If it came down to it, most of us could hammer basic shelter together with enough wood and nails. But what if we just had the wood? And what if we needed to make not just a hut, but a full-fledged building: a livable house, or even a house of worship? That may well sound like an impossible task — unless, of course, you’ve trained as a miyadaiku (宮大工), the class of Japanese carpenter tasked with building and maintaining buildings like shrines and temples. Without a single nail or screw, miyadaiku join wood directly to wood — a method of joinery know as kanawatsugi (金輪継) — and in so doing manage to build some of the world’s longest-lasting wooden structures, just as they’ve done for centuries upon centuries.
Back when this style of carpentry first developed in Japan more than a millennium ago, “it was difficult to acquire iron.” And so “people tried to build buildings only with wood,” making up for what they lacked in tools with sheer skill. So says Takahiro Matsumoto, a miyadaiku carpenter based in the city of Kamakura, in the Great Big Story video above.
Japan’s de facto capital from the late 12th to early 14th century, Kamakura is still filled with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some built more than 1,200 years ago. To build new temples and shrines, or to provide the existing ones with the repairs they need every century or two, a miyadaiku must master a host of differently shaped wooden joints, each of them developed over generations to hold as tightly and solidly as possible.
For another view of kanawatsugi, have a look at The Joinery, a library of explanatory animations previously featured here on Open Culture. You can see exactly how each of these joints are cut and assembled for real-life projects — as well as every other aspect of how miyadaiku put together a building — at the Youtube channel Japanese Architecture: Wisdom of Our Ancestors. The channel is aptly named, for only with a high regard for the carpentry knowledge gradually built up, tested, and refined by their predecessors could today’s miyadaiku do their work. “Advanced skills are needed, but we work with the old buildings built by our ancestors,” says Matsumoto. “Today, we also learn from the ancestors’ skills, since the old buildings themselves are standing documents of those skills.” Each and every one testifies to how, for want of a nail, some of the most admired architecture in the world was born.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.