Issue 12 T.O.C. – Douglas Brooks – “The Last Boatbuilder of the Nagara River”

This post is part of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Twelve. As is our custom, we’ll be discussing one article per weekday in order to give you a taste of what is come. 

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Douglas Brooks – The Last Boatbuilder of the Nagara River”

For over a thousand years, fishermen on the Nagara River in central Japan have utilized tamed cormorants (diving birds) to fish from simple bamboo or wooden boats, known as ubune. Today, when just a handful of these cormorant fishermen or usho remain, the tradition of building their vessels is a revered and guarded practice. But preserving the secrets of the trade is a matter of urgency. 

In this issue, author and boatbuilder Douglas Brooks embarks on a fascinating journey into a vanished world. After years of pursuit, the opportunity opened for him to study the construction of ubune under the tutelage of Mr. Seiichi Nasu, the last remaining builder of the craft. Nasu at the time was 85 years old, and the physical aspects of the work were becoming too difficult for him. Brooks would have to do all the manual labor in the project, with Nasu laying the lines. “I agreed to Nasu’s terms immediately,” he writes. 

Brooks walks us through the process of construction, from the selection of wood (maki, or Japanese umbrella pine, one of Japan’s five sacred trees) to the specific tools utilized: axe, moji (hole-boring chisel), planes, and saws. The seemingly simple process of nailing the planking involves establishing a complex rhythm of steady percussion between nail, set, and wooden mallet. Myriad fascinating details along with beautiful photography bring this ancient boatbuilding practice to life. 

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