The Spirit and Magic of Woodcraft in Japan / The Woodworker’s Companion

The Spirit and Magic of Woodcraft in Japan / The Woodworker’s Companion

In Japan, nature, religion, and society are deeply intertwined. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mind of the woodworkers and lathe-turners, whose philosophical and spiritual beliefs are at the heart of their craft. Japanese Folk Art has long been admired for its high level of craft, precision, and simplicity.  The Japanese belief in the Shinto philosophy, viewed trees as divine, a means by which the gods descended to earth.  Later, Buddhism taught that Buddha attained enlightenment in the forest, and beneath an ancient tree. The tale in this writing is not a typical folk tale from Japan, and one that features compassion and magic. 

This animistic belief in the ‘spirit of wood’ extends to the handicraft, and in particular Kokeshi design and fabrication made by craftsmen and women. Similarly, a belief exists in the ‘spirit’ of a tool, often that of its late owner, such as the tools that were passed down by each family to the next generation that helped evolve Kokeshi craft as to what it has become today. Japanese woodworking involves a close connection between maker and material. The artisan works with nature, instead of using nature, and the tools used make it possible to work with an intimate touch and relationship.  

Kokeshi art and craft has lasted for a centuries, and has continued today representing the craft of woodturning. It is more than a traditional craft! Other than the momentous structures made by Japanese woodworkers, (aesthetics of shrines, temples, teahouses, furniture, and art forms), other proof of great woodworking art is through Japanese lathe-turning and Joinery techniques, which rely on sheer wood manipulation, accommodating the various elements perfectly to create a very simple form through design and applied artwork. 

The novel and joy of creating new designs and incorporating images of local tradition are what moved the craft forward from the Traditional Family models to the contemporary Sosaku doll. For the most exquisite creations are becoming priceless throughout the world. The art of turning and joinery began the ‘thousand-year-art’ of Japanese woodworking, and it has never ended. An ethos evolved of not destroying forests and recycling wood, for Kokeshi craftsmen who are expected to repay their debt to nature by performing their work “skillfully and without waste.”

Japanese Folk Story of the Woodworker’s Cat | A Kokeshi Experience


Once upon a time, there was a woodworker who lived near Kanda Myojin shrine, in old Edo. The poor man had lost his wife quite young, but had never remarried. He was a melancholic soul, but kind and loved by all his neighbors. The woodworker’s only companion was a calico cat named Aiko that he had taken in as a kitten. Every morning, before leaving to work, he filled her bowl with white rice. And every evening, on his way home, he bought her fresh fish from the fishmonger’s. The craftsman had even built her a comfy cradle from perfumed cedar wood.

With such great care, the cat’s three colored coat was always soft and shiny. After dinner, the man loved to sit on the engawa, (the so-called edge of the house, and used as a type of veranda. It has the role of connecting the inside to the outside of the house), enjoying the feeling of his cat’s silken fur under his calloused fingers, while the cat purred and purred watching the rising moon.

But time went by, and one day the carpenter had to see a doctor. “Sensei, something is wrong with my eyes: I only see the world in a blur”. The learned man examined him before he sighed sadly: I am so, so sorry, but there isn’t any known cure for your condition. In a matter of months, the carpenter became completely blind. Not being able to work anymore, he soon had to sell everything he owned, and had to rely on his neighbors and local temples’ charity to survive. Yet, despite his poverty, the man always kept the best niblets of food for his beloved cat, for he always felt that his special friend would always take care of him, whatever it takes.

Autumn passed and winter settled in, and despite the neighbors’ good will, life was getting harsher and harsher for the former craftsman. One freezing night, as the poor man was cuddled up with his cat, trying to keep warm, he suddenly burst into tears:

“Oh what are we gonna do”. My eyes are dead, I’ve lost our roof, and very soon I will not be able to feed you properly. – ‘Meow’, the cat answered, as if she understood his ragged words. The carpenter held his only friend close to his heart and proclaimed, “I know I should find you a good family who will take care of you, but I’ll miss you so much”…Still crying, the carpenter finally fell asleep.

A gritty feeling woke him up, for something cool and rough, was touching his eyelids. – ‘W-what’…His hands encountered warm fur. Oh, it’s you. What are you doing there? The wood turner tried to move his cat, by she kept sitting up beside his head. She licked his right eyelid, then his left one. Her rough tongue on his sensitive skin left a strange tickle, and the old craftsman couldn’t hold back laughing: You’re truly weird sometimes, you know that? From that night on, the cat continued the habit of licking the carpenter’s eyelids every morning before the carpenter woke up. He replied, “You must think I am some sick kitten you’ve got to nurse back to health, right”? Then, one morning, the man woke up to a nebulous clarity. After months in the dark, he could see light!

He ran to the doctor. ‘Please, please! Tell me I am not dreaming’! The doctor could not believe what was happening, and told him that he had never heard of such a remission. ‘But yes it seems your eyes are truly getting better’! The carpenter’s mood was soaring, because he knew he would work again and be able to take care of himself and his beloved cat. Each passing day, the world became a little clearer. Until at last, the veil from his eyes completely lifted. The carpenter was truly seeing things for the first time in many years. He turned to his beloved cat and gasped. The cat’s once bright amber eyes were milky white and cloudy. He suddenly realized that his beloved cat had lost her vision! The man took his now blind cat in his arms and cried, ‘You’ve sacrificed your eyes for me? You silly beast! But fear not, I’ll always, always, take care of you’, and because he now had his sight again. He utilized his woodworking talents to create a family of beautiful lathe-turned cat Kokeshi with surface texture, (he remembered his cat would continually “chatter” when he was bling, and used this old method referred to as “chattering” to add a tactile surface to wood…his craft abilities were remembered), so his cat could feel the varying elements of her “kitty friends”, when ever she wanted company. His beloved cat purred and purred and purred.

Reading next

Tsuru / Japanese Mythology and Culture
Momotarō / The Boy and the Peach