Inami wood Carving | The exclusive Art of Traditional Japan


Inami Wood Carving standing out with Artistic expression

Inami wood carving refers to wood carvings made in the Inami area of Nanto City (Whatashi) in southwestern Toyama Prefecture. Inami is known as the best town for wood carving in Japan, and is also famous as the town in front of an old temple called Zuisenji Temple. The Inami wood carving originated in Zuisenji Temple and was fostered in the culture of the temple carpenters.

Inami woodcarving is characterized by its lively, three-dimensional carvings of pine, bamboo, flowers, birds, wind, and the moon, as well as dragons, lions, and other imaginary creatures. The elaborate wood carvings, which look as if they are alive, are made using the “Sukashibori” technique, in which only a chisel is used to carve the wood.

A characteristic of Inami sculpture is that more arts and crafts are produced than woodwork used in daily life. Traditionally, traditional items such as ranma, lion heads, and statues of Sugawara Michizane have been made, but in recent years, young sculptors have been experimenting with new approaches. As a result, completely new works, such as decorated musical instruments and accessories, are appearing more and more, while inheriting the techniques of Iwa carving.

wood carving in Inami
Source: Inami wood carving Corperative

 Inami wood carving Historical Background

Inami wood carving 250 years of history

Zuisenji Temple dates back to the Muromachi period (1390-1573), when it was founded by the fifth generation Honganji monk, Shakunyo Shonin. During the Warring States period, Zuisenji became a base for the Ichimukai Putsch, which was a revolt against the Jodo sect of Buddhism. The Ikkyu Putsch was a revolt by followers of the Honganji sect of the Jodo Shinshu sect, which later became a symbol of anti-authority. Zuisenji was also involved in the revolt, and its buildings were destroyed by fire several times, but each time it was rebuilt with the support of many followers.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), after the war had ended, Zuisen-ji was again destroyed by fire in the Horeki fire of 1762. At that time, Maekawa Sanshiro, an official sculptor of Higashi Honganji Temple in Kyoto, was sent to rebuild the temple. Under him, four Inami palace carpenters, including Shichizaemon Tamura, the ninth generation of Bansho-ya, learned the highly artistic wood carving techniques of Kyoto, which is said to have been the beginning of Inami wood carving.

In 1792, Shichizaemon completed his masterpiece, a wood carving of a “lion cub dropping” on both sides of the Zuisenji Imperial Gate gate. Since then, Inami woodcarving has produced many masters and masterpieces.

wood carving in Inami
Source: Inami wood carving Corperative

In the Meiji period, the stage of activity shifted from temples and shrines to houses

Until the Edo period, Iwa wood carving was mainly used for temples and shrines, but after the Meiji period (1868-1912), it began to produce mainly ranma carvings. The reason for this is the spread of Japanese-style houses with ranma (columns) after the Meiji period.

In 1914, a Shoin Ranma by Goun Oshima, a woodcarver from Inami, was exhibited at the San Francisco World’s Fair and won an honorary gold medal. In 1920, the Inami Carving Association was formed. As an organization, they developed ranma for residential use, and Inami wood carving became widely known as “Inami ranma” and became an industry in the town.

In addition to ranma, the town also began to produce wood carvings for home use, such as screens and ornaments, and Inami wood carving was transformed from a form of shrine carpentry that decorated temples and shrines to an everyday wood carving that adorned daily life.

wood carving in Inami
Source: Goin’ Japanesque!

After the period of rapid economic growth, Inami became a town of tourism.

In the 1960s, automobiles became popular among ordinary households. People moved to the suburbs in search of shopping centers, and the commercial town gradually declined and vacant stores became conspicuous. In 1975, Inami wood carving was designated as a national traditional handicraft, which triggered the relocation of many Inami wood carving workshops to Yokaicho-dori.

The medieval townscape with the sound of wooden hammers became famous for its retro atmosphere, attracting many tourists since 1980. The Inami area’s proximity to Gokayama, with its gassho-zukuri houses, has also increased the number of tourists. 1996 saw a total of 1.02 million visitors to Inami. In 1996, a total of 1.02 million tourists visited Inami, making it the second most visited tourist destination in Toyama Prefecture, after the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and Gokayama.

Source: Ohta Toshiharu

Production Process

1. preliminary drawing

Materials are purchased from Japan, mainly camphorwood, paulownia, zelkova, and other woods suited to the purpose for which they are created. The wood is allowed to dry naturally for six months to a year before it is cut into pieces according to the size of the work. The finished design is drawn on Japanese paper using charcoal as a rough sketch, and the rough sketch is copied directly onto the wood. If the design is written on the wood from the beginning, it will disappear during the carving process, making it difficult to see the finished product.

2.Rough drilling

Using the copied sketch as a reference, a “thread saw” is used to roughly shave off unnecessary portions.

3.Rough removal

Using a chisel or carving knife, carve more finely. The work is then beaten and broken down using “rough carving chisels (15-6 types)” and a “gennou” to create the outline of the work.

 4.Rough carving

Using as many as 70 different types of chisels, the entire design of the work is carved into the rough-hewn surface of the wood. Once a rough design comes into view, more than 200 thin “rough carving chisels” are used to bring out the shape of the work that was envisioned. Since Inami sculpture is a three-dimensional, double-sided, openwork deep carving work, the above rough carving and small carving are repeated on the reverse side in the same way. The surface is mirrored, and the carving is completed while checking for any discrepancies between the reverse side and the front side through the gap created by the “thread sawing machine”.

5. Finish carving

Since the surface is still bumpy and rough, it is necessary to smooth it out. Without using any sandpaper at all, a bean planer is used to finish the carving by shaping the surface with large and small finishing chisels while making the surface even. After the necessary coloring and decorations are applied to the product, the entire surface is thoroughly checked to ensure that it is finished as intended, and the product is completed after the final “no-repair” process.

Zuisenji Temple, a temple where you can see Inami sculptures

If you want to see Inami sculptures, the best place to visit is Zuisenji Temple, which has greatly influenced the technique of Inami sculpture. Officially called “Zuisen-ji Temple of the Otani sect of Shinshu Buddhism,” Zuisen-ji Temple is surrounded by solid stone walls and was the base of the Ikko Brotherhood during the Warring States Period.

All of the sculptures in Zuisenji Temple were created by Inami sculpture craftsmen, and many of them still remain delicate and powerful works of art. Not only large works such as transoms and statues, but also detailed carvings are found in unexpected places, making it fun to search for them one by one.

The temple is open to visitors from 9:00 to16:30, and is basically open year-round. 55 minutes by bus from JR Takaoka Station and 15 minutes by car from the Tonami Interchange, the temple is located in a quiet, green location. There are not many worshippers, so this is a good place to visit when you want to relax in a quiet place and view historical sculptures.

Zuisenji temple
Zuisenji temple

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