Sometime during one of my visits to Kyoto last year I found myself in the workshop of a blacksmith off 7th Avenue. The workshop was, in true Japanese fashion, cramped and innocuous – located a stone’s throw away from a famous World Heritage designated temple, with not even a sign outside to announce its presence. This workshop is the home of the master tool maker Yoshinobu Imai and his two sons – one of the few remaining places in Kyoto that makes tools to cater for the legion of master artisans that depend on them.
I think back Imai-san’s tiny, incongruous workshop and the gigantic job it has supporting Kyoto’s community of world class artisans such as Otsuki-sensei. The tool makers of great artisans are often overlooked as their end product does not sit on the shelf or a gallery, however they are just as important a pillar in the ecosystem of craftsmanship. After all, what is an artisan without his tools?
© Irwin Wong, Sony A7R ii, ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 @f/2.8, 1/60 sec., ISO 100
Inside the workshop, the display cases are crammed with every imaginable kind of tool for shaping wood. Chisels and picks shaped into all curvatures and angles for the most exacting sculpting job. Planes and lathes and saws and other esoteric tools that I could not begin to fathom the use of, but doubtlessly important to a specific trade or craft. All tools were coated in black from the quenching and tempering process that gives them their strength; the cutting edge of edge blade polished and honed to a matte sheen. These tools are not for display. They are meant to be held in the hands of a master craftsperson, worn down and resharpened over the years, wooden handle discolored with sweat and oil. They are meant to be used as a stepping stone to create something beautiful that will last an age.
© Irwin Wong, Sony A7R ii, ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 @f/4.0, 1/125 sec., ISO 200
Imai-san himself is spritely despite being in his eighties. He talks at a rapid clip, and even though I’m fluent in Japanese I can’t really pick up on what he says – I suppose it might be a combination of his heavy Kyoto accent and the false teeth. His son on the other hand is nearly mute, barely saying anything the whole time while banging away at the anvil. The older Imai-san starts pulling out all sorts of knives and blades and explaining their use to me; the younger one hammers away wordlessly, occasionally folding over the red hot steel before plunging it back into the furnace.
Months and months later I found myself visiting another very different workshop – this time the home of Kohkun Otsuki, one of the premier mask carvers for Noh. Noh is a very prestigious form of Japanese theater. A central part of each play is the masks that the main actors wear to signify their character. Carved from a single block of cypress wood and often only used once in their lifetime, these masks themselves are considered treasured works of art, often on display at national museums and highly sought after by private collectors. Otsuki-sensei is one of the premiere mask carvers in Kyoto. As he’s showing me some of his past works he chatters cheerfully, producing dozens upon dozens of exquisite, flawless masks of all colors and design. I dare not touch them but viewing a Noh mask up close is to see a thing of unspeakable precision and beauty. Each line and contour of the face chiseled out to denote a different mood or emotion depending on the angle of the actor’s face. The dozens of masks laid out before me represent a mind-boggling level of hard work and talent.
Suddenly Otsuki-sensei says to me: “I saw on your website that you’ve photographed Imai-san.” which threw me a little. It had been about half a year, so it takes me a moment to remember the small blacksmithing workshop off 7th Ave. The surprise fading, I ask if he knows Imai-san, to which he replies “I’ve been buying tools from him for over 40 years.”
40 years! An entire career’s worth of time – from the very day Otsuki-sensei became an apprentice until today, relying on the quality of the implements produced by the talkative blacksmith on 7th Ave. “All my students buy from him, and there isn’t a woodworker in all of Kyoto who hasn’t at least heard of Imai-san,” says Otsuki-sensei. He continues on, telling me that there are a few other places artisans can get their hands on top tier carving implements. “Properly made tools like the ones Imai-san make are rare,” he says. There apparently aren’t many workshops left who make tools using the fold and quench method, which helps with longevity and sharpness.
About the Lenses:
What is an artisan without his tools, indeed. This holds true for photographers as well – good, reliable glass is an extremely important part of anyone’s kit. As a Sony Alpha shooter there really is no question that ZEISS glass delivers over and above what I need for image quality, sharpness, contrast and color rendition. I used a combination of Batis and Loxia lenses for these photos which I shot over the course of months, including the recently announced Batis 2.8/135 for the shots of the masks. As for the Loxias, it may sound strange but the MF allows me to forget about troublesome autofocus modes and AF point selection and just focus on photographing with the flow.