A Craftsperson’s Path—The Bigger Picture

by Emily Reynolds (adapted from The Wooden Post Vol. 7 – June 2017)

A Craftsperson's PathHow many of us are feeling a nostalgia for the land? By land, I mean the stuff we walk or roll over, often separated by a hard layer of asphalt or concrete. That somewhere far away produces our food, our water, produces the stuff that produces our breath. The source of our life. Is that one thing we at Kezurou-kai are after, easing up that yearning? My perception that this is so, and that there are billions of people who feel the same way whether they are putting it to words or not, has been persistent. It seems that we, as craftspeople creating shelters, are aiming to satisfy our human need to stay close to the land, as deeply embedded in our physiology as our need to breathe. More and more of us around the world are drawn to lend our attention to the task of fulfilling this need, our enthusiasm feeding off of one another.

When earthen plasters are a common choice in the US and beyond for conventional wall finishes, we will be closer to the land. Observable phenomenon: whosoever enters an earthen wall atmosphere experiences indescribable relaxation to one degree or another. A relaxed person naturally interacts in a kinder, more effective fashion than were they not relaxed. Logic would have it, then, that the effects of the earthen wall reverberate beyond its space. Once the benefits of a thin earthen finish are realized, perhaps people will recognize they have a choice to go deeper, go thicker with this great stuff commonly referred to as mud.

More than any other country in the world, Japan’s traditional way of building, with over a thousand years of history and development, looks conventional. A craft perfected hundreds of years ago still today is considered top-notch, not only within its own culture, but on a global scale. This most definitely includes the plaster work. While the joinery typically gets well-deserved glory, the quiet embrace of the walls create a large bulk of the atmosphere of these spaces. It is this atmosphere that man, woman and child deserve to have easy access to once again. We have so much to learn from the professional earth plasterers of Japan as we scale up working with minimally processed natural materials, and work to make these materials a normal presence in the conventional building industry.

The building industry is listening to the people. New prestigious programs keep developing, which use carbon footprint to calculate how reasonably built a structure is. Maybe it is because the Internet connects us with people that feel the same way we do, but it seems that the circle of people seeking what is being referred to as “better buildings” is growing at every social level. The demand is only growing, and so must the supply.

I am now fully accepted and immersed in a conventionally and traditionally male occupation, in a land where 100% of the people I work with are of the opposite sex. “You have to be really strong, isn’t it hard?” my coworker’s wife asked me soon after my arrival last year. “Yes, but there’s no other option if I want to learn this stuff.” So, as they like to say in the local dialect, shyaanai, that’s just the way it is. Also I am Caucasian, while everyone else is, well, Japanese. I ignore the challenges that this presents, because paying them mind does not serve the goal. I believe that one way to feed the growing demand for better buildings is to help foster a professional workforce familiar with using earth for plasters. So I have to be here training, to see how far I can share this training with others. Shyaanai.

My upbringing began in Japan. I am from Japan, and then the US. I have the language to communicate and engage with the plastering tradition, the drive to learn as much as I can, and the need to share it as far and wide as possible. Undoubtedly, my drive is led and nurtured by an expanding population that is also dreaming the dream of a vibrant future, and taking action to create it. Thanks Kez people.


“Now that we have Toya, you two are in the same bracket. I need you to be in the next level, otherwise there’s not enough work for both of you.”

I had been teased about becoming “Emiri-neisan” (older-sister Emily) as soon as my boss lchiro (my retired oyakata’s son) decided to hire on a young boy last year. Toya, at the time, had yet to graduate high school. The crew met him when he arrived this past April. I am getting to witness this young thing step into his first job. He chose to become a sakan (plasterer) because his father is a daiku in northern Kyoto prefecture, who also plasters. When he helped his father during the sakan phase of is work, he found it quite enjoyable, and thought he would make a go of it as a career. Friends tell him joining the work force directly after high school is the hardest, and they are probably right. Poor guy has to get up on his own and out the door to meet the crew by 6:45am. It’s not a schedule he’s ever had to hold, day after day on his own. It appears, though, people are telling him enough stories about Shikkui Asahara that he feels the same good fortune I do about getting on this crew.

After work one day late April, I helped him set up his practice area at our warehouse, and learned he had no idea how to use a hawk and trowel. It was not coming naturally. Two of our experienced coworkers returned to the warehouse before heading home, and stayed with us for over an hour to watch and give advice. Kotaro is well-admired by sakan around the country, with over 20 years experience, in his mid-40’s. Maru is in his early 30’s, but has been on this crew for 12 years. He is the “least experienced” of the experienced people on our small 5-person crew, so typically I am under his wing. I get guidance and orders from Kotaro and lchiro as well, but typically it is Maru that I go to for instruction.

