Returning to Japan for a traditional plaster apprenticeship

by Emily Reynolds  (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 2, October 2016)

In 2003, I learned something that changed my life. The walls of all the castles and temples I had visited as a child in Japan, the land of my birth, were made of mud. I was stunned. These quiet walls, surrounded by phenomenal joinery and sliding doors and displaying every shadow true to its origin, are made of mud? But they look conventional (like plaster).

Returning to Japan for a traditional plaster apprenticeship

A man in his 50s, who came from generations of plasterers in Toyama where I taught English at the time, explained a few things about the nature of earthen plasters – a matter of course to him – that made my jaw drop. From that point, I knew I couldn’t leave Japan until I learned more about sakan, the earthen plastering craft of traditional Japan.

In 2006, I changed from teaching English to pursuing this mission. It took nearly a year, but I finally came upon the only place in Japan where a student could learn the art of working with earthen materials, day in and day out. This was the Kyoto Plasterer Guild Academy (Kyoto-fu Sakan Ginou Senshu Gakuin), where they offered a six-month course, five days a week, 9-5, to train people on how to use a hawk and a trowel to produce an absolutely flat earthen surface over a wood panel substrate. (Note: This course is no longer available, as not enough students sign up for it, and they have lost government subsidies.)

To my great good fortune, there I met Asahara Yuzo, of Shikkui Asahara, the man I would approach in October of 2007 to request apprenticeship. My academy training had taught me “how to plaster,” but I still knew nothing about the basics of making a fully earthen wall that would actually have integrity. I could not return to the US claiming to know anything. After consulting with his wife (!) Master Asahara accepted me, and I became the baby apprentice in an outfit with 4 other apprentices.

I feel so fortunate. Less than a handful of plaster companies are able to support their crew using solely traditional tools, methods and materials, and Shikkui Asahara is one of them. Sadly, I was unable to stay in my apprenticeship past three months (visa issues). However, I learned more in those three months than in any other three months of my life before or since.

Eight years later, I am on my way back to Shikkui Asahara. Although I wrote a book and have a certain understanding of the craft of sakan, my abilities are a goodly cry from masterful. The craft is fathomless. If I am to share it, I need to know it. Most of the knowledge gained from Japanese craft apprenticeships, which take five to ten years to complete, comes from anmokuchi, something like “osmosis.”

So with great excitement, I am returning to my oyakata, my Japanese master. Finally, once again, I will be a baby apprentice. Though I will be there for only two years, I will work hard to pack in five years of experience. As I train, I will share technical aspects of my experience online, while I share aspects about the apprenticeship in this publication. Shikkui Asahara worksites are often National Treasures of Japan and World Heritage Sites, and private residences of those with means and minds to preserve Japan’s beautiful architectural tradition.

So I will be taking care in my movements to be delicate and clean while I deliver buckets of mud to the skilled sakan that deftly apply it with precision onto latticed frameworks crafted of bamboo. I will apologize to daiku and yanefuki for passing through their workstations, careful not to knock anything with my buckets heavy with mud. I will “awatenaide” (not rush) while being conscientious to “cha!-cha!-tto suru” (be quick).

As I prepare to return to Japan, I am so happy to know of the worldwide network of woodworkers who share a love of the spirit that is present in Japanese craftsmanship. More than anything, it is this spirit, this approach to the material, and the work, that I hope to absorb and share with my earthen plastering friends outside of Japan.