The sound of hammer is echoing under the summer blue sky at Tokyo Daijingu from the early morning. Mr. Kobayashi sheathes a roof with shiny copper plates. “I made that roof over there on the wedding center entrance just for one night for a long time ago.” He told me a lot of his stories in the shrine with sound of wind bell on the back.
I met you at Highlights of Japanese Manufacturing Technology and Traditional Craftworks Festival held in Tokyo International Forum in August. I saw you working on the door case with beautiful shiny copper plates. It was amazing to see all the processes were proceeded by just your hands not a machine. Also none of the nails were shown on the surface of the door case.
I am originally from Aizu, Fukushima, grew up in the farmer family. My house had thatched roof which you do not see often nowadays. I was the middle one out of five siblings, so I did not have a job there like the oldest brother who succeeded a family business. Therefore, I came to Tokyo to learn a trade. I was trained under my master in Ohta-ku for five years and worked extra one year to thank him. I had only two days off from work in a month during the training period.
After starting my own business, I of course did not have any clients at the beginning. Therefore, I went out for a drink to find clients. The work will not come to you if you stay at home. I started building up tight relationships so that both I and my clients can trust each other. We talk honestly without telling a lie when we are drinking.
As for the well-known locations, I made a place for votive picture of horse in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Bid Thunder Mountain in Tokyo Disneyland, and a gate of Kamakura. I also did a repair work on Tokyo station. It is not allowed by the regulation for me to climb up higher than two meters because of my age, but there is no young workman who has enough skill, so I climbed a high place on own my responsibility.
Therefore, I want more youth to brush up their techniques, so I am teaching at the training school. There are about 20 students under 8 teachers. There is just one national test in a year, but you need more than ten years of operational experience. It is important to acquire beautiful visual aspects together with exact dimensions.
I always tell my students who are on their 20s to have confidence to remain technique to the next generation. I am going to teach some students from the overseas next year, and mostly they are from Vietnam and Myanmar. They want to get certified on national test so that they can bring back technique to their home country. There are many workmen who want to teach, but there are just a few young people who want to learn.
There is nothing that I cannot make as a roof with any kind of materials like stones, copper plates, and thatch.
But there are not so many houses left in Japan where these materials can be applied. I worked on the roof of Koga house in Kamakura which became a restaurant now. http://kamakura-koga.com/
Koga house is one of the three famous European style buildings.
As through hearing your story, I was able to understand your background and the changes in construction of Japan. When was the most laborious time in your life?
I do not feel like laboriousness for all the things in the past. There was a time when I fell off from the roof at the age of 24, and I was hospitalized. My fiancée left me and that was a bitter experience, but that was all about it.
I often hear from young generation that they had a hard time when they were working as a trainee, but I did not feel the same. I was able to learn a lot of skill and technique while I certainly step up more, and there is nothing better than this. If you feel like you are experiencing something laborious, you need more training.
There are still a few old houses like Tuskiji which have my work on the roofs or door cases. But the total number of old houses is in decline. Not only declining number of workmen who have enough skill and knowledge but also declining the number of houses or buildings which incorporate these traditional our works are the reason.
When there was the Great East Japan Earthquake, we went to Fukushima to build up temporary housings. We also wanted to go to help in Kumamoto this year after the big earthquake, but it was a little too far for us.
One of my clients in Tokyo asked me some work in Miyajuma for his family because he trusted me. I think it is very important to build up a trustworthy relationship if you want to get a decent work.
It is a lot of fun because I can design on my own and make a frame with a lot of freedom.
Honestly speaking, I might have many mistakes but I can fix these without known by anyone. It is such a shame to use ready-made products. I have a high pride in making all the necessary parts myself and finish the work.
I measure the construction site and check the condition, then I put the parts together so that visual appearance is beautiful as if there are straight lines following the metal plates. For example, this roof has seven tiers. This number came from the Japanese custom of “7, 5, 3” which represents good fortune.
If you do not enjoy what you do as for work, it does not last for a long time. Therefore, it is important to have a confidence and motivation to undertake the task. I think it is not a problem to make a mistake as long as you can fix it.
Sometimes it is too hard to explain the certain skill just with drawing a picture or plan. It is necessary for us to learn at the construction site while moving some parts of our body and put information in our brain.
If I were much younger, I would have been to the overseas to acquire technique.
I want to learn the skill of using thick copper plate from the workmen in Asian countries.
Wherever I go, I cannot stop looking at roofs. From the lines of the roof, I can tell how much technique the workman has. From next week, I am working on the temple called “Daiganji” in Chiba. It is such a precious thing to be able to touch many historical and valued architectural structures.
I do not have pupils currently, but throughout teaching at the training school, my skill will be carried on to the next generation. We need more places where this traditional technique would be applied. It is important to save traditional culture in the way everyone can understand its’ value unlike modern style apartments.
I need to educate next generation in case of the time when I can no longer work on the site. Fortunately, I have been invited by some places as an instructor. As long as I am healthy and stand with my own legs, I want to keep working in the construction site. Therefore, I will devote myself as an instructor after retiring from active duty.
I sometimes teach at the public school for children just for fun. We made a nameplate for a house or traced a picture on a copper plate. If children truly enjoy something from the bottom of their hart, they will remember the moment of what they have experienced. Then it might lead them to be workmen in the future. Having a playful mind is the key to last something for a long time.