Inami wood carvings Inami chokoku
Traditional woodcarvings of wonder and splendor
From carpenters to carvers of celestial beings
Inami Woodcarvings are produced in Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture mainly in the form of transoms, decorative objects, and single-leaf screens. They are usually made of Japanese camphor, paulownia, or zelkova wood, and carved with landscapes, flowers and birds, human figures, animals or dragons. Inami Woodcarvings are distinguished by the exceptional woodcarving skills producing three-dimensional works filled with life and movement. Highly-skilled artisans use over 200 different chisels and knives to carve both sides of a work, a technique known as sukashi-fukabori, which amply demonstrates their superb craftsmanship. For example, in the carving of a transom between rooms, the artisan takes into account the gaze of a person looking up from below, and ensures that the many layers create depth in the work. In addition, these elaborate carving techniques create shadow, giving great expressiveness; when we look at a dragon it is as if at any moment it will fly free, they are truly breath-taking works of art. In recent years, a good many Inami woodcarvers have combined their dragon or lion motifs with the modern electric guitar; Inami Woodcarvings are now known as a traditional craft continuously taking on new challenges. Since 1991, Japan’s largest woodcarving event, the Inami International Wooden Sculpture Camp has been held in Nanto City and regularly invites woodcarvers from 12 countries; through Inami Woodcarving, international exchanges among the global community are also thriving.
“Inami” is the former name of the current Nanto City in Toyama Prefecture and the origins of Inami Woodcarving can be traced back to the mid-Edo period (around 1750s). The area already had a number of highly-skilled carpenters, but woodcarving proper only began when during the rebuilding of the main worship hall at Zuisen-ji Temple in Inami, Maekawa Sanshiro, an official patronage woodcarver of Kyoto Hongan-ji Temple arrived to take up work. Local carpenters, including the renowned Shichizaemon IX, worked under Maekawa and he passed on his carving techniques. In 1792, at Zuisen-ji Temple, Shichizaemon IX relief-carved the “Chrysanthemum Doors” of the Chokushi-mon Gate (the gate for imperial envoys) and the “Shishi no Ko Otoshi” lion posts located to each side; these works are his representative pieces and praised as Japanese woodcarving masterpieces. In the Edo period, carpenters also earned their living from woodcarving; the majority of such work was for temples. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), because of their great skills and artistic abilities, many of them left carpentry to become specialist woodcarvers. The type of work also expanded from temple carvings to decorative transoms in private houses and the like, leading to a much wider appreciation of their work in society. In 1914, Oshima Goun I submitted his “Transom for a Library” to the Expo San Francisco 1915 and won an honorary gold prize. By this period, Inami Woodcarving artisans were training many apprentices and their numbers were significantly increasing. In 1947, a training school was established and the techniques have been passed down to the present day.
General Production Process
- 1. Drawing the Design
Camphor, paulownia, or zelkova timber felled in Japan is selected according to purpose, and as the timber is fresh with a high water content, it is left to dry naturally for 6 to 12 months before cutting to size. The work design is drawn with charcoal on washi (traditional Japanese paper), and then transferred onto the wood. If the design were directly drawn on the wood, the lines would disappear during carving; hence the design is made as a transfer.
- 2. Opening
Based on the transferred design, a fretsaw is used to roughly cut out the open parts.
- 3. Rough Shaping
Fifteen or sixteen different rough shaving chisels and a hammer along with knives are used to shape and create the outline of the work; when the outline is completed, the piece is again naturally dried for about one month.
- 4. Rough Carving
As many as 70 different types of chisels are used to deeply carve the entire design and give more surface shape to the piece. The artisan may use some 200 fine rough carving chisels to bring the image they have in their mind out of the wood. Inami Woodcarving is three-dimensional openwork carved from both sides; therefore, rough and fine carving is repeated on the reverse side as well. The work piece is turned over and the undersurface is reflected in a mirror, and through the fret-sawn openings, the upper surface is carved while checking there is no misalignment between the two sides.
- 5. Finish Carving
Although the basic outline and detailed shapes have now been carved, the surfaces are still rough and uneven and in need of smoothing. No emery paper is ever used; rather several small and large finishing chisels and a small plane smooth and sharpen up the final shape and finer details. After applying any coloring and decoration, the whole piece is thoroughly inspected and any minor adjustments made before completion.