ITS Conference 2019 Japan

ITS Conference 2019 Japan

This year saw Japan host the ITS Conference. We received such a warm welcome, from arriving in the airport in Osaka and throughout our journey and visits to the wonderful island of Honshu. Around the coastal areas the lower flatter land is taken up by housing and industry which in in dramatic contrast to the beautiful mountains and forests which shoot up so quickly at the edges of this suburban landscape. As a result, the Island is peppered with a warren of tunnels to facilitate transport.

The aim of this gathering was to learn about the thatching and culture of Japan. We were taken from the airport by coach to our first destination of the village Shirakawa but before for our arrival we stopped at Gokayama Gassho-zukuri for our first taste of the historic thatching world of Japan. Most of the village was thatched and between the houses, vegetables and rice paddies were under full management. The villagers work very much together and during the autumn months when harvest is taking place. They go up to the mountain sides to cut the miscanthus ready to be dried and stored for thatching the following season. Although this was a museum village it felt very much as though there was a genuine community spirit.

We were split into groups and taken to the hotels and accommodations. These varied from local housing with traditional bamboo floors, hostels and hotels with more of a Western theme. There was little time to waste and after finding our rooms we were taken to dinner and met our hosts and friends of the ITS.

The following morning after breakfast we went our separate ways where partners and those not attending the formal conference meeting went to explore Shirakawa. They were to experience some of the local traditional rituals of a Tea Ceremony and Onsen – bathing in hot spring water.

The thatching delegates were taken by bus to the local school where the formal conference had been arranged. We were welcomed by the school children waving flags and cheering making everyone feel very special. The day’s events were intense with each country giving a presentation of the situation of thatching in their respective areas. The morning’s meeting was to the members of the ITS and covered updates in the research into materials, Fire prevention and thermal conductivity work. After lunch the audience extended to about 450, consisting of local residents and VIP’s from across the country including government ministers.

We were entertained by the school children, who proudly presented song and dance routines of exceptional high quality and it was obvious that all the children from the school and local area took part.

Further presentations were delivered to this audience in the afternoon and this exchange was to show how thatching is carried out in the respective countries.

During the day there were exhibitions from local fire protection companies, thatching supplies and heritage bodies showing what is being done in Japan to help their Thatchers learn and extend their skills.

We were given a very moving presentation from one of the many lady thatchers of Japan who explained the passion needed to become and work as a thatcher, everyone across the audience were in agreement with her ​​sentiments about it being hard work but with great reward.

The afternoon session was wrapped up with a panel of the thatching leaders from each country, receiving questions from the audience and the MC on matters relating to thatching training and the culture of the countries and where they feel the future of thatching lies.

Our hosts, after the meeting allowed us to freshen up in our hotels before being taken to the welcome reception at the Shirakawa Go hotel complex where varieties of fantastic food, Oriental and Western were on offer along with entertainment from local musicians and a display of traditional lion dancing. This went on late into the night.

The following day we were all taken to meet in Shirakawa where we were to be set to work. Split into 2 groups; group one was taken around the historic town of Shirakawa-Go to investigate some of the traditional Gassho buildings and learn about the construction methods used. Many of the houses were farm buildings which housed silkworms, Wada Houses. The silkworms were farmed in the 3 storey attics under the thatch for warmth in the winter and kept cool in the summer months by vents in the gables. The silkworms were fed on Mulberry leaves collected from the mountain sides nearby. In between the houses most of the available space was taken up by Paddy fields for the production of their staple of rice. Occasionally an area was set aside for a cow to graze for milk production and beef. They were within the village because the mountains nearby were far too steep to support this type of essential farming, food production.

The other group were set to work on one of the traditional Gassho houses of the village. The roof of this house had been repaired using traditional construction methods, the rafters are tied on to the structure with Japanese Witch Hazel – Hamamelis japonica. The 20-25mm branches of Witch Hazel had been twisted to relax the fibres within it and then hammered with a mallet to make it pliable enough to use as rope. On to the rafters were crossbeams which had been tied again to the rafters, this time with rice grass ropes.

