Soma Cousha Interview

In part 1 of our 2 part March 2018 interview, Kohei Yamamoto and Jonathan Stollenmeyer of Soma Cousha discuss Ishibatate, their specialty with Japanese carpentry. Including a brief history on the style, they discuss what attracted them and the increasing appreciation for this traditional knowledge.    

Yann Giguere: You guys specialize in a unique style of Japanese carpentry, which used to be very common, but not today – called Ishibatate. Could describe this style a little bit.

Kohei Yamamoto: A distinct aspect of Ishibatate is that the posts simply rest on stones. No metal fasteners for structural joinery, wood on wood only and no diagonal bracing, only horizontal. All this allows a building to move with earthquakes.

YG: For the walls, is it always wattle and daub? Clay and straw wall on a weave of either wood and split bamboo.

KY: Yes, except where bamboo was not available yoshi, a kind of reed, was used instead. Mostly we use bamboo tied with straw ropes. 

Jon Stollenmeyer: In the Ishibatate style, like Yamamoto-san said. The columns are on stones. They’re not fixed to the ground. We call it nukikouzou. Nuki are the wooden pieces that go through the walls horizontally and we bring those through the columns. That’s very important because that way when the column starts to move, it bites into this wooden piece and uses wood’s… in Japanese they call it fukugenryuku tokusei … which means wood has the innate quality of wanting to return to its original shape if the grains are not cut. If the grain is indented, or pressed against, when it encounters water again it goes back to that original shape to a certain extent. So, carpenters in Japan are constantly considering how they can make use of that very special quality in wood. I think as far as wattle and daub is concerned, it’s really a matter of not just earthquakes. It has to do with the climate here. Wattle and daub will absorb moisture when it’s too humid and let moisture into the air when it’s too dry. You have a really humid atmosphere here. And, this layered structure of the earth and plaster walls is a very good, flexible system with the wood.

We’re not saying that after a big earthquake, a magnitude nine earthquake comes in, the building’s gonna right itself afterwards. But these buildings take a lot, a real beating, before they actually collapse.

One of the biggest things about an earthquake is that the people inside need to have a real, a fundamental clarity, about the severity of the event. Modern materials like steel and concrete in these events tend to fail quickly…

YG: Without warning?

JS: Right. So, they’re really strong, really strong, really strong, and then suddenly, BAM they fail. The tenant inside those buildings doesn’t have a really clear idea until it’s too late. Whereas with these wooden buildings, you see some of them going to as much as 45 degrees before they’re going to actually fail. So, somebody in the building is going to
know this is serious business and get out. That’s the real big thing with earthquakes but also they’re fixable afterwards if damages isn’t too severe. Due to the way that the  structural parts are visible you can therefore get your hands on it and fix it pretty quickly.

KY: Ishibatate also addresses termite problem. Termites need three things to survive; wood, darkness, humidity. By taking away any one thing you can avoid termites.

JS: We can’t get rid of wood because we’re making wooden buildings. We use as little shirata or sap wood as possible, which is what is easiest for termites to get started on and will draw them. In Ishibatate, the floor being elevated leaves enough space under the building for air and light or at least reflected light to travel from one end of the house to the other. Enough to make it inhospitable for termites.

YG: Could talk a little bit about what you personally find appealing about the Ishibatate style. Because it’s not mainstream today, so it must be difficult in some ways.

KY: Many people ask me that question and always I said, “Just for fun, I do it.” Making traditional structure with a traditional Japanese carpentry tools it’s so fun. Enjoyable. So simple.

JS: Yeah, for the love of it, is Yama-san’s biggest. In Japan, there’s a lot of talk about Densho which means to pass on tradition. Yamamoto-san will share freely with people who have an innate passion for the traditional way of building but does not make a point to pass on tradition.

Personally, I came all the way to Japan from America where I could have learned carpentry to some extent. The reason I came was because I was so impressed with the traditional architecture. In particular, the first time I came after college and saw things. I saw the Minka, country homes. When I saw those buildings that had been standing for hundreds of years and the way they had aged so beautifully. The Japanese call it footprint basically. What remained spoke to the way people lived. 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago. I was just moved by that.

I definitely had seen things like that in the states, too. Particularly in the northeast when I was working on wooden boats, but for some reason I was really interested in the deep tradition here. Not only in temples and shrines, but homes and tea rooms. All these different building styles had these really, really long traditions. Whereas in the States, there are certain styles that were easy to see were very historic. Say bridges or barns or some things like that. Homes, temples, shrines those sorts of things. Maybe churches as well too. But in the States a lot of those styles seemed newer. The vast majority were newer and weren’t really holding the tradition as much. When I came to Japan, I wanted to know what that traditional style was. In Kyoto, I met one really interesting style or tradition that had to do with tea rooms.

And, then when I met Yamamoto-san, he was doing the Minka traditional. He was really one of the first carpenters I’d ever met who was doing people’s homes traditionally. Because there’s not much money in people’s homes in Japan. Temples and shrines, tea houses, Ryokan – which are really upscale hotels basically – or restaurants, they make money. You build it and it makes money for you. Particularly a really good quality building, inherently makes money. You attract customers or in the religious sense, it attracts believers. Whereas a home doesn’t make you any money. It just costs money. For maintenance afterwards as well. So homes inherently are not as profitable for the carpenter. And yet, Yamamoto specifically stopped doing temples and shrines. And, wanted to make homes for people. Really high quality work, which I thought was amazing and I’m glad I’m a part of it. And, that’s Ishibatate.

