Samurai! Many places throughout Japan claim to have a strong samurai history, but looking at the history of the Owari domain (present day Aichi) and nearby Kiso Valley which they controlled, one can truly feel why this area was such a pivotal location throughout Japanese history, and thus, a place that bred strong samurai.
First of all, it’s important to understand that east and west Japan are basically split by this area. The large forests provided raw materials for industry and the expansive flatlands provided ample space to grow rice, which was as good as money for much of history. This made the area a highly sought-after location and often a target of other domains.
Shortly after the Battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600, which led to the Tokugawa Shogunate reign for nearly 300 years, the area fell into controlled of the Owari Tokugawa family and became known as the Owari Domain. The Owari Domain was considered one of the highest-ranking houses of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The domain headquarters was Nagoya Castle, now a popular sightseeing destination.
The second thing to know is that having a strong samurai culture does not only mean being strong warriors. Samurai are also very well educated and skilled in various crafts. They also required a very good surrounding cast of craftsmen, artisans, farmers, and more. This is a key factor when learning about and seeing samurai culture from a modern point-of-view.
A series of videos was recently released introducing some of the traditional crafts, culture, local people, and more that all can relate back to the Owari Domain. A key point throughout all of the videos is how the local timber industry was developed and connects to many of the crafts still done today. The forests in this area were at one point all cut down, but the Owari Domain saw the importance of growing and preserving the forests in a more sustainable way for future generations. You can see the passion and connection that the craftsman have with the wood. The Japanese cypress trees in the area become some of the highest quality timber in Japan, but are only limitedly available, making them quite valuable.
We recommend watching all the videos, but a highlights video can be found here.
In this video Chris Glenn, historian & radio DJ, gives some great insight into what samurai truly were and how it is not the same as what many westerns imagine them to be. This is an important starting point, as it sets up how various traditional crafts and cultures come from the samurai. The cormorant caught fish introduced are some of the most valuable and desired fish in Japan. A variety of crafts including karakuri automata, geta sandals, natural dyes, and more are also introduced.
Adam Zgola, a Canadian-born professional carpenter in Japan, explains how and why over hundreds of years, Japanese smiths have developed very high-quality tools to be used when doing woodworking and how both the craftsmen making and using the tools have worked together to perfect them. You can see this clearly in how the exquisite Oroku Combs are creating. Techniques have also been developed to make thin straw-like pieces of wood from the Japanese cypress trees that are used to create hats and other similar products. And of course, many woodworking projects wouldn’t be complete without a good lacquer.
The area was at the base of a long mountain journey for those passing through. The loggers would also have to make this journey as well when heading into the mountains. This video also introduces some of the natural landscape, cultural buildings, and traditional confectionaries to help prepare all of those heading out to or coming down from the mountainous journey.
As the weather turns cold and snow starts to blanket the area, a different culture can be seen. Adam continues to explain how the life of timber doesn’t end with when a carpenter completes his project, but continues to live through the way the owners take care of and cherish the wood. A local instrument maker is looking to be more sustainable by creating drums with leftover scrap wood to reduce wasting raw materials. Most of this video looks more into the lives of the locals to see their passion for the area. Hear from a local soba restaurant owner explain how protecting the forests of Kiso has been a part of life for hundreds of years, a sake maker branding his products on the loggers of the past, a historic tea house owner, temple priest, kabuki theatre guide, and ranger whose job is to protect the mountain.
Chris Glenn returns to explain how the samurai spirit still exists today. A Japanese cypress woodworker and craftsman of Oke (wooden tubs) explains how the people of pasts generations were aware of sustainability and the need to prepare forests for future generations. We also hear from some more locals talking about their crafts and the quality of the timber in the area including a miso maker, sake producer, wood artisan, and udon restaurant owner.