When we had arrived for this work session the roof had been scaffolded with the eave and gables partially set. A 25mm layer of hemp is laid over the timberwork, giving a practical and neat lining to the roof. Onto this is tied a 200 mm course of rice straw followed by a 250 mm thickness of water reed to give kick before the courses of Miscanthus are thatched. Both sides of the roof would be thatched together under the control of the conductor who wears a red coat and sits on the ridge giving direction to ensure the thatch is even. The thickness of the thatch is around 800 mm and worked in courses which are tied to the cross beams. To ensure a secure fixing the ropes used are hammered by 2 people while the slack is taken up by a third man. The roof is trimmed before the ridge would be set. There wasn’t time to finish the roof but both groups took part thatching and touring the village. The ITS group photos were taken with all sitting on the roof.

It is a tradition that the whole village take part in the thatching, as there is work for all and the aim is to finish the roof in just one day. Those who don’t prepare the roof, materials, labour and thatch ensure refreshments, and lunch is available for all whilst making preparations for the Naori Party to celebrate the day’s work. Traditional food and raw sake were shared throughout the evening to the sounds of music, folk dancing and laughter.

This working together has the name of Yui and is what keeps the community together.

A special visit was arranged for the ITS to visit Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters.

The Temple is closed to the public until 2020 while the restoration of the Hiwadabuki roof is finished. Hiwadabuki is a form of thatching using layers of Japanese cypress hinoki or Cedar bark shingles. The shingles are usually 450 – 600 mm in length, 40 -150 mm in width, and each shingle of 1mm is built up to a thickness of 90 – 120 mm thick. The extension from the overlap of one shingle over another is 10 -20 mm. The shingles are secured with bamboo nails. Along the eave there is a façade of shingles to give the effect of a greater thickness of 250mm. The roof is 2005m2 and whole project will cost 250 billion Yen.

We took part in a thatching workshop at the village of Miyama, another village of Gassho houses where we were shown a variety of traditional tools used for thatching. They closely resembled tools used around the world. The ridging was explained to us and it not only has the same practical purpose as UK ridging, it is also a sign of the wealth of the owner. The frame, Chigi is often made of Chestnut and the Uki Wali – ridge beam is supported by 3,5 or 7 Chigi.

Fire is a real issue in these villages and there is a sprinkler system of water jets installed throughout the historic villages. In the event of a fire the water is turned on and the jets soak the whole village roofs to prevent the fire from spreading to neighbouring buildings and give time for the fire to be tackled. A small new system of tackling fires was demonstrated. This consisted of a high pressure canister of water forced through a hose to give a small high powered jet to hit the heart of the fire. This is very much in the development stages.

Our visit was packed full of interesting visits, events and challenges, yes, the thatching Olympics. All countries took part in the distance and accuracy throwing event. Alas team GB didn’t bring the trophy home. Germany instead had this privilege, although Adam Follon took 1st place with the accuracy. Celebrations took place with a welcome bar-b-cue food and drink led to in depth discussions about stance and technique.

Our final day left no space for rest as we were taken to visit the Takenaka Carpentry Museum in Kobe where we learned about the tools, timbers and techniques used in Japanese construction. A fascinating tour and a chance to see an exhibition of some of their finest hand crafted objets d’art.

We visited the Hakogi Sennen House, the oldest surviving house in Japan before experiencing traditional Kabuki, a cultural performance by strolling players in a rural purpose built theatre.

The Kabuki was a collection of short stories which would have been the way news was conveyed to the people of Japan. The players ware dressed in fantastic colourful costumes and make up to compete with wattle and daub walls. The audience would have their favourite performers and when they had appeared or made an exceptional statement or a mie pose the actor would be a rewarded with Ohineri – coins wrapped in handmade paper, which could have been produced at Gokayama Gassho-zukuri the village of our first visit.

Having gone full circle in our travels both in transport and culture we made our farewells to our friends old and new and especially to our hosts who had worked so hard planning, preparing and letting us see deep into their history of thatching. There were so many helpers throughout the week it was just too much to give gifts to them all but we did bestow a special honour of an NSMT tie to Keio Matsuzawa, the oldest thatcher in Japan who was celebrating 60 years of thatching.

We will all meet again closer to home in 2020 when Holland will host the ITS conference. Until next time…

National Society of Master Thatchers