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Giving Dimension to a Traditional Formative Art
Kazuo Ueno, Okazaki Stonework Artisan
The city of Okazaki in Aichi Prefecture is known as one of Japan's foremost stonemasonry centers. Around the latter half of the sixteenth century, stonemasons from Kawachi and Izumi-no-Kuni (in present-day Osaka Prefecture) were relocated to Okazaki in order to build structures, such as stone walls and fences, for the lord of Okazaki Castle. After polishing their skills and techniques, these artisans began to transform locally quarried granite into stone lanterns, marking the start of Okazaki stone products. The city's stonemasonry industry was designated one of Japan's traditional crafts in 1979. Today Okazaki is home to approximately 170 stonemasonry establishments that produce lanterns and other stone objects, including pagodas and water basins.
Kazuo Ueno (46) is one of the artisans continuing to carry on this traditional stonemasonry. He is the proprietor of a company called Stone Ueichi and, as head of the Okazaki Stone Products Cooperatives Association's traditional craft section, is actively involved in publicizing the industry and in training apprentices. Ueno explains, "Granite produced in Okazaki not only resists weathering but also is distinguished by the beauty of its fine-grained texture as well as its cohesiveness, which makes it easy to work with. It thus lends itself to intricate carving."
Various styles of lanterns found throughout Japan are produced in Okazaki. Even broadly grouped there are as many as 33 types. Two representative ones are Kasuga and Okunoin. "Both are based on the lanterns found at Kasuga Taisha, a shrine in Nara Prefecture, and both display to excellent effect the refinement of the sculpting and finishing techniques," comments Ueno. Handwork performed with traditional implements—a chisel and a mallet—is fundamental to the production process. The hands of skilled artisans meticulously shape objects one by one.
"Production of a single Kasuga-style lantern takes one or two weeks. Its different parts are created separately and then assembled at the end," Ueno says. A Kasuga lantern has six basic components. From the bottom up, they are a pedestal, a column, a middle platform, a light compartment, a roof, and a finial. "Stonemason apprentices," explains Ueno, "begin by making the lower parts and then gradually proceed upward until they finish their training by producing finials. Executing subtle contours and so forth, however, all depends on an artisan's experience and sensitivity."
Originally used as lighting around buildings and along roads, stone lanterns evolved into temple and shrine all-night lights. It is said that people began to place lanterns and water basins in gardens when the tea ceremony gained popularity starting in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nowadays, stone lanterns and other objects carved from rock have come to be instrumental objects for enhancing gardens. "Japanese gardens are also popular in other countries, and we get orders from places like Australia, Germany, and the United States," Ueno reports. "Each garden has its own character, though. So if the right lantern isn't used, a garden's beauty isn't brought to light. That's why I make an effort to look at customers' gardens and then propose lantern types and sizes before I start to make anything."
Last year this artisan carved out a 75-ton boulder to make Japan's largest single-stone bath—a communal tub capable of holding 30 bathers—at a hot-spring location. Through such endeavors, he is taking traditional stone-masonry into brand-new areas.