Is its Bark Worse than its Bite?

Traditional wooden architecture in China reached it’s peak of development in roughly the 11th century AD, at which point it began to decline due to destruction of the forest base. China mowed down its forests to the point of timber shortages, and thus building methods changed as a result, moving towards rammed earth and stone walling techniques with timber roofs. This process occurred in a similar manner to Europe, just a couple of centuries ahead of the pace.

The Japanese adopted Buddhism in around the 6th or 7th century, and along with that import, brought Chinese writing, music, arts, and temple building to Japan. By ‘import’ I mean they brought in experts, for example Chinese Temple carpenters, who constructed Chinese temples in Japan, working with Japanese assistants who learned from these masters. After a flurry of such importation, Japan would close up again, and ‘stew’ on these new developments, adopting what they liked and what worked in the culture, rejecting what they didn’t and modifying other elements to suit Japanese tastes.

There were several later re-openings, where Chinese and Korean experts were again brought in, and given the intervening period, inevitably brought with them the latest developments in the field, be it in language arts or building techniques. Here’s the curious thing though: instead of discarding the older, presumably ‘out-dated’ modes, the Japanese simply added the new stuff to the old, then they would close up again, let the new material percolate and interweave with the old.

This process, has resulted in a fairly confusing picture to the person of today wishing to look at many things that are ‘traditional Japanese’. In Chinese, a given written character is expressed by one reading in a given dialect, be it Mandarin or Cantonese. For instance the character ‘大’ means ‘big’ and derives from a pictograph of a person standing, feet apart and arms outstretched. In proto-Chinese this character was pronounced ‘tat‘. When the Japanese first adopted it, the pronunciation they made their own at that point in history was ‘tai‘. Later, the pronunciation of ‘dai‘ was added, a reflection of the change in pronunciation in China and a new borrowing. In China today that character is read ‘da‘ in Mandarin (I’m not sure about how it is pronounced in Cantonese). Not only do the Japanese preserve the two pronunciations (either of which are likely to be approximations of the Chinese pronunciation since Japanese has different language phonemes than Chinese and, unlike Chinese, is not tonal). Compounding the complexity is that the Japanese have indigenous words of their own, meaning ‘big’, in existence of course before the Chinese characters were adopted, and these are also used as readings for that character: o (a long ‘o’ sound), and okii, and oinaru. That’s right, in Japanese there are at least 5 different ways to read that one simple character (many characters are less chock-a-block with readings, and yet others have even more readings), and sometimes characters have additional ‘borrowed’ readings as well, a fairly confusing situation for the prospective language learner to say the least. Of course, the English language is also filled with confusing complexities, and I don’t envy anyone trying to learn it as a second language either.

It’s the same confusing situation, more or less, when looking at traditional Japanese wooden architecture today, especially the temples. In Japan today you can see the finest examples of 7th century Chinese temple building, along with perfectly preserved 12th century Chinese, along with Japanese temples which incorporate, to a greater or lesser degree the root elements from Chinese architecture and their own indigenous adaptations and developments.

In general, it can be said that Japanese innovations in temple construction were numerous – though subtle in some ways. The most important Japanese development from Chinese antecedents was the double-roof system, which allowed the appearance of rafters at the eave (or when viewed from interior spaces in some cases) to have no connection to the structural rafters bearing the roof load. Additionally, the Japanese sense of aesthetics and space led to a pronounced softening of the strong curves of hip rafters as was typical on Chinese temple buildings, solved spacing problems with two-tier raftered eaves, and featured different roof shapes and materials than were used in China. In Chinese buildings, typically the hip rafters curve strongly, to the point of verticality in some cases, and the ridge of the building, in roofs which are gabled or hipped-and-gabled, are typically also up-swept at each end. The reason for the ridge looking this ways relates to issues in the gable end barge board when the body of the roof is curved along the slope – this is a rather complex matter to explain fully and outside the scope of this posting.

The two predominant roof forms in Chinese roofs are the gable and the hipped roof – the hipped gable is far less common. The Chinese preferred the hipped roof for temples, feeling that it conveyed monumentality most effectively.

In Japan, the hipped gable, or irimoya, became the preferred roof form, the hipped roof and gable roof a little less common. Developments associated to the double roof structure allowed for greater refinements in the gable end treatment in that roof, softened the eave lines, and removed the up-swept ridgeline. The Japanese also like to subtly play with the overall roof form, having both roofs that are slightly concave across the slope, and convex. While Chinese roofs were almost exclusively shingled with tiles, Japanese roofs also feature extensive use of wooden and bark shingles, and in more recent times especially, interlocking rectangular shingles of copper sheet. In some cases, roof materials are combined in one roof, with mixes of wood or bark shingles at the lower part and edges of the roof, and tiles for a upper section, and the ridge. This sort of thing is not seen in Chinese wooden architecture as far as I know.

There are specialist forest workers in Japan who harvest the bark from trees for use as roofing material. This bark is harvested from the living tree – generally the hinoki (chamaecyparis obtusa), so that the tree is not killed by the process of removing parts of the bark. In fact, the tree can be harvested for bark again and again. The Northwest Coast Indians of B.C. also traditionally harvested bark and even planks from cedar trees in a similar manner – it’s called sustainable practice.

Here’s a picture of a Japanese bark harvester at work:

The bark is removed in long strips and then piled carefully on the ground:

Then it is cut into length and bundled:

On the roof, the tools of choice for working the bark are the hatchet:

And adze:

Here’s a view of the roofer applying the bark shingles to a temple – the term for bark roof shingling is hiwada-buki, and as you can see the shingle exposure is rather minimal:

His mouth is full of dozens of little wooden nails, which he grabs one by one with one hand from his mouth and smoothly hammers them down with the other, at blinding speed – it really is something to see.

Another view:

And here’s how a finished hiwada-buki roof looks, in this very classic and beautiful example of a Japanese temple:

I have had some opportunity to do bark roof shingling as well, which I will detail in the second part of this post.

3 Replies to “Is its Bark Worse than its Bite?”

  1. Chris,What tools are being used in stripping the bark from the trees? I am also curious on the size of the bamboo nails they use to fasten them with. The only book I have that mentions bark roofing in any detail is “Minka: Traditional farmhouses of rural Japan”, but it only has hand drawn sketches of the tools, and they seem to be designed for felled trees instead of standing. Do the Japanese have any equivalent to the froe? I know there is mention that wooden shakes are occasionally used, but they seem to be much thinner than the western ones.

  2. its interesting in the differences between the China & Japan.
    One book I read several years ago “In Search of Lost Roses” details the breeding of roses. The English (island) tended to pick a variety of rose and keep inbreeding it to refine the variety to the highest extent. The French (continental) on the other hand were constantly experimenting to come up with the new & varied.

  3. A few years ago I had a Japanese woodworking class with Osamu Shoji – he had this great book on Japanese roofs. Title is “Yane”. You can order through Kinokuniya Bookstore in NYC. ISBN: 9784473031686

    Tom P.

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