Nakamachi-dori, the preserved stretch of the old Zenkoji Kaido trade and pilgrimage route running through downtown, is a living repository of Matsumoto’s rich history and its vibrant present. Lined with wooden storefronts and fire-resistant kura style warehouse buildings, the street is home to a hundred flavors of interest.
One of them, the Mingei Kagu showroom, may seem like a high-end furniture shop that got lost and wound up here by mistake among the museums and the ice cream. But the Japanese are world-renowned woodworkers, and the centuries-old techniques of Matsumoto’s skilled craftsmen are on full and fine display here, in the form of finished products ready for the home.
Even if you aren’t the kind to drop three thousand dollars on a desk it’s worth stopping in and checking out. Just finish your ice cream first.
Matsumoto’s Woodworking History
In 1582, after a forty-year period of turbulence and chutzpah ushered in by Takeda Shingen, Sadayoshi Ogasawara resumed his family’s long-standing rule over the area. Sweeping up the debris of the past he changed the name of the town from Fukashi to Matsumoto and established the craft of furniture making as one aspect of the young castle town’s commercial and industrial face.
From there the Ogasawara clan ruled Matsumoto on and off until 1617, but Matsumoto’s furniture-making industry kept growing throughout the Edo Era, with the town producing expert joiners, carpenters, finishers, painters, and blacksmiths, all lending their skills to produce some pretty impressive bits for people’s homes.
By the late Edo Period the craftsmen of Matsumoto were producing Japanese furniture of the highest quality, including a popular piece called a tatami-tansu, a stout chest of drawers with iron handles, locks and fittings. It is said that the kazariya and the locksmiths who forged these iron attachments were in such demand that by the beginning of the Meiji Era they filled the majority of the more than sixty homes lining the part of the Zenkoji Kaido running north from the Metoba River.
Initially the wood workers of Matsumoto acted as local craftsmen, their tatami-tansu and their dining tables used in homes in and around the castle town. This would change as their reputation spread.
Records show that in 1884 there were 5,600 dining tables produced in Matsumoto, with 4,000 of these exported to the Tokyo, Aichi, and Yamanashi regions. It’s amazing what you can get done when you aren’t being attacked by Takeda Shingen.
The development of rail transport furthered advanced the furniture-making biz. In 1902 the Shinonoi Train Line opened up transportation between Matsumoto and Shiojiri, followed in 1911 by the Chuo Line connecting Matsumoto with Tokyo and Nagoya. Furniture was flying everywhere.
The turn of the century also saw the birth of the Shinano Sanrinkai, the regional Forestry Association. There were literal forests of high-quality timber to be found all over, to the north in Azumi, to the south in Ina, and in all the wooded mountains in between. The Sanrinkai would serve to help properly utilize Shinshu’s plentiful cherry birch, oak, ash, zelkova (Japanese elm) and chestnut while improving the quality of furniture and increasing production.
Through the Meiji and Taisho eras Matsumoto continued to prosper as one of Japan’s leading producers of furniture. But Japan’s involvement in the war and the hardship in the aftermath brought furniture production to a halt, leading to a decline in the industry – one whose revival turned on the chance events of one man’s life.
Photographer Turns His Eye to Furniture
Sanshiro Ikeda was an architectural photographer in Tokyo until the war forced him to evacuate to his hometown of Matsumoto. Devastated by the sadness he perceived in the hearts and minds of the people around him, he felt compelled to…you know, do something.
In 1948, at the invitation of an acquaintance, Ikeda traveled to Kyoto for the 2nd National Convention of the Mingei (Folk Art) Association. There he sat in on a lecture by Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei movement, who said (and I paraphrase), “If you stay true to your path, you will see that the superior and the inferior will both show their true selves.”
