Hiroshi Miura, bucket-maker of Kotobuki, is building a waterwheel. He works in his front room beside the street, cross-legged on a raised straw-mat platform. You knock gently on the thin glass door and slide it a few inches. He peers up into the afternoon light. The hinoki cypress of the wheel glows pinkish. The shavings look like fish flakes for soup. The aroma comes at you, peppery and minty. Miura says, Yes, it smells good doesn’t it.
This is your second visit. You want to ask about some items he has in an exhibition near here, in Iriya. He says, I will get you a pamphlet. He steps off the platform into slippers and picks his way to the living room at the rear, around a clutter of intricately crafted model houses, shrines and boats, cuts of timber, unfinished works, tools and papers. The last time you visited, he said to you, I’m cleaning up, why don’t you come back in a week. Then he chatted for an hour.
A month later, it looks the same. But it looks good, a room like this. If you were a kid you’d get in trouble, picking up every second object, because it brims with life and a sort of humour. This is Komagata-do, he says, the shrine where you could say Asakusa was born. And this is the boat from which the fishermen netted the Kannon goddess of mercy. You could live in my houses he says, they are made in the actual way, not like a film set – see, the doors open. He picks up a lattice sliding gate. He says, The miniature buckets hold water. He stacks two wooden cubes on top of each other, demonstrating something. I know how Hoyruji goes together, he says, of the ancient pagoda of Nara.
The profession on his namecard is oke-ya, though this word for bucket-maker covers bathtubs too. It’s not just any trade – like bathing in this culture is not just about washing. A hinoki bathtub can cost over a million yen. Miura’s father was an oke-ya too, his grandfather was a boat-builder. He doesn’t make so many tubs now. He says, I make what I want, and if I don’t want to, I don’t. Will he sell his waterwheel? Yes I’ll sell it, he says. But sometimes things don’t sell.
He was born and grew up in Asakusa. The roads were unpaved, and there was a lot of backstreet life. Kids played outside their homes, and people said hello to each other. There were many with good arms, he says – the phrase for manually skilled. But craftsmen are disappearing. I’m thinking of retiring while my arm is still good, he says. He is 88 in November. It’s an auspicious age – the characters look like a rice plant. I want to live on the soil, he says, and the nuance you hear is something like: I want to live in the soil, as part of the soil. But you don’t get the idea he wants to move away from downtown. Asakusa is his terroir, he is rooted here. In the asphalt. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t travel. He has shown his miniatures in France. He says, Of course, France is a country of culture, and for craftsmen there are no borders. We speak the same, understand the same problems.
But these days people just depend on machines, he says. These days we rely on brute force. We’ve forgotten what a good knife is, the feel of a good cut. We just push. We can no longer do the obvious. Take those nuclear water leaks. The storage tanks are rubbish. We can fly into space, but we can’t make a tank that doesn’t leak.
If Hiroshi Miura knows about anything, he knows about containers that hold water.
We’ve forgotten what a good knife is, the feel of a good cut. We just push. We can no longer do the obvious.
He shows you pictures of a cluster of low buildings, with dolls dressed as courtesans, virtually a small town. I built this, he says, the Yoshiwara. It’s the traditional brothel district, north of Asakusa. He says, You know, Taito-ku council bought it. They exhibited it, in Showa 56. That was 1981. He says, They’re showing it again next year. Some people tut-tut because it’s a prostitution district. He smiles. And come to think of it, maybe it’s odd the council bought it. But it’s part of life, right? It’s in kabuki, in literature.
He brings out the pamphlet. There is an exhibition at the museum in Iriya dedicated to revered Meiji-era poet and author Ichiyo Higuchi, who appears on the 5,000-yen note. She wrote about her life around the Yoshiwara, among other things, before dying at 24. Miura has built recreations of the houses she lived in, including a sweets shop, and they are in the show.
He examines the waterwheel, looking closely at the square bracing over the star-pattern of struts. Yes, he says, sitting back slightly. I made some good space. He calls your attention to the open air between the square, diagonal and circular forms. Then he talks about the Edo-era painted screen, by Sotatsu Tawaraya, of the wind and thunder gods, Fu-jin and Rai-jin. You know, he says, that painting is all about space. The power is in what you can’t see in the middle. It’s like the moment you meet someone, the ah and the un, the in-breath and the out-breath, the open mouth and closed mouth of deities like at Kaminarimon. It’s all about the space between, the moment between. Like in calligraphy, he says, when you brush on the black ink you make a space on the white paper. To know beauty you have to understand space. Japanese aesthetics is about space.
His words must have an effect, because amid the fragrance of wood and the sound of his voice you look out past the tools and handmade things and see how the day has already faded to dusk, how the wheel has turned.