Extraordinary exhibition celebrates millennia of master woodworking in Japan

A new exhibition at Japan House London traces the development of an astonishing craft tradition, originating in Japan's Hida region and dating back over 1,300 years.

Image shows a Japanese craftsman at work. Photo by Igarashi Junya

Image shows a Japanese craftsman at work. Photo by Igarashi Junya

Japan is a country with a strong sense of its own traditions and which makes an active effort to maintain them on a practical level. And so, if you're interested in exploring the art of master woodworking, you'll love Japan House London's upcoming exhibition, titled The Carpenters' Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama.

Opening on 29 September, the free exhibition highlights how the Japanese city of Takayama, in the densely forested Hida region of Honshu's Gifu Prefecture, has an international reputation for its highly skilled carpenters over an astonishing 1,300 years.

The title is a play on words, referring to the lineage of woodworking in Hiba and a Sumi-tsubo, aka carpenters' line: a tool used to mark straight lines on wood.

Extraordinary legacy

The exhibition celebrates the essence of Japanese craftsmanship through the story of an enduring woodworking heritage cultivated in the densely forested Hida region of Gifu Prefecture in central Japan. From the raw materials of the Hida forests and the tools developed to work them to the involvement of Hida craftsmanship in the global furniture design of today, visitors to the exhibition are immersed in the extraordinary craftworking legacy.

First recorded in the eighth century, the woodworking skills of Hida craftspeople were provided to the imperial capital in place of taxation, such was the importance placed upon the carpentry techniques originating there. It was their incredible skill that built many of the famous shrines and temples that still exist in the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto today.

The Carpenters' Line. Credit: Igarashi Junya

The Carpenters' Line. Credit: Igarashi Junya

Starting with the wood itself, the free exhibition explores tools, techniques and products synonymous with Hida's woodworking heritage. More than a millennium of woodworking history is conveyed through exhibits, ranging from works by historical wood carvers to interactive examples of joinery typical of Japan, as well as contemporary chair design with international influences.

Tradition meets technology

Visitors to the exhibition encounter a series of installations demonstrating the legacy of skill and innovation that runs as a continuous strand through Hida's woodworking history.

These explore a wide range of woodcraft techniques and materials, including 'ichii ittō-bori' (sculptures carved from Japanese yew), mageki aka wood bending (a vital element of contemporary furniture making), latticework and masterful joining techniques.

The exhibition also shines a spotlight on where centuries of tradition meet new technology, maintaining working lifestyles while adapting to new methods of manufacture. Hida boasts a design legacy of excellence that continues today, exemplified by makers such as celebrated furniture manufacturer Hida Sangyō.

The Carpenters' Line. Credit: Igarashi Junya

The Carpenters' Line. Credit: Igarashi Junya

You'll also get to see an inspiring range of products from the region, including delicate Hida-shunkei lacquerware, intricate kumiko latticework, and the culmination of several craft techniques in the creation of yatai: large, ornate festival floats that are paraded around the town during the twice-yearly spectacular Takayama Festival.

Celebratory song

However, as the exhibition title suggests, it's mainly the craftspeople of Hida who are at the heart of The Carpenters' Line. This exhibition shines a spotlight on the skills and lives of those whose livelihoods have depended, and still depend, on working with the natural materials of their local environment.

Visitors can connect with them aurally by listening to the 'medeta', a celebratory song sung by residents of the Hida region, as well as through soundscapes that allow the visitor to inhabit the world of the craftspeople.

As Simon Wright, director of programming at Japan House London, explains: "The fabled woodworking tradition of the Hida region of Japan – Hida no Takumi – continues to inform the present and future of industry and design in the area. The densely forested mountains which surround the city of Takayama have for generations continuously provided the gifts of nature which have helped maintain the livelihoods of its inhabitants.

"This heritage is a constant thread throughout the history of this region, providing a respected woodworking lineage and our story for The Carpenters' Line."

The exhibition runs from 29 September to 29 January 2023 at Japan House London, 101-111 Kensington High St, London W8 5SA. Admission is free but booking is recommended, at the Japan House London website.

A series of themed events and workshops will also accompany the exhibition, with further details to be announced in the coming weeks.


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