Born in Japan, Making in the USA
Introducing the first in a series of features on makers who’ve emigrated from Japan and set up a new life abroad with traditional Japanese woodwork values at their heart.
In 1985, Hiroshi Sakaguchi and his wife, Ann, established ‘Ki Arts’, a traditional Japanese woodworking business in Sonoma County, Northern California. From the challenges of adapting to Western preferences and ways of doing business to sourcing hardwoods similar to those in Japan, Sakaguchi-san has successfully overcome obstacles to fulfil his California dream.
A huge thanks to Ann for helping transcribe and edit this fascinating interview with Sakaguchi-san. Enjoy!
JWA: Please tell us a little bit about your background growing up in Japan.
Hiroshi: My father’s family owned and cared for a forest going back at least 10 generations. The forest is on the Kii peninsula in the prefecture of Wakayama. That area is famous for its forests. After the war, things with my father’s family changed, and my father moved to the town of Shingu to work as a sawyer. On my mother’s side, I had relatives who were master carpenters and at 15, I went to Tokyo to be a deshi (apprentice) to one. I did that for two years, then studied with another master carpenter relative in Osaka for two years. I liked woodworking from a young age. At 10, I raised pigeons and made houses for them. I also took woodworking shop in middle school. I didn’t like studying academic subjects in school—in fact I skipped school a lot to go fishing. My family wasn’t well off, and it seemed best that I apprentice in carpentry and not continue in school.
JWA: Whilst you were in Japan who was your inspiration in woodwork/carpentry?
Hiroshi: I was more inspired by looking at old Japanese buildings. Not so much a person. Where I grew up is famous for it’s shrines. There are three old, old Shinto shrines that are national treasures. One is Nachi shrine. My mother grew up just below Nachi shrine. Close to the shrine is Seigantoji Temple. It’s very old but burned in the 16th century and was rebuilt by Hideyoshi in irimoya style. That’s the style I learned as a deshi but for houses, not temples. I also remember being inspired going on a field trip in middle school to see the shrines and temples of Nikko built in the Tokugawa period.
JWA Note: Thanks to Hiroshi we’ve included the unique shrine-temple complex he mentions in our Places To Visit in Japan section.
JWA: What do you miss (if anything!) about Japan from a woodcraft perspective?
Hiroshi: It was a lot easier to get the supplies I needed when I worked in Japan. I also did not have to use American measurement of the foot and inch. The metric system is a lot easier, I don’t understand why Americans use such a difficult system. In Japan, I used two systems – the ancient traditional Japanese carpentry measurements and the metric system. In the US, I have to go back and forth with three systems of measurement.
JWA: What are your most common design adaptations for the US market?
Hiroshi: When I construct a Japanese-style room in the US, most of the time I have to fit it into 2×4 construction. The size of a room in Japanese is decided by the number of tatami mats. In the US, the space I’m given to work in might not have traditional proportions as in Japan, so I have to figure out how to do the floor plan maybe combining wood and tatami or getting custom tatami with different dimensions than Japanese tatami. Mostly I can make things look traditional like in Japan, and that’s usually what my customers want. Sometimes they want me to change my design to save money. I did a bathhouse, and the customer wanted composite shingles on the roof. Then I have to find a way to make that fit with the total design.
JWA: How healthy is the market for Japanese wooden architecture and furniture in the US? How does it differ from when you first started Ki Arts in 1985?
Hiroshi: There’s a lot of interest in Japanese-style interiors and garden structures where I live in northern California. People in the tech industry seem to like Japanese design. I started making Japanese soaking tubs or ofuro in the 1990’s because I work alone and wanted to do smaller projects between big projects. I get orders from all over the country. When I began my business in 1985, there also was interest. Things from Japanese culture like Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony are popular. My wife, Ann, and I moved here from Japan because I was hired to build a Japanese house with a tearoom for the San Francisco Zen Center. When we started our own business, it took a while to get my name out. I got jobs by word of mouth. Now we have a website. I think the interest is about the same. It’s just more people know about me, so I’m a little busier.
” I pay great attention to hand-planing the wood’s surface. The silky touch of hand-planed cedar and its fragrance make soaking in a Japanese tub so special “Hiroshi Sakaguchi
JWA: Are Ki Art’s clients mostly Japanese or American?
Hiroshi: My clients are about 25% Japanese born and 75% American born.
JWA: What was your biggest hurdle starting a Japanese design and construction firm in the US in 1985?
Hiroshi: One problem was getting used to the way American customers do business. In Japan, customers try to keep the carpenter happy because then the house will have a good energy. For instance, the owner would usually bring me a snack in mid-afternoon. If I did a good job, I would get a bonus. I remember telling Ann, when we first started our company, that it’s okay not to charge so much because I’ll do a really good job and get a big bonus. I soon learned Americans don’t do business that way. Pricing is still difficult for me. Japanese carpentry takes a lot of time, and the cost really adds up. A lot of Americans don’t understand that. They think a simple structure will be a low price. People ask about a project, and when I give them a price range, they give up. It’s a problem with doing this work.
JWA: Your design and build scope is wide – from tearooms (chashitsu) to wooden bath tubs (ofuro) and entrance gates (mon). What type of project brings you the most satisfaction?
