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Sophisticated arts flourished in mid-15th century Japan, including sado (tea ceremony), noh (masked stage performance), kado (flower arrangement), and aesthetic interest in yugen-no-bi (subtle profound beauty) and wabi-sabi (quiet simplicity and restrained refinement). These led to tearoom carpentry and refined tearoom sukiya-zukuri (sukiya-style) architecture.
This wooden building style called suki (elegant taste) eliminates showy decoration while pursuing aesthetic refinement attuned to the sensibilities of those in the building. Subtle interplay of elements — such as rays of light, shades of wood materials, and woodgrain appearance — is all deliberately planned. Master builders of sukiya architecture are called sukiya-daiku.
Contemporary sukiya architecture can be found in ryotei (old-fashioned Japanese restaurants) and premium-class ryokan (Japanese-style hotels). Shiro Masuda, sukiya-daiku of renowned modern sukiya architecture, has built the iconic traditional Shuhinshitsu Zashiki (Main Room for Guests of Honor) at Kyoto Geihinkan and the tearoom at Ise Jingu shrine.
Mr. Masuda regards wood as the most important element in sukiya building. He says, “The first wood materials we choose are for pillars, and their thickness and size depends on the scale of the room to be built. We search for the most beautiful wood pattern, which we call ‘the face of the wood.’ In fact, each split log has a front and back side. One surface of a finished log (observed from the outer surface of the tree) is called ki-omote (wood front). Another surface of this finished log (virtually observed from the center of the tree) is called ki-ura (wood back). When judging the direction of straight grain, we observe ki-ura, but the woodgrain pattern of ki-omote appears clearer and more beautiful.
“Therefore, we always take into account ki-omote when building the room so beautiful sides of the wood are visible to the main guests in the best seats in a room. The primary role of the sukiya-daiku is to bring out the utmost beauty of the wood, and the appeal of sukiya comes from this effort.”

Sukiya-daiku are described as artisans who embody the Japanese sense of aesthetics and display these values through the natural material of wood. Many young sukiya-daiku candidates who seek to master this traditional culture are trained in the builder’s firm to which Mr. Masuda belongs. Here, they learn how to design and build. “Turn your hands into tools as keen as knife blades,” he tells them in his first lesson.
“Techniques should be learned by watching and imitating how your senior artisans handle their work. In the future, I want to pass down my tools to young individuals who show good skills. In fact, the tools I use are memories of my senior artisans. Seniors like me have to pay attention to the work of young carpenters and leave some responsibility to them when they show good performance in a certain process. That’s how I learned my work, too,” says Mr. Masuda.
He continues, “When I was young, I planed a wood pillar and found that its sheen emerged on the surface. As I felt its smoothness with satisfaction, my master came up to me and touched the wood in silence — which meant our work was ‘qualified.’ I never forget this thrilling moment.”
This is how centuries-old sukiya aesthetics and architectural techniques have been passed down by master carpenters to apprentices, from past to present.
When Mr. Masuda entered the circle of carpenters as an apprentice, his senior carpenter taught him goitassha, a phrase from the Edo period. This refers to proficiency in five technical skills needed to be a master builder who leads the team: shikishaku (evaluating wood parts); sumigane (judging assignment of wood materials); teshigoto (handiwork such as wood planing and scraping); sanjutsu (crucial calculations for assembly and construction); and eyo (ability to design interior space and draw sketches) and horimono (techniques for chiseling and scraping to turn sketches into forms).
Mr. Masuda adds, “Today we are equipped with calculators and lumber-processing machines, so we can work much more easily than carpenters in olden times. But I still cannot call myself goitassha. My life will be a series of repeated efforts to learn and take challenges. Following what I believe is my way of life and probably is the way of life for all carpenters.”

[photo]Shiro Masuda

Shiro Masuda

Born in 1951 in Kyoto. At age 15, he became a student of a famous carpenter of sukiya architecture, Sotoji Nakamura. Ever since, Mr. Masuda has been a member of the Sotoji Nakamura Komuten (design-and-build office), leading to the culmination of his career as sukiya-daiku — a builder of traditional Japanese architecture. When only age 26, he became chief carpenter in charge of building a tearoom. Mr. Masuda handled tearoom roof building at Ise Jingu shrine and Wakayama Castle. As a chief carpenter, he has managed architectural building at a number of luxurious Japanese hotels and restaurants all over Japan, including Shuhinshitsu Zashiki (the Main Room for Guests of Honor) at Kyoto Geihinkan. In 2014 he was recognized as Gendai no Meiko — the Contemporary Master Craftsman.