The Magic of Trees: Architecture and Woodworking in Japan

The original gate at Seattle Japanese Garden
The original gate at Seattle Japanese Garden

The original wooden gates, an example of Japanese carpentry that embodies the restraint quintessential to Japanese carpentry. (Photo credit: David Okrent)

Since ancient times, wood has been contemplated with reverence in Japan.  Even after being cut, it’s been seen as a living being.  Shinto, the country’s original religion, viewed trees as divine, a means by which the gods descended to earth.  Later, Buddhism taught that the Buddha attained enlightenment outdoors, beneath a tree.

Wood was abundant in Japan, and has been the main material for all types of buildings, secular and sacred.  The climate has dry winters and very wet summers, and Japan is subject to the extremes of earthquakes, volcanos and typhoons.  As a result, wooden structures that shrink and swell with changing conditions were particularly appropriate.

There were no architects in ancient Japan.  Rather, the character of its architecture evolved as tools were developed and craftsmen responded to practical problems.  Simple huts gave way to complex structures built without nails.  High carbon steel tools were developed early on, making possible the complex joinery that characterizes Japanese woodworking.  Joints were cut directly into the wood, and needed to fit together perfectly.  This looser type of connection functioned as a kind of shock absorber during the country’s frequent earthquakes.  An ethos evolved of “not hurting” the wood, and carpenters were expected to repay their debt to nature by performing their work “quickly, skillfully and without waste.”[1]

Japanese buildings were characterized by post-and-beam construction, a central timber pillar (symbolizing the rituals of tree worship), and timber brackets (which made possible their deep eaves).  Other features evolved in response to particular concerns.  For example, the raised floor (yuka) kept wood away from the earth’s moisture, and permitted the air flow that maintained it in good condition.

This evolving “culture of wood” was very different from that of the West.  In Japan, wood’s susceptibility to fire, moisture and extremes of weather was embraced – as was the notion of transience (setsuna).  Buildings that were destroyed were rebuilt.  In particular, the ritual rebuilding of the Ise Shrine every 20 years has continued for well over a thousand years.

Although softwoods are used for construction in the West, they are even more important in Japan – and include hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa, known as hinoki), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, known as sugi) and Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora, known as akamatsu).

Even the hand tools developed in Japan are different from their Western counterparts.  Japanese tools, including saws (nokogiri), are used largely on the pull stroke -- unlike European saws that cut on the push stroke.  Nokogiri have thinner blades that cut more efficiently, leave a narrower cut width (kerf), and result in “delicate, precise cuts.”[2]  In addition, they require different body mechanics.  Using push-stroke tools requires putting one’s body weight behind the stroke.  Pull-stroke tools require movements that are more refined – more like the movements of martial arts practitioners.

“Japanese woodworkers traditionally worked on the floor, and pulling tools were preferred as it allowed the maker to generate more power from a seated position…  The pull-stroke is one of the key differences between Western and Japanese woodworking.  It is all-encompassing in its ramifications – in the anatomy of the tools, in how the tools are used and experienced, in what kind and size of wood can be processed, and in what information is fed back to the maker during use…  the pull-stroke allows for more control, offers increased accuracy, requires less effort, and provides more nuanced feedback.”[3]

Japanese woodworking involves a close connection between maker and material.  The carpenter or artisan works withnature, instead of usingnature, and the tools used make it possible to work with alight touch.  The buildings and objects created are spare of form – and the beauty of their materials is revealed, rather than hidden.[4]

Fallen on the roof
Fallen on the roof

The teahouse in our Seattle Japanese Garden was built by Japanese artisans using traditional techniques, and embodies this quintessential restraint.  With its rustic simplicity and the green tranquility of its enclosed garden – the teahouse is, for me, the spiritual center of our garden.  The original structure, built in Japan and reassembled here, was destroyed by fire in 1973.  It was rebuilt eight years later, using traditional methods and materials, and named Shoseian, or “Arbor of Murmuring Pines”.  The fire was arson, and its destruction a tragedy.  Ironically, however, the teahouse’s destruction and rebuilding place it definitively within the unique Japanese tradition of revering wood -- and embracing its transience.

[1] Azby Brown, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, 2013.

[2] Toshio Odate, Japanese Woodworking Tools:  Their Tradition, Spirit and Use, 1984.

[3] Hugh Miller, “Japanese Wood Carpentry,” a study posted on his website, hughmillerfurniture.co.uk, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.