YG: I was told about efforts you have been putting forth to have Ishibatate recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) https://en.unesco.org/. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JS: Yeah, UNESCO has something called intangible cultural heritage https://ich.unesco.org/en/what-is-intangible-heritage-00003.We all know that UNESCO has cultural heritage sites that are tangible, like, the pyramids. Intangible is something that an institution – government or country has really kept alive and going for a long time. We want to keep this tradition alive for humankind moving forward. It was the first time I’d ever heard of that sort of thing with UNESCO. I was really interested to find out that Korea’s wooden architecture became an intangible cultural heritage in the ’80s.

The benefit of recognition is that it gives clout to an industry or tradition to go to their government and say, “We need to make this legally viable, moving forward. Could you give us some help economically so that this tradition doesn’t disappear?” The government will see it’s designated as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, which is not an easy thing to do. You have to get the voice of a lot of people in the country, so they recognize its important.

Long story short, in Japan that’s important because traditional buildings are looking like they may be harder to build in the near future. There’s a lot of talk about, for energy sake, getting super insulated homes, etc. And, there’s this notion that these homes are not as energy efficient. Which I guess on a perfectly logical basis is true, but the people that are living in these traditional homes are living in a different way than people who are heating or air conditioning their entire space during the different seasons.

The other part is that tourism is a huge part of Japan’s economy and traditional buildings are the mainstay of tourism. We were pointing out to the government, while you’re trying to do a good thing by making more energy efficient buildings, you may be kicking yourself without knowing it. You might be disappointed later when traditional buildings can’t be build new or might be more difficult to fix up in the future.

YG: So, you’ve been writing to the government? Or, putting documents together?

JS: We’re part of a group which includes architects, carpenters, engineers and people not specifically related to the architectural field. The first thing is to get UNESCO to recognize Japan’s wooden architecture and that which goes along with it – earthen plaster, gardening, all the different parts of their traditional architecture as a UNESCO intangible heritage. That’s the step that we’re on right now. It’s been about three years now.

It started with getting voices together. Then talking to universities and professors to get them to understand the immediacy of this dilemma. Then to get regular folks all over Japan to sign petitions saying, “We think this is important. We’d be honored if this could be an intangible cultural heritage.” Getting tons of signatures. Getting the word out. Holding events where carpenters come and professors talk about why this is important; why it’s beautiful and why we’d like to keep it.

It’s been fun, too. You get to meet a lot of interesting folks who really know their craft.  Not just carpenters, plasters and gardeners and all these different people associated with the craft. So, it’s been a joy as well as, a little bit of work.

YG: Wonderful. Thank you for doing that. Wishing you the best moving forward.

Soma Cousha is a multi-disciplinary design studio located in Okayama, Japan. Kohei and Jon strive to create contemporary design that is made to last. They believe in a holistic approach to design and the process of making. Focusing on the importance of quality materials and craftsmanship they ensure their designs embody a narrative rooted in history yet relevant to today. Allowing their designs to outlive trends and maintain a sense of timeless beauty. 

Background on Kohei Yamamoto

Kohei was introduced to and fell in love with hand tools while attending a trade school specializing in wooden crafts.  He delved into the furniture arts. At the advice of his professor, he took a job as a Japanese Temple and Shrine carpenter. For 8 years Kohei worked on some of the most famous cultural heritage temples and shrines in Japan such as the Grand Shrine at Izumo.  Working on buildings that stood the test of time, he became interested in why present day homes weren’t built with as much thought. He also fell in love with the mark that carpenters left using traditional methods of sawing, milling, and finishing in the past.

In 2012, he had the opportunity to build a new home in Fukuyama city. He built one of the area’s first traditional Ishibatate homes since the end WWII. Finishes included everything from finely planed to adze and axe finishes used in rough milling.  This began his company Somacousha.  The character for Soma (杣) means traditional sawing/milling.  The character for Ko (耕) means to cultivate.  The final character Sha (社) is a typical character meaning company.

Background on Jonathan Stollenmeyer

Jonathan graduated from University of Cincinnati’s DAAP architecture program in 2005. Over the next several years, he traveled extensively with a focus on exploring architecture and design. His lived and traveled to Japan, Mexico, Argentina, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. In the US, he worked in large-scale apartment architecture but his interests were pulled towards study at Traditional Boatworks in New Hampshire and a Zen monastery in Kentucky. Through these experiences, Jonathan decided to pursue his architectural and design passion via working with his hands rather than in an architectural office.

He returned to Japan in 2009 to work with Japanese carpenters. He worked with, Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, carpenters is doing projects within Japan and abroad in the Sukiya (teahouse) style. In 2013, he saw Kohei Yamamoto’s work in Okayama Prefecture and the building’s Ishibatate carpentry style astounded him. He received approval from Nakamura to leave the firm for further study. In November of 2013 he began work at Somacousha learning the Ishibatate framing style under the tutelage of Mr. Yamamoto.

More about both and their work can be found at Soma Cousha’s website