A Legacy Build in Shiwahori-Mura
Let me tell you a story:
Almost two centuries ago, in a small village Northeast of today’s Hiroshima, Japan, a small, stalwart man toils away planning what will become the village’s temple. Matsusuke Miyamoto is a master woodworker of the Miyadaiku school of Japanese woodworking, his hands are rough from hewing large, cedar beams intricately notched to fit together like pieces in a three dimensional puzzle. Miyadaiku is one of the four core schools of Japanese woodworking.1 Specifically, Miyadaiku is the practice of constructing Japanese shrines and temples. The renowned, elaborate joinery developed over centuries of refined craftsmanship are frequently found among the world’s longest surviving wooden structures.
Little is known of the man that planned and crafted the temple, but the impact has remained a point of pride in the small village of Shiwahori-Mura (later combined to form Higashi-Hiroshima). This man, Matsusuke Miyamoto, was my great-great grandfather – an Architect and master woodworker. The temple he planned and helped construct is known as the Shouei-ji Temple. Uncovering this ancestral link was a special surprise on our visit back to Japan. We knew we had relatives from the Hiroshima area, but were unaware of this particular connection.
Shiwahori-Mura is surrounded by a ring of protective mountain peaks. The small village has retained an idyllic agricultural way of life. Aside from the power lines and the clay tile roofs arrayed with solar panels, the village presents a time capsule of Imperial Japan. Rice paddies terrace the landscape laced with dirt roads and dotted with traditional Japanese homes. The village is neat and orderly, presenting an agrarian compliment to the dense, technocentric cities famous throughout Japan.
The temple itself is an archetypal Buddhist temple. The most visually impactful component is the roof of highly articulated clay tiles nestled on steep, sloping gables and wide eaves. Deep verandas are protected by the gently sloping eaves. The roof is heavy, supported by a special structural bracketing system known as tokyō (In this particular instance, futatesaki tokyō or common two-step bracket and blocking system).2
Most impressively, Shouei-ji Temple was built with no nails. The ingenuity of the Miyadaiku method called Kigumi Kouhou prohibits the use of metal hardware in favor of creating special notches and interlocking joinery to form a beautiful, sturdy connection.3 The skill and expertise is immediately apparent once you are under the eaves, inside the moya, or main central room. This interior space is fluid, the main hall can be altered as needed.4
The chief priest, Mr. Inokuchi, is a young man. He recently took over maintaining the temple after his father passed and was very excited that we came to visit. He told us the main central room is typically divided into two spaces; one houses the sacred artifacts (the kondō) while another is meant for the community and the temple monks to gather and pray (the kodō).5 The temple is quiet, open and elevated to borrow views of the surrounding landscape – a concept deeply embedded in Japanese Architecture called shakkei.6 Mr. Inokuchi said he favors moving the exterior shoji panels around the veranda to change the relationship with the landscape over reconfiguring the interior moya.
Not far down the road, stands a stoic bell tower. Though built decades later, the bell tower is an integral component of the Shouei-ji Temple complex. This structure was also designed by Matsusuke Miyamoto. His son, Matsuichi Miyamoto, was one of fifteen immigrants living in the United States, but originally from Shiwahori-Mura, that donated the funds to forge and deliver the bell. Known as the Kanetsuki-do Bell Tower (meaning ‘bell of awakening’), it was built to help the villagers keep time throughout the day and to announce religious observances associated with the temple. It was built in the fashion of Art Deco and completed in 1922 and designated a cultural asset in 1997.
The tower is built of local stone, rising almost 8 meters tall. On each face are carved encouragements like, “time is money,” “time is limited,” and “be punctual.” Inscribed within the bell is a message from the funders:
‘Those of us from the village who are living in the United States of American, hearing from afar, that the Shiwahori division of the Imperial Army in the village had taken the initiative to encourage adherence to the time, felt this to be a praiseworthy endeavor and would like to offer our assistance to this effort by donating a bell.’
It was amazing to visit the small village of my ancestors. It was even more special to learn of the lineage of craftsmen and architects running through my family genealogy. My great-great grandfather was an Architect and master craftsman, my grandfather was a furniture maker and I got the Architecture gene – I guess it skips a generation. I am encouraged by these discoveries and look forward to developing my skills, continuing the legacy of makers and builders.