Saturday, May 30, 2009

大分合同新聞の記事 Article in the Oita Godo Shimbun Newspaper

 This is the article that appeared in the May 17th (Sunday) morning edition of the Oita Godo Shimbun, a local newpaper that covers news in the Oita prefecture area. You can look at the article more closely by clicking on the picture. There is also a copy of the article, including a color photo, on Oita Godo's webpage. A translation of the article is available below.

Prisoner of Bamboo Crafts
Mr. Jensen, former Coordinator for International Relations
First Foreigner at Beppu’s Training Center

Oita Godo Shimbun (Morning Edition), Sunday, May 17, 2009
Former Coordinator for International Relations and American native Stephen Jensen (Jonan Higashi-machi, Oita City) has been studying bamboo crafts at the Oita Prefecture Bamboo Craft and Training Support Center since April. This is the first time a foreigner has been admitted to the Center. He said enthusiastically, “I want to make all kinds of baskets. I need to work hard to get to that level.”

Mr. Jensen came to Oita Prefecture in August, 2006, and worked as an international relations coordinator until last summer. He is also a member of Sodokai, a drawing and painting group in Beppu City. Capturing bamboo as a subject for his paintings, he felt drawn to bamboo since his arrival to Japan, he says.

In October last year, students from Malaysia visited Beppu to study bamboo crafts. While working as an interpreter, Mr. Jensen watched bamboo being weaved from close up, which spurred his desire to come in touch with one of Japan’s traditional arts.

In the United States, “bamboo culture” is virtually nonexistent; it occupies little presence beyond its display as artwork in galleries. “I eventually hope to become a bridge—to help introduce Beppu’s bamboo crafts to Americans and deepen their understanding of it.”

Mr. Jensen will work for one year acquiring the basic techniques and production skills. “The most captivating thing about bamboo is its versatility. I see value in both purely aesthetic and utilitarian baskets. For now, I want to experiment with making different types.”

Trainees are currently working on making higo, the step before weaving when bamboo materials are shaped. It’s the foundation for all bamboo crafts, but keeping thickness consistent has been difficult. “Although, I have the hardest time getting used to sitting in seiza. My legs fall right to sleep.”

Shigeru Tamura, director of the Center, expressed his own expectations. “He’s been working diligently. I hope he’ll become a craftsman and carry on Beppu’s tradition.”

Photo caption: Stephen Jensen, who was admitted to the Center’s Bamboo Crafts Department in April this year. “I want to try making all kinds of baskets,” he says enthusiastically.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

OBSラジオ「朝感」取材の報告 Live interview with OBS radio station


On Thursday morning this week, Yukiko Arakane from OBS (Oita Broadcasting System) radio came to the Center to interview me. Around 9:00, I was called to the director's office for a prelimary discussion, followed by a 4-minute interview that was broadcasted live on OBS radio's Chokan (朝感) show around 9:30. (Chokan, by the way, is a play on words; it's a homophone to 朝刊, meaning "morning edition," but the show's name means "morning feelings" or "morning impressions.") It was a relatively short interview so we couldn't fit much in, but the general flow of questions went like this: what brought me to Oita in the first place, why I applied to the school, what I am struggling with most at school now, what I'll do after I graduate, and whether there are any bamboo crafts in the US. They also put up a picture and a blurb from the interview on their blog. Notice in the photo we're holding the mutsume morikago that we trainees are currently working on (I'm holding the model; Arakane-san is holding one I'm half finished). I'll translate the article for you here:

From America...
Topic Car blog, May 21, 2009 (Thursday)

Stephen, from America, was admitted to the Oita Prefecture Bamboo Craft Training and Support Center (Beppu City). Stephen became interested in bamboo crafts when he saw bamboo material being processed. Learning bamboo crafts is fun, but it's painful sitting on the wooden floor, he says. He spoke energetically about how he wants to continue working in bamboo crafts even after completing the one-year program. We all hope he'll help spread bamboo crafts in America. Everyone, please check out Stephen's blog too.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mutsume Morikago: Part 2

Allow me catch you up on what we've been working on in the last two weeks. After weaving the bottom of the mutsume morikago, we erected the six sides and continued the same weave using four more horizontal higo (called mawashi-higo, 回しヒゴ; meaning "circular higo"), being careful to keep all the holes on each row perfect hexagons. Once the top mawashi-higo was in place we bent all vertical higo located on the outside inward; this secures the top mawashi-higo and finishes the weave. This entire process is done with three relatively thick prong-like pieces (kari-chikara-dake ; 仮力竹; "temporary strength bamboo") inserted in the bottom, used to keep the basket from losing its shape.

