Saturday, April 25, 2009

Making Higo and Mutsume-ami

The last two weeks of training have progressed at such a quick and tiring pace I haven't gotten around to posting much of what we've been doing. I need to find an easier way in my now-busy schedule to write posts. We're also not allowed to bring cellphones or cameras into the shop except during lunch, so as much as I want to show pictures of class or training in action, I can't. From here on out, photos of my training will generally be limited to stills of the objects we're working with or making.

Anyone familiar with bamboo baskets knows how important strips of bamboo--called "higo" (ひご、籤) in Japanese--are in their making. To sum up a technically long and sensitive process, almost all of our training since its commencement has been spent on the practice of making higo by splitting, stripping (warihagi, 割り剥ぎ) and shaving complete "tubes" of bamboo. Specifically, we've been processing yellowish, dried, Oita-grown madake bamboo into higo strips with an intended dimension of 5mm wide by 0.6 mm thick. ("Intended" because any one of my higo right now tend to range between .5 to .65 mm thick from end to end. That doesn't sound like much but a few hundredths of a millimeter has a considerable effect on a higo's flexibility and on how weavable it is. Acquiring the ability to make countless higo each with the same thickness throughout is the first step to becoming a bamboo basket maker and one that is said to take three years.) We started with bamboo without joints, because processing bamboo with joints poses a difficult and potentially dangerous hurdle for beginners. This past week we went through the same lengthy process but with longer bamboo with joints.

On Thursday and Friday we started practicing our first plaiting: mutsume ami (六つ目編み), a relatively simple hexagonal weave. In this photo, the bamboo's skin-side faces the camera. You can see the joints as dark marks that spread out radially from the center in a zigzag fashion. You can imagine in the process of weaving these higo together that if they were too thick it would be difficult to press them together into smaller hexagonal shapes (each higo bends up and down like a wave to pass through the other higo). In fact, I had difficulty shrinking the hexagonal openings to the goal width of 10mm because the higo were too thick at the joints; I had to go back and thin them by scraping out the back side with a knife.

This webpage shows step by step how to put together a mutzume-ami plaiting, in this case the end product being a pot holder.

Next week we're scheduled to process bamboo into even longer strips that include two joints and also start our first basket project, supposedly one that involves the mutsume ami plaiting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


 竹工芸の訓練は今日の時点で一週間半の時間を経過して、これまでにひご作りのほぼすべての工程を少なくとも一度ぐらいは練習しているところ。入校式はもう昔のものという感じがするが、せっかく入校して初めての日本語でのポストなので、その大分合同新聞の記事をここに載せよう。 入校式の日と翌日には書類を提出したり、竹センターの規則や今後一年間のスケジュールについての説明を聴いたり、ロッカーの鍵や道具などの貸与に時間が費やされた。それから、道具の用途と取り扱い方とか、マダケの構造、刃物の研ぎ方、などなど、レクチャーの内容は少しずつ実際の竹材の加工へと変わっていった。



Monday, April 13, 2009

Update: Start of School and Recent Activities

After all the waiting, training finally started. On Wednesday, April 8th, the Oita Bamboo Craft Training and Support Center had it's annual opening ceremony for incoming trainees--20 in the bamboo crafts department and 29 in the nursing department (a separate occupational training program that uses the same facilities but has nothing to do with bamboo). At the ceremony, which only lasted about 45 minutes, we first sang the Japanese national anthem (I don't know it by heart so I kept silent while everyone else sang, albeit quietly, around me), then heard speeches from a string of important people: first from Shigeru Tamura, director of the Center, then from proxy speakers for Katsusada Hirose, governor of Oita prefecture, and Hiroshi Hamada, mayor of Beppu city, and then from a member of the prefectural assembly, the president of the Beppu Bamboo Products Union, and two others special guests whose positions I can't seem to remember. At the end of the ceremony, one of the bamboo trainees stood in front of the director and recited a speech promising on behalf of all the trainees our dedication to the year of work that lied ahead.

The following few hours and the following day were spent prodominantly on going over the rules of the school and the trainees' responsibilities, filling out and submitting paperwork, receiving our work clothes and locker keys and testbooks, and listening to lectures about how our daily schedule will run, among other things. By the time Friday rolled around, we were finally getting into the meat of things. We were each given ("loaned", to be precise) a box of tools--filled with a large variety of very sharp blades for cutting bamboo--and assigned cubbies to put these and other tools in. We listened to lectures on the names of our tools and a brief description of their uses, as well as an amazingly thorough explanation of the structure of madake bamboo.

