A wooded valley shrouded in mist

The Hida region: carpentry workshop of Japan

A wooded valley shrouded in mist

In the deep and diverse forests of the Hida region in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, lies a strongly embedded tradition of wood craftsmanship. For over a thousand years, carpenters from Hida have produced some of the most celebrated Japanese woodwork, ranging from temples and palaces to modern furniture. Largest among Hida’s cities and villages is Takayama City, which sits in the foothills of Japan’s Northern Alps, the ‘roof of Japan’, and which occupies an area that is 92% covered in forest. Takayama is a popular destination with domestic and international tourists who come to admire the city’s well preserved Edo-period (1603–1867 CE) architecture and to experience its cultural festivals. The Hida region, which has long been valued for its forest resources and wood craftsmanship, lies at the heart of the exhibition The Carpenters’ Line (29 September 2022 – 29 January 2023) at Japan House London.

Masters of Hida 

For centuries, the inhabitants of Hida have relied on the region’s abundant forests for their livelihood, developing a local culture of woodwork. During the Nara and Heian periods (710–794 and 794–1185 CE) their woodworking skills played a critical role in the nation’s development when Hida carpenters were sent to work in the imperial capitals of what are present-day Nara and Kyoto. At that time annual tax to the imperial court was paid in rice, but as Hida’s mountainous landscape was unsuitable for rice cultivation, the region instead paid tax in the form of its carpentry skill, with more than 40,000 carpenters working in the imperial capitals across this period. For nearly 500 years, they built and restored shrines, temples and palaces including Tōdai-ji and Heijō Palace, as well as other impressive and culturally significant structures. They also produced a variety of wooden objects ranging from ritual implements for religious ceremonies, to furnishings used by the Court. The work of Hida carpenters was held in such high esteem that they came to be known as Hida no takumi, ‘master craftsmen of Hida’.

Trees & Forests 

Hida’s forests are home to many varieties of trees, with different characteristics, textures, properties and uses in carpentry. Around 40% are conifers such as hinoki cypress and cryptomeria (sugi), which are widely used in construction due to their height, strength and straightness. The remainder are broadleaf trees, of which 350 types have been counted in Hida, including beech, oak, walnut, cherry, chestnut, birch and Japanese bigleaf magnolia. Hida no takumi are adept at working with a variety of wood types, including the knotted and curved broadleaf woods such as beech. In the 1920s Hida craftsmen began to use beech wood, which had historically been used only for geta (Japanese wooden sandals), in bentwood furniture. However by the 1970s beech became scarce throughout Japan, prompting Hida woodworkers to adapt to the resources available to them. A compression technique was developed which transformed the local Japanese cedar (sugi or cryptomeria japonica) into a stronger, more versatile material, now suitable for furniture making.

Addressing Hida’s inaccessibility 

Wood came into particularly high demand during the Edo period (1603-1868 CE) as the military government of the shо̄gun consolidated its control through construction. The high quality of Hida’s wood made it a key strategic region and it came under the control of the shо̄gun in 1692. This resulted in an influx of culture and information, however, due to Hida’s alpine geography and political alignments access remained difficult. Basket ferries, consisting of a ropeway with baskets large enough to carry a single human, provided transport over rivers and gorges at several locations. One such crossing, on the border between Hida and Etchū (present-day Toyama Prefecture), was famously depicted by the woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858 CE) to represent Hida Province, in his series of Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces between 1853 and 1856. This type of basket ferry was also depicted in a wooden netsuke carving by renowned artist Matsuda Sukenaga (1799–1871 CE). 

Takayama Festival Floats 

The cultural exchange between Hida and the capital during the Edo period stimulated the development of a variety of craft techniques in Hida’s towns, establishing the region as home to large numbers of master carpenters, woodturners, sculptors and other craftspeople. Today a combination of Hida crafts can be seen in the ornate wooden floats, yatai, which have been part of the biannual Takayama Festival since the 17th century CE and which incorporate fine carpentry, sculpture, lacquer work, opulent metal fittings, dyed textiles, paintings, mechanical dolls, and other products of local craftsmanship. The wheels of the yatai are made from heavy, resilient broadleaf timber, pieced together from thick, interlocking wood panels without the use of nails, in the tradition of Japanese joinery. Since the early 19th century CE each yatai has been preserved and maintained by a dedicated neighbourhood committee and continually repaired and enhanced by Hida’s master craftspeople. In 2016, the Takayama Festival was recognized in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.