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Slow Beauty of Traditional Japan Carpentry

Japan’s traditional buildings are made with respect for nature, natural materials, traditions, and culture. This article focuses on the traditional Japanese building philosophies of head carpenter Jon Stollenmeyer of Somakosha who is based in Okayama, Japan.

Modern Japanese carpenters like Jon use traditional techniques, but also add features of comfort and efficiency to reduce costs and quality of a modern home. For example, the Somakosha remodels and new builds add insulation, efficient windows, modern toilets, open kitchens and glorious bathrooms inside an aesthetically traditional Japanese house.

I was surprised to see the natural curve of the wooden roof and floor beams with some of the branches knots still in them. Jon said it’s difficult to get wood with this natural design as most is cut in standard flat shapes.

It surprised me that even for the flat cut pieces of wood, they needed to be prepared by shaving it with a wood block plane- which I found completely mesmerizing to watch as the aroma of the wood fills the air and the woodshavings fly up like party streamers.

It’s the puzzle-piece-like joinery that most customers and homeowners never see that is one of the most fascinating aspects of traditional Japanese buildings. There is no need for nails if using this technique and actually allows for disassembly, without destroying the wood.

It was wonderfully generous of Jon to spend so much time with us when we visited, a chance to get to know the man as well as the carpenter. He is a deep thinker with a generous spirit who told us stories of his childhood and a mom who would take in anyone in need. Jon started a long love affair with carpentry in the US and earned his first apprenticeship with a wooden boatmaker by cutting all the wood in his shed and sleeping in a hunters shelter every day for a week. The carpenter came back surprised and impressed by his crazy dedication, offering to take him on as an apprentice. Jon first came to Japan to seek out the Japanese carpentry techniques he had read about for many years.

Jon had an interesting start to a career in carpentry that started in a Kyoto tea ceremony school which led to getting introductions to a local carpenter who took him on as an apprentice. Jon retells how difficult this training period was and although he learned a huge amount during the process, he often ended the day supporting and offering counsel to many of the young apprentices who were berated all day for their work and not sure if it was worth continuing.

This tough style is typical of a master-apprentice relationship in Japan, but it was a lot to put up with on a daily basis after working so hard.

Jon respected the traditions, but had a different philosophy of how he wanted to train apprentices and work as a head carpenter on projects in the future, so started looking for other opportunities. He got the blessing of the master he originally worked for and started working with a carpenter he respected in Okayama and they founded the Somakosha building company together.

Jon told me that one of the most essential skills of a good head carpenter is people-skills- I didn’t expect this, but it makes perfect sense. The ability to communicate not only to the customer, but also to the other builders and specialists who need to come in and play their part at the right time on a building project.

I ask how the communication is going with the current client on the project? He laughs and says building for himself is a very different kind of project, going ahead quickly without the detailed 3D plans and charts he usually makes for customers. We arrived late in the afternoon and the crew had already been working on sections of the roofing since first light. They seem in good spirits, despite the long hours of steady work, they all have a quiet-calm as they go about their work.

It was interesting to watch the carpenters adjust the blade in a block with a little hammer – tap-tap-tap – as they look down into the block. Then checking the wood, finding the right angle and positioning, then gliding the block down in a steady pull to plane wood looked so satisfying.

The smell of the high-quality hinoki or sugi filling the air as long thin lines of wood shavings float up in the air like party streamers.

Covid has been a slow time for building projects, but a perfect time to buy and start work on Jon’s own home. Somakosha has a few big projects starting up this year in Japan as well as in the US and UK, so he is hoping to get some basic work done in the next few weeks before rainy season comes and he has to start planning for the big upcoming projects.

I found it interesting to hear that he didn’t do any of the detailed planning and 3D diagrams of his own home that he normally spends a lot of time creating for clients. It sounds like he just works on the most essential things that need to be done and he has a plan in the back of his mind for how things will come together.

Jon is a very patient customer and his own house is a long-term passion-project side-hustle that he expects won’t be ready for them to move into until next year. Once completed, his home will work as a showroom he can give tours of to potential clients as well as be a comfortable home for his family.

I can’t wait to visit again in a few months and see the progress they have made. I look forward to learning more about the process – Jon’s love of traditional carpentry and remodeling and restoring Japanese homes is so inspiring.

Many of the interviews in the SeekingSustainabilityLive series have focused on the beauty, traditions and functions of traditional design as well as the innovation and creativity of remodeling and restoring old homes. The playlist of rebuild, remodel old Japanese Akiya (abandoned) homes has all the videos from this category.

You can find all the podcasts in this category below:

Jon Stollenmeyer is head carpenter + co-owner of Somakosha Building Company