Cocooned in thickly forested mountains with countless varieties of broadleaf and conifer trees, the brimful terrain and flora of the Hida province promotes a lifestyle that is close to one’s natural surroundings. A visitor to Japan House London will certainly be reminded of a lush, perhaps reclusive place as they wander through the carefully designed Carpenters’ Line exhibition. In between entwining foliage-patterned drapes that imitate the natural forests of Hida Takayama are a variety of displays; which takes the viewer on a journey through the origin and development of its residents’ skillful woodworking heritage. Along this exhibition one may realise that it has no clear beginning or end, which serves as a poetic gesture to the timeless craftsmanship that has remained strong for centuries.
The exhibition’s titular display, the carpenters' line, is made up of string – or accurately, an “ink rope” – and an ink pot to draw accurate measuring lines along wood. The small mechanism is simple, but plays an important role in the beginning of a project of the Hida no Takumi (“Master Carpenters of Hida”), thus the naming of the exhibition is an ode to Hida’s centuries-old woodworking lineage.
The artisans’ relationship with the natural forests of the region is a key component in their craftsmanship. It is one of respect and care for the very ground: the same care which can be seen in the design and structuring of this exhibition. Along a large table in the centre of the hall is an impressive display of some 90 different species of wood, all of which have had their uses in Hida’s woodworking legacy. For example, magnolia and its leaves were useful for their medicinal properties; hinoki cypress was used in the building of ancient shrines and temples’ interiors, and is still being used for similar construction purposes today.
Japanese joinery is another excellent use of woodworking that does away with the need for metal hardware. On display at the exhibition are examples of joinery that vary in complexity, with some interactive pieces that prove the technique’s simultaneous simplicity and ingenuity. On an adjacent wall can be seen impressive decorative latticework, which, similar to the joinery technique, uses no glue or nails.
Another impressive woodworking feature that the exhibition showcases is the bentwood technique. Simply put, it involves steaming and bending singular pieces of wood into curved shapes, without the need of joints. Woodbending was and still is fundamental in the crafting of furniture, and the evolution of this technique interlacing with the developments of other countries has revolutionised the production of furniture.
Dotted around the hall are various other exhibits, like the intriguing magnolia-carved yuki-nyūdō folk toys which depict a one-eyed, one-legged monster whose tales were used by parents to scare children out of misbehaving. A visitor of the exhibition will also encounter a display of various ancient carpenter’s tools, examples of Hida Shunkei lacquerware on everything from Buddhist altars to skateboards, and even a climbing wall (though this is not to be actually climbed).
Whether carved, woven, compressed, or bent, each piece of wood in the exhibition is impressed with its own story and layers of culture and history.
The Carpenters’ Line exhibition inspires us to step away for a moment and look back on Japan’s faithful ancestral craftsmanship and the methods of which have endured until today. It also promotes the collaboration of cultures; as a revolutionary technique or idea is birthed in one place, it may one day become the key part needed for another technique to work efficiently, much like two pieces of wood joining perfectly together.