Hiroshi: In Japan, I was trained to build Japanese houses. I like designing an entire structure from the foundation up such as a tea house or a bathhouse. It matches more my training and feels very satisfying when it’s finished.
JWA: What has been your most challenging project and why?
Hiroshi: That’s difficult to answer. Each project brings its own challenge. I just repaired the roof of a small temple near San Jose built in a Japanese garden by Japanese carpenters a hundred years ago. I had to make a copy of the wooden roban (ornament) at the top of the roof and also another special piece that is there to protect the temple from evil spirits. I had to study them and figure out how they were constructed. Then I had to make an exact copy and did a lot of carving. I also re-shingled the roof which was around 25 layers at the roof edges. I had to cut many of the red cedar shingles myself, and some of them had to be steamed so they could bend with the roof lines. I needed a lot of patience and concentration—also a lot of energy working up on the roof, and I’m not getting any younger.
JWA: Where do you source your wood? Are North American woods equal or better than their Japanese counterparts? Is there a particular wood found in Japan that you’d love to source locally but can’t?
Hiroshi: Before I used Port Orford cedar (POC) for construction and ofuro. It’s the closest wood in North America to hinoki, the main wood in Japan for building Japanese structures. I got it from a saw mill in southern Oregon. Now most of the good quality POC has been exported to Japan and China, and it’s hard to get in clear, tight grain. These days I use Alaskan yellow cedar instead of POC. It makes strong posts. It’s stronger than POC. I use good quality Douglas fir and redwood sometimes for beams and Western red cedar for ceiling boards and finish framing. I’m getting my good quality AYC and red cedar from a company called Jackal Lumber in Watsonville, CA.
Hinoki is tougher and stronger than both AYC and POC. It doesn’t crack as much as POC. It can carry more weight, and, also, the scent is better.
I miss Japanese kiyaki which is like elm but different.
JWA NOTE: Read our overview on Japanese wood types here.
JWA: What’s your favourite Japanese hand tool and why?
Hiroshi: I like every kind of tool. The hammer for use with chisels is interesting because you have to be very delicate and calm with it. If you cross the line and use it too forcefully, you can make a mistake. I also like beginning my day with hand sharpening plane and chisel blades. I have to really focus my mind and concentrate. It’s a kind of meditation that puts me in the mood to work.
JWA: What are your thoughts on the future of Japanese woodcraft both in Japan and the US.
Hiroshi: There’s still a need for traditional woodworking in Japan, especially for repairing traditional structures—temples etc. Learning the traditional techniques takes a lot of time and concentration. It’s not easy. You start at the bottom as a deshi cleaning up the shop and worksite. I don’t think there are many young people with the patience now. Especially in this new world of smart phones and robots. Maybe some young people are getting tired of all the technology and want to work with their hands. I’m surprised about how much interest there is in learning Japanese carpentry in the US. There’s also interest in just learning Japanese hand-planing. They have contests in the US, Europe, and Japan to see who can plane the thinnest and consistent quality strand of wood. People enter these contests who aren’t even carpenters. I spoke to someone who was a retired computer programmer. This hobby is really good for the Japanese woodworking tool business and helps interest in Japanese carpentry.
JWA: What is the single piece of advice you would give to anyone wanting to learn Japanese woodwork and carpentry?
Hiroshi: In Japanese carpentry, it’s important to get a really strong foundation about how to use the tools and how best to sharpen blades. A deshi spends the first year of training learning how to sharpen.
JWA: Name a house, building or temple in Japan that’d you recommend to first time visitors to Japan with a passion for woodwork.
Hiroshi: There are so many places, it’s hard to answer this. Castles can be fun to visit —to walk through and see all the different kinds of construction. A good example is Himeji-jo in Hyogo Prefecture. It also depends on what style of Japanese architecture you like. If you want to look at sukiya-style, then go to the Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto.
JWA NOTE: For more tips on a visit to Japan from a woodcraft perspective, check out our Places To Visit list here.
JWA: Do you teach Japanese woodwork or know of others who do in North America?
Hiroshi: I don’t have any deshi (apprentice). In Japan I’d be called a “lone wolf” carpenter. We get emails from people who want to study with me. My wife, Ann, answers those, so she’s the person to answer this question.
Ann: When people inquire, I often refer them to Jay Van Arsdale who teaches Japanese woodworking at Laney College in Oakland, CA. He formed a group called Daiku Dojo of American woodworkers who study and do projects involving Japanese carpentry skills. He also wrote a book called Shoji: How to Design, Build, and Install Shoji Screens. Besides Jay who teaches courses, there are companies doing Japanese construction that were started by carpenters who studied in Japan and have a construction team. I don’t know if they’re taking on apprentices. Some of them are: East Wind started by Lennie Brackett, Santa Cruz Timberframes started by Karl Bareis, Takumi Company in Seattle started by Dale Brotherton, Joinery Structures started by Paul Discoe. People can also contact Kezuroukai USA. They organize planing contests but do more than that to promote Japanese carpentry skills and are a good resource for people wanting to learn Japanese carpentry. There’s a quarterly magazine called “Sukiya Living”. It’s mainly about Japanese gardening, but also has commentary from people doing Japanese carpentry in the US.
JWA NOTE: For the latest news on courses in the USA and elsewhere click here