Battari Shōgi

I’m guessing that most readers will be wondering what on earth today’s post title refers to- ‘battari shōgi‘. Now, the word shōgi might be known to readers who are familiar with the Japanese chess-like game of the same name. However, in this case we are talking about a different thing. You see, the game shōgi is written with the characters ‘将棋’ the first of which, ‘将’ means ‘commander’ and the second of which, ‘棋’, means ‘a square or rectangular wooden playing table’, – thus shōgi in that sense means a wooden game table with commanders/generals on it, a reference to the game itself obviously.

That’s all very interesting, however I know about as much about the game of shōgi as nuclear medicine (not much). I watched a shōgi game once and it was much harder to follow than chess. Pretty daunting.

Now, the shōgi I want to talk about today is written in kanji as: ‘床几’ The first character, ‘床’, means ‘wooden floor’, and is in fact the same character used in the word toko-no-ma ‘床の間’, the Japanese decorative alcove most commonly found in the guest room of traditional Japanese houses and palaces. That might be confusing, I suppose, and take it from me, Japanese is a confusing language — the character ‘床’ is read shō in the ‘Chinese’ reading, and toko in the ‘Japanese’ reading. And as if that wasn’t enough to perplex, ‘床’ can also be read as yuka, meaning ‘floor’, and as an adjective, yukashii, which means ‘admirable; charming; tasteful’.

The second character, ‘几’ has, mercifully, only a single ‘Chinese’ reading, normally read ki – it takes the sound ‘gi‘ when it forms a suffix. The character is, perhaps obviously, a pictograph of a table, and the character’s dictionary meaning is ‘armrest; table’. Taken together, ‘床几’ means either a ‘floor bench’ or ‘a folding camp stool”.

Well, it means a little more than that actually- ‘床几’ refers to any sort of table that is collapsible, folds up/down, or is convertible in some way. In Kyōto, the traditional merchant houses have a folding table attached to the outer wall of the building. This table attaches to the wall with wooden pin hinges, and has a pair of legs, sometimes three legs, which are also hinged on wooden pins to the table’s underside. This table is referred to as an age-shōgi or battari shōgi. The first of these, age-shōgi (the word ‘age‘ by the way is pronounced ‘ah-gey‘) means ‘lifted table’, or ‘raised table’, an easy enough concept. The second term is rather more colorful and thus my choice for the title of this post. You see, the term battari, ‘ばったり,’ is a uniquely Japanese word, and has no kanji. It doesn’t really exist in the dictionary for that matter, except as part of a few other expressions. One of those expressions is yuki atari-battari (行き当たりばったり), which means, roughly, ‘on the spur of the moment; haphazardly; take a chance’. The suffix -battari is used when describing sudden unexpected happenings, like bumping unexpectedly into a long-lost friend on the street, or without warning having to dodge something coming at you, to experience something that suddenly collapses, etc. A good synonym might be ‘impromptu’. So, a battari-shōgi is a bench that, on the spur of the moment, on a whim, one might fold up or down. Battari, I have also read, refers in this particular case to the sound the bench makes as its feet hit the ground. Wall-mounted benches were first used in the Heian period (794-1185) as a place to display the things a merchant was selling, for the merchant and a customer or two to sit down, and as a place for merchant family members to sit in the evening to watch the activities on the street. Later on, in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), larger benches became commonplace, on these the merchant could display more goods and it was these benches that we made so that they could be folded away. On a Kyōto merchant house, or machi-ya, the folding bench is lowered by day (although this is apparently a rare practice these days), where it serves as a place to display wares, be they vegetables, pottery and so forth. At night, the merchandise is taken inside the house and the bench folded up.

Don’t worry – this blog is still about carpentry – please excuse my indulgence in a little trip down kanji lane. Japanese is an interesting and endlessly-fascinating language. Back to the wood stuff then….

Here’s a few examples of battari-shōgi, in case the suspense was starting to make any readers itchy or agitated:

Now folded down:

A few more examples:

The last one is particularly informative, as it shows by use of the fence that the battari-shōgi is not intended to be a sitting bench. In fact, in my personal experience when in Japan, I well remember being scolded one time by Japanese co-worker for partially sitting on a table. While it is a fairly common western habit, in Japan, at least when I lived there, it was a definite no-no.

The Boston Children’s Museum happens to have a Kyōto Machi-ya inside, complete with battari-shōgi. The building was a gift to the city of Boston on an anniversary of the sister city relationship between Kyōto and Boston. In fact, the first Japanese embassy in the US was set up in Boston, so the relationship between the two cities is the oldest of any sister-city relationship between the US and Japan.

The folding table was constructed by a Japanese carpenter when the building was installed in the museum in the late 1970’s, so it is not especially antique. The Machi-ya itself, at least most of it, is a bit over 100 years old, and is two stories tall. it’s a lovely structure, and I relished my first visit to see it and the walk upon the tatami mats -ahhh! There’s something about Japaense interior spaces I have always found utterly beguiling – and hard to explain to those who have not experienced such spaces.

The Japanese house in the Museum is called the Kyō-no-Machi-ya (the Kyōto Merchant House). The Museum has contracted with me to do a few repair jobs on the house, and one of the priority items was the battari-shōgi, which has sufffered a lot of wear and tear as it has been used as a bench for visitors to sit on while they remove their shoes. Imagine 5o~70 people a day sitting on the bench, once coming in and once coming out, and multiply this out by the days and years, and one can understand that the Southern Yellow Pine from which the bench is made (at least it looks like SYP) has not held up so well. The Museum is concerned about splinters for one thing. Also, the wooden hinges for the bench are worn out and I suggested that it could become a hazard if failure occurred at either hinge location.

Anyhow, after some consultation and discussion, the essential fact remained that the bench would continue to be used for sitting. So, I proposed replacement of the bench frame and construction of a new frame in a more durable wood than SYP, given the wear and tear patterns, and consensus was reached on that matter with museum staff. So, I will describe the construction of that new bench here on the Carpentry Way. Yes, it’s time for another build thread! I will alternate this build thread with the French sawhorse build – it’ll keep me busy over the holidays at least, along with the essay writing and editing (and more)!

I do hope that readers will find this build of some interest, and thanks for dropping by today.

–> go to part 2

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