En Ja


Journey to the forest

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Japanese craftsmanship is synonymous with rich traditions, attention to detail and a dedication to technical excellence. As I have spent more time watching craftspeople at work in recent years, I’ve become drawn to the philosophy that underpins their craft. In their eyes, the act of making is more than just a profession, it is a way of life. Our conversations not only leave me with a deeper appreciation of how things are made, but a view of the world that extends far beyond a single pursuit.

In the past few months, Tokyo has shifted from a vast, interconnected city to what feels like a patchwork of loosely connected neighbourhoods. As daily life has been confined to the neighbourhoods we call home, our living spaces have taken on new significance as they accommodate the demands of work and leisure. And as we survey these evolving surroundings on a daily basis, the things we value and surround ourselves with have come under fresh consideration.

In my flat, I’ve been revisiting my collection of craft wares with a newfound interest that began with a tiny wooden plate. Crafted by woodworker Masaru Kawai, the wafer-thin slice of cedar lines the cup of my hand perfectly, its sweet aroma taking me back to the mountains of Gifu. Like many of Kawai’s creations, it brings the forest closer; engaging the senses from its place within daily life.

On a balmy morning late last summer, Kawai led me into a pocket of forest near his hometown of Minokamo, Gifu. As we walked between a coniferous plantation and rows of abemaki (Chinese cork oak), trunks wrapped in rippling thick bark, he recalled a childhood spent exploring the nearby mountains. Four decades later, the forest still inspires a sense of wonder within him.

In 2016, almost a decade after he started making furniture under his own name, Kawai launched Soma. The brand produces lifestyle products made from locally sourced timber such as cedar and cypress. Through these products, Kawai aims to tackle issues arising from the underutilisation of Japanese timber, due in part to the rise of imported or unsustainable alternatives, and its impact on regional livelihoods and wood culture.

As Kawai explains, the starting point is always the material itself. “The role of a woodworker is being able to read a tree’s history from its growth rings, understanding its story and then playing around to find the most appropriate form.” The process of interpreting each piece of wood, from its origins to its growth over a period of decades or centuries, has come to shape the kinds of products he designs. It also provides perspectives that inspire his workshops, nature walks and advocacy for responsible forestry.

The craftsman, by nature, is also a storyteller. From records of places to traditions inherited from generations past, their output is laden with narratives. Soma is a platform for Kawai to shed fresh light on a longstanding culture of living with, and appreciating, wood in Japan. And at a time when our relationship with the natural world is fraught with complexities, he is leading new conversations about the value of the forests on our doorstep. 

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Tools of enduring value

Several years ago I began cycling regularly throughout east Tokyo, mapping neighbourhood outposts for what would become a guide to the city on two wheels. Cycling connects you to the rhythms of the city and I became drawn to the way that manufacturing, from workshops to small-scale factories, was part of daily life.

Playing with baskets

No trip to Ginza would be complete without a visit to the Hermès building. Regardless of the hour, I’ve made a habit of taking a detour past the Renzo Piano-designed tower with the simple aim of inspecting the main window display. Artists and designers provide the space with a regular makeover, with one of the most memorable presentations being the play-inspired work of Shigeki Fujishiro.

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