From April 2016 through March 2017, I was an “unofficial” crew member — a visa-status thing which is fixed now, so I’m official. Despite being unable to join the crew on site half the time last year, by this point I am expected to have wings enough for Toya to fall under mine. That way, Maru can get on with more pressing matters while I guide Toya to learn the basics. This includes forming habits in him to take care of others’ needs so we can perform our tasks. How’s everyone’s plaster and cleaning-water buckets looking, do any need filling/exchanging? Make sure you consolidate material that’s here and take an empty bucket to fill. Here’s how to lump various movements together so you’re not wasting time moving needlessly within your task. Use your tool like this so the work goes faster (adding the appeal “and you don’t get tired so quickly.”)

When lchiro said Toya and I were in the same bracket, my mind thought “but he can’t even get plaster from a hawk to a trowel…” And yet lchiro is absolutely right. I haven’t quite got what it requires yet to make a good nakanuri every time, under every circumstance. This is the skill that lchiro needs me to unquestionably have. Nakanuri is the earthen layer that comes before the finish. It is made of fairly fine clay/silt, sifted sand, and rice straw chopped between 1-3cm. The proportions or the material, and the size or each ingredient, depends on the setting (what kind of wall is it? sukiya residence? tea house? garden perimeter? temple?), the substrate (earth? cement? gypsum board?) and it’s conditions (how much plaster needs to be applied to reach the needed plane?). Of course the amount of water added will depend on how much moisture is already present in the other materials, and the weather. It’s a feel, rather than a recipe.

A Craftsperson's Path Plaster WallAll this must be thoroughly known before it can be shown. I was given an opportunity in late March that helped me painfully understand how much I have yet to figure out. I was notified that morning that I would be removing old earth plaster to a particular level – something I had never done before – and then plastering the nakanuri using finer sand, which I had never used before, which means applying a thinner nakanuri application than I had ever done before. To top it off, this genkan, entry way wall was slightly larger than anything I had ever plastered on site. I had some experience then in plaster removal, but never like this. Here, I needed to wet down the wall so as not to produce dust, and scrape off the extant earth plaster evenly so that when I applied the new layer it would be equal to the plane of the old finished wall. I failed at this, as my scraper dug in more in some places than others. Multiple times I lost my sense of level within areas of the large wall.

While on previous job sites mixing nakanuri-tsuchi (nakanuri-earth/plaster), I’ve always had other crew members check out my mix. I’ve relied heavily on their experience and approval. I’ve also always used sand that is sifted to a 50% larger grade than the sand being used for this mix on this thin application of this sub-temple building’s wall. Even the mixer I used this time was a heavy-duty drill, rather than the kuwa (hoe) that I typically use. So many new aspects, but nothing truly unfamiliar. And yet, I did not get it right.

Since April 2017, my visa status has changed so that I can legally do part-time work, get paid, and get on workers accident insurance, which allows me on all job sites. Strangely, becoming a university research exchange student is my most direct route to getting sakan training. I spend two days a week doing research, which is truly another exciting opportunity I am thankful for. But most of all, four days a week, I am grateful to be immersed and guided through work on every kind of job. The amount of learning every day is mind-boggling. I already know what I would do differently now in the failed situation described above. I have done a lot of scraping of earthen walls. And though I don’t have full days to practice, after returning home, or on Sundays, I can go to the warehouse and work on shaking off all the bad habits I’ve accumulated. I did not know how much I was doing wrong when I was the only one in the room. Each day on site now, I am endowed with information that makes me a better plasterer, and I hope a better crew member. I would not have thought it possible, but I was holding my trowel wrong all these years – all these 10 years. Now that I know how to hold it correctly, stabilizing the trowel by firmly holding the “neck” between the middle and pointer finger, not putting pressure on the thumb or gripping the handle with my palm, I’m eager to make that next bracket lchiro spoke of, and effortlessly achieve that nakanuri. I’m closer.

A Craftsperson's Path Plaster DetailI only have through June 2018 on my current Visa. I’ve got to step soundly into my role of being Toya’s neisan. Schedules are tough – work starts at 6:45am (for me, Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays). On the days that I do research my plate is overflowing. There are so many people to meet and build ties with, question and collaborate with. Building codes around the world could benefit from the research that has already been done on Japan’s form of earthen wall system. Collecting, identifying, and translating the ones that are most useful is time-consuming. There is still much about earthen walls’ capabilities to confirm through research, which is exciting to formulate. I’ve met a professor willing to collaborate, to scientifically prove what it is exactly that makes an earthen plastered space feel so good to our bodies and minds.

Yarukoto ippai arune, Emiri-san” so much to do Emily-san, my ani (older brother) Maru joshes whenever I start spouting off about yet another interesting thing that has popped up.

Priority number one? Keep growing my kote-dako, the necessary troweI-callus, big, on the pointer-finger side of my middle finger. The knuckle calluses are getting bigger too. Stealing glances at my anis‘ hands pumps me up to keep working at it.