Like an Anthony Robbins trope, Yanagi’s words were both inspiring and amorphous. After returning to Matsumoto Sanshiro Ikeda had fire but nothing to put it to. Lucky for him Soetsu Yanagi, also known as Muneyoshi Yanagi, visited Ikeda in Matsumoto and, seeing how the town’s once-proud furniture making community had fallen to ruin, told Ikeda that he believed the time would come when Western furniture would be a part of Japanese life. Perhaps to help prod Ikeda into concrete action, Yanagi added the hope that Matsumoto’s woodworking industry might be revived by expressing the traditions of the mingei folk art style in the production of Western furniture.
Though he now had a goal to pursue, Ikeda had no clear path in getting there. Taking the first logical step, he brought the disjointed woodworker community together to share Yanagi-san’s vision. This was the beginning of Matsumoto folk art furniture.
The Craft of Matsumoto Folk Art Furniture
After the war, while many manufacturers adopted machine-driven mass production methods to meet the large and growing public demands of modern living, Matsumoto’s furniture makers stuck to the old techniques developed and passed down by their predecessors. The essence of Matsumoto folk art furniture is the timeless connection between nature and man – a connection bridged by furniture that retains its natural characteristics while appealing to the needs and comforts of those who use it.
This does not mean no machines are used in the process of turning wood into beautiful and functional objects. As Soetsu Yanagi himself has said, while there are many things machines cannot create, there are also certain items that man would be hard-pressed to produce without them. But more than this, Yanagi says in his book Folk Crafts in Japan (Yanagi was an accomplished writer)(so was Ikeda), it is necessary to produce what we can by hand so that we do not lose the human element in these most basic items of our daily lives.
The creator and the user connect with each other through hand-crafted furniture, he goes on to explain. When machines are used in place of human hands, those who wish to create are deprived of the joy of creating. But given the freedom and the responsibility to create, new things – good things – come to be. Used by people in their daily lives, these products – these everyday objects created with care and skill – complete the connection between nature and man.
Making things with one’s hands, Yanagi says, is the most human of pursuits. Handicrafts of all kinds, then, must be preserved and passed down at all costs.
It should be no surprise, then, that Sanshiro Ikeda’s grandson, Mototami Ikeda, now heads the mingei operation.
Matsumoto mingei furniture-makers continue to manufacture not only Western furniture but also Japanese furniture traditionally made in the Shinshu and Matsumoto regions. In 1953 the British artisan Bernard Leach traveled to Japan to teach and refine Japanese production methods for the popular Windsor chair. In 1974 Matsumoto Furniture was registered as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the first class of furniture to be designated as such.
All beautiful furniture begins with beautiful wood. Timber of Japanese cherry birch, oak, chestnut and other types are inspected and selected for their quality and the beauty of their grain. The timber is then cut and left to dry for anywhere from six months to ten years (!). Matsumoto’s dry climate is said to be highly beneficial for this important and natural process. To get the wood down to a water content of 8-9% an artificial drying process is initiated, after which the wood is let to be seasoned for a month to produce a durability necessary for quality furniture.
Once the wood is ready each piece is cut specifically for the furniture component it is naturally best suited for, depending on its qualities. Master joiners then cut the intricate kumite-tsugite patterns to join the various pieces, checking for defects, disassembling and refining the wood components, and reassembling into the finished product which is then lacquered at least eight times, for durability as well as to bring out the beauty and depth of the wood.
Finally, any metal fittings, handles and decorative additions are added, completing the process – long, intricate process that is reflected in the look – and price – of the final, polished product.
Check It Out!
All the talk in the world about the mastery of Matsumoto’s woodworkers could never compare to checking out the real thing. So when you’re strolling along Nakamachi-dori look for the black and white kura with the furniture in the window. Step inside and look around. Sit in one of the rocking chairs. (Yes, you are allowed!) Gently open and close a dresser drawer, feeling the precision of the craftsmanship. Pick up a dining set if you’ve got ten grand or so to spare.
And as you step easily, gazing at the beauty of all those pricey tables and chairs, remember that it takes years to make these everyday things. It took centuries to perfect the process.
But it takes just a second to put a scratch in the wood, so do everyone a favor and leave your Takeda Shingen routine – and your selfie stick – at home.