City of Takumi: Hidden in the woods, a town of craftsmanship
Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
TAKAYAMA, Gifu–It all began with a visit to a furniture shop in Tokyo. Stylish chairs with elegant curves, comfy dining tables–all simple wooden creations with a certain warmth that makes it seem as if they are quietly waiting for people to use them. I was fascinated by the beauty of Hida-brand furniture.
How are these pieces made? My curiosity was such that it drove me to travel to Takayama, a central city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture.
“Professional craftsmen called ‘Hida no Takumi’ have lived in this region since ancient times,” said Hideki Takada, an executive director of the Hida Woodworking Federation–a group comprising local furniture makers.
I visited Museum Hida in Hida Earth Wisdom Center to find out more about the history of Hida furniture.
Surrounded by abundant forests, ruins of villages from the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.) remain in the region. During the ritsuryo (legal code) system of government, Hida craftsmen were made to work for the central government instead of paying taxes.
Every year, 100 craftsmen–10 from each settlement–were dispatched to work for a year in Nara, the center of the political system back then. For about 500 years, from the the Asuka period (592-710) to the end of the Heian period (794-1192), Hida craftsmen helped build a number of notable works of architecture in Nara’s Heijokyo capital, including Kofukuji, Toshodaiji and Todaiji temples.
“Hida craftsmen don’t count on profit, but on making furniture respectably and deliberately. That craftsmanship has been passed down to Hida furniture makers today,” Takada said.
From architecture to furniture
Furniture manufacturing came to the Hida region in 1920. Using the area’s abundant beech trees, a furniture maker, now known as Hida Sangyo Co., began making Thonet’s bentwood chair–which back then had been mass-produced in the West.
Now, visitors can take a tour of Hida Sangyo’s factory and watch the process of bending wood. Young workers place steamed wood around a mold, which is then spun with machines to create curvy lines. The firm’s furniture is a bit pricey, but sells well.
“After the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japanese people started looking for more valuable, authentic items as they began thinking more seriously on how to make their lives more fruitful,” said Hida Sangyo President Sanzo Okada.
In addition to beech trees, the company uses Japanese cedar to prevent deforestation. The cedar usually is considered too soft to make furniture with. But the firm hardens the wood through its special woodbending technique.
Hopping from one furniture showroom to another around the city is fun. Kashiwa Mokko Co. deals with architectural material, Nissin Furniture Crafters Co. produces modern-looking designs, while Kitani Co. reproduces Scandinavian furniture.
The Hida Woodworking Federation created Charter of Hida Design, and “Hida no Kagu” (Hida furniture) became a regionally based collective trademark, a symbol of sincerity for themselves and others.
Craftsmanship on the streets
Walking around the city of Takayama, I could see the skillful work of Hida craftsmen all over town. Raven degoshi, or latticework, adorn walls as low roofs and long eaves created an elegant mood.
A domain lord here who dedicated himself to the tea ceremony became familiar with the architecture of Kyoto and commissioned craftsmen to build a castle town modeled after the ancient capital.
Along Sanmachi Street, one can see the delicate woodwork of craftsmen has been lovingly preserved.
There, you can see the awe-inspiring kumiki (wooden puzzles) used in the Yoshijima Heritage House. There’s also the Kusakabe Folk Museum, which used to be the house of a business tycoon, and Takayama Jinya (Historical Government House).
In spring and summer, the city’s businessmen spent millions to build grand floats for the Takayama Festival.
Walking in the snowy city, I stayed overnight at an onsen inn that served local specialties such as Hida beef and hoba-miso yaki, a dish in which a miso, onions, shiitake mushrooms and other food are roasted on a magnolia leaf over a charcoal brazier or stove.
The day I left the city, I stopped by a morning market and sampled pickled red turnips, another local specialty.
“It’s tasty,” I said.
“We farmers pickled it,” said a female vendor as I bought a bag. “I’ll pickle a good one for the next time you visit.”
The dedicated, serious and polite nature of Takayama’s people deeply impressed me, stirring up a desire to visit again someday.
It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes by Tokaido Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to Nagoya. From there, take the Hida express train to JR Takayama Station, about 2-1/2 hours.
For more information, call the Hida-Takayama Tourism & Convention Bureau at (0577) 36-1011 or the Hida Woodworking Federation at (0577) 32-2100 .
(Jan. 27, 2013)