piece Ichikawa makes. “I studied sculpture at university and started working as a sculptor, not as a ceramicist. I’m not interested in making identical pieces with precision; my interest is in kneading the things I’m feeling at that moment – this comes out in the form of imperfection.”

Wataru Hatano, paper craftsman

In the hands of washi craftsman Wataru Hatano, paper is alchemised. It wraps furniture, crockery, floors and ceilings to create otherworldly interior spaces. Hatano’s handmade papers have even featured in the rooms of a Hiroshima hotel realised by Studio Mumbai. 

Wataru Hatano in his studio in Ayabe
Wataru Hatano in his studio in Ayabe © Yasuyuki Takagi

Handmade washi – long used on everyday items such as umbrellas, lanterns and shoji screens – is a material embedded in Japanese life. Washi is a traditional paper made up of three materials: kozo bark (or mulberry paper: a strong, widely used fibre grown as a farm crop), water and tororo-aoi (sunset hibiscus), which binds the kozo together. The kozo is boiled, beaten and stripped into fibres until it becomes crumbly, and is then released into water. When the tororo-aoi is added, the fibres become entwined. It’s produced in several Japanese communities. Of these, Hatano specialises in Kurotani washi, a style emanating from a region with an 800-year history.

Hatano works with a team of seven at his workshop in Ayabe, a couple of hours by train from the centre of Kyoto. It’s strenuous work. Although he’s slender in build, as he rolls up his sleeves his sturdy arms give away his trade. 

Hatano’s wife applies konnyaku glue to a sheet of washi
Hatano’s wife applies konnyaku glue to a sheet of washi © Yasuyuki Takagi

Despite industrially made paper now dominating production, in those areas still making washi by hand the method has remained unchanged. Hatano is mesmerised by the process and has transformed his own home in Ayabe to showcase the paper’s qualities. Almost every surface is covered with paper: from the floor (outside shoes or heels are not allowed) to the kitchen. “I’ve lived like this for almost 25 years and there’s not been a problem. I think it’s the way you deal with paper. Wood is much stronger when it comes to something like flooring, but if the edges of a washi floor come away you can repair them with glue.” He pauses for a second. “I think it’s a matter of how much you want it to be left in a pristine state and how much you are willing to accept changes. That’s the difference.”

Now 52, Hatano first came across Kurotani washi when studying oil painting as a postgraduate art student in Tokyo. In search of an alternative for a canvas, he visited a specialist store where he was offered Kurotani paper as the strongest option. “It has an unbleached colour, which is not glamorous, but has a primitive strength,” he says of his attraction to the material. “Washi absorbs the oil painted on it, creating a translucent layer that becomes obscured under the pigment.”

Japan’s history of papermaking added to the appeal. “It is incredible to know there is such an enduring craft in an impermanent society,” he says. “I was concerned about mass-production, where things are made, consumed, thrown and then made again.” Hatano joined the Kurotani Washi Association to train in washi making in the hope of “passing the torch on to continue the history”. That was 27 years ago: “The labour of making paper, of doing it all by myself, thrilled me,” he continues. “Now, if I make a mistake, I find a way to do it better, rather than being told how to do it. I have been fascinated to find my skills have improved day by day.”

Above all, Hatano is drawn to the humility of those involved in the craft. “Washi is just a material. Using it as a light fixture or Japanese umbrella adds value to it as a work of art. But being unknown is what makes craftspeople so sublime to me,” he says proudly. 

A pile of dried kozo bark to make washi
A pile of dried kozo bark to make washi © Yasuyuki Takagi
Kozo fibres being sundried for making into washi
Kozo fibres being sundried for making into washi © Yasuyuki Takagi

There was a point, however, after working on his skills for 10 years without much return, that he almost gave up on the craft. “It simply didn’t pay. I couldn’t make a living by just making washi,” he says, highlighting a situation confronting many Japanese makers forced to sell their wares wholesale at low prices.

His solution was to find another purpose for his paper – interior decor, sold directly to consumers. “My intention is not to show off my craft, but to inspire others to use washi for interiors. If makers receive the full price for their papers, cutting out the middleman, sales will also remunerate the kozo farmers who produce the raw materials,” says Hatano, who treats the unbleached papers with persimmon tannin oil to ensure they are water- and fireproof. The end result is a textural decor that renders spaces unique, even ethereal. “Unlike glass and other materials that reflect light, paper absorbs and softens it,” Hatano says of its atmospheric allure.

Now Hatano is actively involved in passing on the skills he has mastered to others. He uses local washi craftspeople for interior projects whenever possible. “I will eventually pass away,” he smiles. “I need other washi craftsmen to continue making washi. I want them to pass on its history.” 

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