Madake bamboo (pronounced "mah-DAH-kay"), by the way, is a very popular variety of bamboo used in making crafts and other bamboo art; Oita prefecture is the largest producer of madake, so, on a per-volume scale, it's very cheap compared with other materials. On Friday, we trainees propped 60 6-meter-long madake bamboo trunks outside to dry for the next week or two. Six of these trunks (for lack of a better word) together costs...wait for it...3,045 yen, or approximately 30 US dollars, which is surprising considering how much six of them weigh together. When they finish drying we'll cut them into more manageble lengths with our handsaws and then begin the process of shaping them into flexible strips to be used in baskets--a process I'm not directly familiar with yet and about which I'll describe in greater detail later.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ono Takashi Radio Show (English Translation)

I finally finished transcribing and translating into English the Ono Takashi radio show recording. I was hoping to make the audio available too for Japanese readers and any English-speaking readers who just want to hear what the show was like, but I'm having trouble finding a free host for such a large audio file. I'll keep working on it, but for now here's the English version. I edited the audio file, transcribed it to Japanese and translated it into easy-to-read English, so it's a simplified verson from the actual show, and not a perfect one-to-one match with the Japanese, but hopefully it's understandable and interesting. Here it is:

Takashi Ono: This week we bring you another charming guest. This is “Coca-Cola Presents: Ono Takashi Fun Fan Time,” I am your host, Takashi Ono. Please send us a message. This week's guest is here on the show for the fourth time; last time was in June of 2008. Here he is. Please introduce yourself.

Stephen: Hello. It's Stephen.

O: Haha. You’re very natural by now. How are things lately? How’s your health?

S: Haven’t caught any colds. I’m doing well.

O: When you came last year in June if seemed to me like you were still a young boy, but now you come sporting a beard and all. You know, I don’t often think of people with beards as being very sexy, but I saw you and thought, wow that’s sexy. So what do other people around you think?

S: Well, not really, they say “what an artist” and stuff like that. It’s my first time being called “sexy.”

O: Oh, your first time?! Really…

S: I’m flattered.

O: No, really, it looks good. Well then, we welcome today for the fourth time Stephen Jensen. He’s working now as a translator. Last time you came we introduced you to our audience as a Coordinator for International Relations, but your contract as a CIR ended. When did it end?

S: August, last year.

O: I see. In April, Stephen will start studying bamboo crafts. So what brought you to this…what was it…the Bamboo Craft and Training Support Center?

S: Well, the first connection came last year when, from October to November, students from Malaysia came to the Center and I worked to help with interpreting. So, during that job I watched them splitting and stripping bamboo and weaving it. I knew about bamboo crafts before, that there was such a thing [here in Oita]. But seeing it with my own eyes, I thought, wow, I’d really like to try this myself.

O: I see. So it set fire to your artistic instincts.

S: Haha, yeah.

O: So, last year in October two students from Malaysia came to this Bamboo Craft Training and Support Center, and you took care of them by interpreting for them. Then you thought you wanted to try it out for yourself. We heard from you a moment ago that you passed the screening process for the Training Support Center. Is there a test for this school?

S: Yes, there is. I first submitted my application in January. Then there was a screening examination in February. So I took that and one week later the results were out.

O: Oh, so the results are out already.

S: Well, to each of the examinees, yes.

O: On this screening examination, what kinds are things are tested?

S: There were different parts. It took maybe not a full day—about half a day. There was an academic test and then a technical test.

O: What was the academic test like?

S: With the academic test first came math problems, then…

O: Math?

S: Yes, math.

O: Is math even required? I wonder.

S: Well, yeah, if you take a look, um…

O: Today, Stephen brought a book on bamboo crafts for us to look at.

S: It’s pretty geometric, you know?

O: Yeah, I guess so. It is spatial after all. What’s the right word…calculation, or shapes. It’s all about shapes isn’t it?—looking at shapes.

S: Yeah, and some artists I hear use computers to design their work.

O: And you got a perfect score? With the math?

S: It wasn’t that bad.

O: Oh, okay. Next came the technical test, or you said there was a vocational aptitude test.

S: Right, the vocational aptitude test. That tested how many problems you can solve in about a minute.

O: How did that go? Did you do well?

S: I think so.

O: (laughs)

S: It’s actually harder than it seems.

O: It’s true, when you first take a look at bamboo crafts you think about how amazing they are, but when you look closer at all the details, it’s quite delicate, all those knots. It seems like very meticulous work to me. So you passed the test and will start this April at the Support Center as a student….

S: Uh, trainee, yes.

O: As a trainee you will start a new activity. Bamboo crafts….You say translating for the students from Malaysia was what got you interested in it. What about from the artist’s perspective, what do you think when you see bamboo crafts?

S: It’s fascinating. Let’s see…the part I find most fascinating is, for one, the material.

O: Material.

S: You harvest a plant and then process it and turn it into strips, then you weave it and dye it—it’s a kind of process that’s very interesting to me. At the start you think, I want to make a bamboo art piece that looks like this, so you have to go back to one bamboo tree, one round stick of bamboo, and turn that into certain types of strips, with certain thicknesses and lengths; it’s a process you control all by yourself. I find that interesting.

O: Huh, that makes sense. For us, the way we think, we see it only in terms of gathering your materials and assembling them. But you, Stephen, see the process of making it as starting from the bamboo plant itself, is that right?

S: Yeah, if you don’t start from there…after all, there are all kinds of things that come into play with bamboo: pliability….

O: That’s true. With this type of bamboo you can make this kind of material, but with this bamboo over here you can’t.