From there we moved on to fashioning the parts that would make up the basket's rim. There are three: the outer rim (soto-buchi; 外縁), inner rim (uchi-buchi; 内縁) and a filler piece that fits flushly between the outer and inner rims and hides the end of the higo weaving underneath (masa; 柾) (any one know the technical term for this piece?).

The inner and outer rims we made in the same way as higo, but these were much thicker pieces--2.0 and 2.5 mm--so when it came time to bend them we used what they call a heating jig (himage-jigu, 火曲げ治具). It's basically a tiered, hollow metal tower under whicih a burner is lit. Bamboo apparently bends more easily when it is heated and retains its shape well after it cools, so this seems to be the method of choice for bending thicker bamboo into perfect circles or semi-circles. Our instructor said that back when this contraption wasn't used craftsmen would bend the bamboo around their knee and rub it back and forth to create heat through friction, thus making it more pliable. Still, it would be difficult to bend it into a perfect circle through such a process. I can't imagine how difficult the task was back then. I finished bending all ten of my rims in about 30 minutes.

After molding the rims, the ends of each rim were cut to match the exact circumference of the basket. Next, 7 cm of each end were shaved away so the two ends could overlap each other, forming a closed circle. Both outer and inner rims were adjusted this way, but only the outer rims were glued shut; the outer rim decides the absolute circumference of the basket's rim, while the inner rim is made to expand freely to fit the outer rim. The rims are then clipped temporarily onto the basket so the masa can later be inserted between them.
The masa is fashioned like a higo, but made to be thick so it fills the groove between the two rims. The masa's skin is placed on the outside to match the rims, and it's split down the middle to help make it fit smoothly along the entire circumference. The picture above shows the outer and inner rims clipped temporarily, and the picture below shows the masa fit snuggly between them, this time secured by wire twisted tightly around all three. Notice the two bumps; this is the bamboo's joint. They become staggered because of the difference their circumferences.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Saturday, May 2, 2009

Basket #1: Mutsume Morikago

On Thursday this week we started work on our first basket: mutsume morikago. Mutsume, as I explained in the last post, is a hexagonal weave (me refers to the holes between the higo, so, literally, "six hole"), and morikago means a "basket [on/in which you] pile [things]," or more simply, a tray. The bottom is hexagonal in shape, almost 20 centimeters across, and each side tapers together at the top to form a circular rim.


We started preparing the materials for this basket by cutting 6-meter-long culms (proper term for the "trunk" of the bamboo) of dried madake bamboo into 900 and 500 mm-long segments, and proceeded with processing these into higo to be used to weave the bottom and sides. I haven't yet properly described the process of making higo, and I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a good pictorial explanation online somewhere, but it's basically a long process of cutting bamboo vertically into strips and thinning those strips over a series of steps to bring them to a precise and consistent width and thickness. This was my first time processing over 200 strips at a time--great practice for improving my abilities, but also probably a realistic taste of the extreme repetitiveness that bamboo basket makers experience to make as ornate baskets as they do. All day Friday I worked on the same usuhagi step, in which I tried to thin higo 1.2-1.5 millimeters thick to a goal thickness of 0.6 millimeters. It's a frustrating process--any strip with a part less than 0.55 millimeters (the final thickness for weaving) thin is worthless. Measuring my strips with electronic calipers, my higo after usuhagi wavered between .5-something and .7-something millimeters; many I had to throw out because they were too thin in places, and many I had to thin again between they were over 0.8 millimeters, too thick to take to the next step. The picture below is my workspace; it shows a pile of segments in the arawari stage, where the bamboo is split radially (what they sometimes call "chrysanthemum splitting"), before the hagi stage when the strips are thinned by removing their inner side, opposite the skin.