by Jay van Arsdale (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol 8, September 2017)

When Makoto Imai came to the the early 1970’s, he brought with him the extensive training he had received in Japan. When he arrived, he was part of a crew that was reconstructing a meditation hall in Northern California.

He had started his carpentry training in the Gifu Prefecture/Takayama area as a high school student working on the early morning crew. After a few successful years, the moved down the river to Kyoto area where he completed training in the Ura Senke tea construction tradition.

This is one of the most highly skilled building crafts in Japan even today. This training involves study of all aspects of tea aesthetics, history and styles, and intricate expertise in working natural materials. He then spent a few years working on temple/ shrine construction. Very unusual for some one to focus on more than one discipline and skill set.

After his initial trip to California and the enthusiasm and interest he felt from those who gathered to watch the crew work, he returned to the Berkeley area with his wife, Shoko, and 6 month old son. He found some commission work around the Bay Area and spent time working on the Tea House at Green Gulch Zen Center on Marin Coast.

During his early time in Berkeley, his skills and personality drew interest among a few willing followers. It was at this time I became aware of him and his work. I saw a small flyer some where about a Japanese tea house Carpenter giving a demo at a small wood/tool shop in Berkeley on 4th Street. I made a point to check this guy out and what is a tea house carpenter/ Japanese carpentry all about anyway?…I knew nothing about this craft, but after watching him work for 5 minutes, I knew I had found something that I wanted to find out more about.

He stood humbly before the 4-5 of us sitting impatiently for him to start-he looked like he wanted to tell us something but since he spoke no English at the time, he knew it was pointless… he just picked up his tools and started to work. We watched the grace of his actions, the economy of his working, the quiet calmness of his strokes seemed effortless.

This situation of no language/non verbal transmission is a cherished aspect of those early days when we couldn’t ‘ask’ ignorant questions. Now every body goes for the answer right away – like our modern educational model promotes. Just being able to ‘watch’ in quietness made paying attention more acute each time I got to watch him work at Japan Woodworker in Alameda, and Hida Tools in Berkeley. When I went home and tried to duplicate what and how he worked, I often felt embarrassed on how much I had obviously missed, or failed to recognize some small point overlooked that later managed its way into my efforts. He is the sole inspiration for me and all the work I have been able to learn and share since then.

Imai-san has trained many present day daiku here in the U.S., and the later renditions of his work, attitude, and enthusiasm several generations removed are here still working from his passed on inspiration. I have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and get to know more skilled craftsmen from Japan in my career. I have always felt more was taken from them than what I was able to give back. As I told them one time, ‘mostly what we have to offer you is our raw enthusiasm and the willingness to learn with a more open mind.’

It’s been some 40 years now passed. Makoto’s and others’ influence and inspiration is what has brought us here today. We inherited a strong foundation and are readily building on it for the future from here. As we work together, then part on our own ways, let us remember more of our own culture seen thru fresh eyes.


Photo of Jay van Arsdale demonstrating woodworking techniques

Photo of Jay by JP Li