View all News & Photos

An Unknown Craftsman



Kyoto Japan | Acanela Expeditions

Among the many people I met in Kyoto over the eighteen years I lived there, the most memorable were the craftsmen. Spending time with them I always learned something, not just about crafts, but about life—about what it means to make something you are proud of every day, what it means to keep going when you have no money, what the word “painstaking” means—or just what it means to love your work.

They taught me what it’s like to wake up every day eager to get back to work, proud of what you do. Not the kind of pride in work that comes with money or fame, but the kind that comes from making something that is useful to your community, that adds something to the beauty and harmony of the world. They reminded me, then as now, of the importance of work itself, of humility, of patience, of cooperation, of meticulousness, and of honesty.

The story below is about a traditional bucket maker whose old shopfront sat for 80-odd years on a backstreet in the Nishijin textile district of Kyoto. Although both he and his shop are gone now, the lessons I learned from him 30 years ago seem relevant at a time when many of us are thinking about what work means to us, and how good it feels to have time to think about making things again—bread, cookies, and, yes, facemasks, with our own hands.

I really love

Bucket by Shuji Nakagawa, part of Portland Japanese Garden’s 2018 Art exhibition, Shokunin

my barrel-making job;

connecting each board into

one round circle.

 Soiku Shigemitsu (A Zen Harvest, 1992)


Splitting another cedar stave by hand, the wooden bucket maker grins patiently at his guests as he demonstrates the process of making a Japanese bath bucket—the kind no one uses any more. Hiroichi Tomii is a curiosity in this world, a glimpse of “the real thing.” Seated on the floor of his cramped old shop front, he uses both fingers and toes to make wooden buckets in the old way. His craft is used most often to make props for samurai movies or as souvenirs for wealthy tourists who are bored with most of what money can buy. They come seeking what is “real,” something lost to them in the struggle to have all that is not.

The elderly in this old neighborhood are the only ones who use his buckets the way they were intended—the neighbors who require everyday utility and the shrine priests whose rituals require purity of form and spirit. The tea masters, too, know that the rough-hewn wooden buckets make the perfect containers to hold a clutch of wildflowers that will gently evoke the season in the understated style of the tea ceremony. Planed by hand with his grandfather’s tools and painstakingly joined with bamboo pegs, each cedar stave is shaved smooth and left unvarnished—a clean, natural beauty wrought by the unselfconscious hands of the last of the real artisans.

A few of his older neighbors are still frugal enough to bring him their worn-out wash buckets to be repaired, and he loves them for it. Some of them refuse to use washing machines—just doesn’t feel as if it gets the dirt out properly. Washing kimono silk the old way in a wooden tub keeps the older women moving, keeps their traditions alive. The true kimono is hand sewn and must be taken apart to wash each piece by hand. 

Photo by Yuya Hoshino for Shuji Nakagawa

Today, however, Tomii-san leads his curious foreign visitors out to the back of the creaking 100-year-old, tile-roofed house without hesitation—past the bottomless old well, the rustic wood-burning stove and the impromptu outdoor shower that speaks to his affluent guests of poverty, though he does not.  He will never see the things they can’t live without, the dishwashers and garbage disposals and walk-in closets. He has no interest in them. He tells them that he is interested only in “making wooden buckets until he dies.”  Fussing with his potted plants out back, “because green is restful for tired eyes,” he is as close as one can get to the past. With no heir and no apprentice, he sips his sake and waits alone each night for dawn to give him another day with his precious wood, another day to smile and teach us what it means to love your work.



Read more about Portland Japanese Garden’s 2018 art exhibition Shokunin which featured five young artists from Kyoto pursuing their respective crafts with deep commitment. One artist featured in the exhibition, Shuji Nakagawa, is a 3rd generation wood carver whose goals is to pursue his craft with the same singular dedication and passion as does Tomii-san described above. Read more about Nakagawa’s perspective here on our blog.

Diane is the author of Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Lifea collection of quiet meditations on life lived simply and with intention, and three books on Kyoto (all available online).

Copyright: © 2020