S: Right. There are many varieties, and they all have different patterns. Like gomachiku and torachiku bamboo…there’s a lot. Some have spots, and so on.

O: Wow. You’re a trainee, but you’re already talking like a bamboo master! What about Colorado? You’re from Colorado. Do they sell anything like bamboo crafts there?

S: I’ve never seen it.

O: Never seen it! Which means, if you take the skills you learn back with you to Colorado….

S: I’d love to show people more of Japanese culture, certainly.

O: In Colorado.

S: Well, I don’t know about Colorado per se. After going back to America I’d like to help introduce it to American people, if possible.

O: Which means….cha ching! (Makes gestures of packing lots of money into his shirt pockets.)

(Everyone laughs)

S: Perhaps.

O: No no no, you can’t do that. Artists aren’t for money, after all. But seriously, we’re really happy that you can help spread this kind of Japanese culture in America. I mean, it’s quite possible that maybe one day we’ll see “bamboo craftsman, Stephen” in magazines or somewhere in Japan, right? “…Learned bamboo crafts in Beppu.” Hmmm…You said previously that Caitlyn likes to arrange flowers. Once you learn bamboo crafts what would you like to make for her?

S: Definitely a hanakago.

O: What’s a hanakago?

S: Well, it’s a vase—like a vase. There are different kinds. Some are tall and skinny, some shallow….

O: Oh, so what we call a vase is called a hanakago in bamboo crafts, right? Something you put flowers in?

S: That’s what I’ve learned, yeah.

O: Really. Wow. A lot to look forward to. Alongside bamboo crafts, you said you will continue your activities as an artist. One activity here is “Mixed Bathing World,” hosted by BEPPU PROJECT. What is that?

S: Well, it’s a contemporary art festival that’ll be held from April to June. The festival invites artists from abroad to Beppu and has each of them choose a location and make artwork. The artwork is kind of scattered throughout the city, and viewers tour the city looking at artwork. That’s the kind of festival it is. There are also music and dance categories, or events I mean. So it’s going to be a pretty large-scale event.

O: And “Mixed Bathing World,” this will be the title?

S: Yes, that’s the title.

O: I see, so the title of the contemporary art festival is Mixed Bathing World. In other words, internationally renowned artists are brought here and asked to make artwork that can only be made in Beppu, or at a certain location in Beppu, and that artwork is exhibited.

S: Yes, it’s also called “site specific.” “Installation.”

O: And, Stephen, you’ll also be displaying work?

S: No way, I can’t. It’s…they’re all very well-known artists.

O: But Stephen, for us here, we consider you to be a very famous artist. So in what capacity, what role will you…?

S: Well, I’d like to get involved as much as possible in translation and interpreting. And do as much as I can as a volunteer. Last week we hung up posters around Oita city. In between the time I’m painting…oh, but bamboo crafts school will start in April, so pretty soon I’ll be busy.

O: You’ll be very busy. Won’t you lose most of your time to paint?

S: I will.

O: So on weekdays you’ll be a trainee and make bamboo crafts. What about weekends? Paint your pictures?

S: On weekends I’ll paint picture, if possible, and then there is also daily living expenses, like before when I mentioned my school loans. I have to pay back about 400 dollars every month, so I have to earn that money too.

O: Yeah, you were saying before how it’s a “heavy burden” for you. Ah, I see. And, you know, with painting sometimes it takes a serious amount of time to finish just one work. Today you brought for us a photo of one of your paintings. It’s really…how should I say…there’s a part of it that shows your calm, pleasant personality at the same time that we feel something powerful working beneath the surface. The moment I saw it I thought you were depicting outer space, but in fact it’s a pair of morning glories.

S: They are shaped kinda like stars, aren’t they?

O: Yeah, exactly! They spread out like stars.

S: Now that you mention it….

O: And the colors are very nice. We’re also hoping to put this photo on the show’s blog.

S: This painting I actually submitted to the city exhibition. The Oita City Exhibition is going on right now. People are welcome to….

O: Oh, that’s great. If you have a chance, Stephen Jensen’s painting is on display so we hope you go see it. Well, time to wrap this show up has come in the blink of an eye. Please take a look at our blog on the OBS homepage. We’re also attaching a link to the blog of our guest today, Stephen Jensen, so take a look at his blog too. What kinds of things are you writing on your blog?

S: Well, bamboo craft training will start in April. I’ll write about what I’m experiencing on a day-to-day basis as I work with bamboo.

O: Oh, so we can read some of your artistic thoughts as well. You’re writing this in English?

S: I’m writing in both.

O: Oh, both!

S: I want to anyway.

O: I was just thinking it’ll be good English study practice. Please take a look.

S: Please write a comment too. If you have any questions or opinions—I want my readers to say them.

O: (laughs) Yes, please “say” them. Listeners, if you can, go check out Stephen’s blog. Well then, this week we heard from Stephen Jensen. For the show’s end, let’s part with these words. Ready? One, two: See you again! Thank yooouuu.

Saturday, April 11, 2009