BY SOPHIE KNIGHT STAFF WRITER
Thatchers take a well-earned rest after toiling at a 3-day workshop in Kobe's Kita Ward. (Provided by Kayabuki-ya)Thatchers get down to business in Kyoto. (Provided by Kayabuki-ya)
Such is the march of progress. Concrete, metal, wood, carbon slats and clay roof tiles define the way homes are built today.
But over the centuries, one technique has endured: the thatched roof. Not only is it one of the oldest building techniques known, it offers the added advantages of durability and protection from the elements -- although one cannot downplay the risks of fire hazard.
The work of creating a thatched roof from scratch also fosters community spirit, still alive and well in rural Japan but less so in the nation's cities.
Although many regard thatching as a dying art, a new generation of craftsmen in Japan is trying to keep it alive. One of those is Minoru Shiozawa, a representative of Kayabuki-ya, a company that runs thatching workshops.
"I don't think it will ever disappear," says Shiozawa. "As well as being a symbol of tradition and living in harmony with nature, it fulfills the requirements of modern architecture: It's sustainable, requires no gas or electricity and produces zero carbon emissions."
This summer, efforts to conserve energy in Japan have sharpened people's appreciation for traditional ecological practices. Although for some that merely means turning the air-conditioner up a notch or two, a more extreme step would be to live in a thatched house--assuming one could afford one -- since they are naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
This was well-known in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when thatched houses were the norm. Back then, thatching was a social activity that sustained "yui," or community bonds.
Villagers got together to harvest grasses and reeds grown on communal land, before identifying the neighbor's house that most needed renovating, and working on the roof together. As neighbors knotted straw, they also metaphorically knotted together in a social sense, bound by relationships of obligation and goodwill.
As ecologist Azby Brown wrote in his book, "Just Enough," thatching was a "microcosm of village society and its values," since it involved free materials, cooperative labor, extensive re-use and zero waste.
It also preserved the environment.
"Human intervention, in the form of harvesting the reeds and grasses, is actually a form of conservation. It keeps the fields and paddies healthy, and used thatch can be used as compost, feeding the natural cycle," explains Shiozawa.
One of the reeds used, "phragmites australis," or "yoshi" in Japanese, also cleans streams and paddy water by absorbing phosphorus and nitrogen, preventing mold.
Thatching went into sharp decline after the Meiji Era (1868-1912) triggered a wave of modernization. The number of experienced craftsmen declined dramatically.
However, after the village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, which is full of unique "gassho"-style thatched houses, gained U.N. World Heritage status in 1995, thatchers experienced a swell in demand, and a new generation of craftsmen was born.
"Even though there's no longer an expert thatcher in every village, there's a growing number of specialists in the construction industry," says Shiozawa. "Many traditional restaurants, and hotels like to have thatched roofs because it evokes a kind of nostalgia for the past."
Although the process is both time- and labor- intensive, Shiozawa estimates that it would take seven full-time staff and five part-timers two months to complete a short course in thatching a 300-meter-square roof. The course, which typically lasts three days, teaches the basics of the craft.
"A thatched house is a piece of cultural heritage that you are in charge of preserving for the next person to use," says Shiozawa. "If we don't teach the next generation how to live sustainably, we will inevitably reach a state where we have exhausted all our resources. That's why we're trying to educate the next generation with our workshops."
* * *
To learn more about Kayabuki-ya and to book courses, please visit (http://kayabuki-ya.net)