Rikumo Field Trip: Raising the Roof at Shofuso Japanese House

 Old vs. new roofing materials. 

Old vs. new roofing materials. 

On Thursday, October 12th, a small crowd gathered at the Shofuso Japanese House in Fairmount Park to celebrate one of its most important but overlooked components: the restoration of its telltale hinoki roof. Hinoki, a type of Japanese cypress that shares its European counterpart’s bracing scent, has historically been used in the building of places of bodily and spiritual purification, such as shrines and bathing houses. It grows in carefully guarded clusters in the imperial forests, and harvesting it requires permission from the emperor himself. As a result, it is a rare and prized building material in Japan. Sofuso’s hinoki roof is the only one of its kind in the United States, and was installed in 1953 during the building of the house.

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A group of specialized Japanese roof restorers has been invited to Shofuso to restore part of the roof, preserving it for an additional 15 or more years beyond its predicted life. For the next two weeks, they will meticulously place hundreds of hinoki bark pieces by hand to replace the original weather-worn roofing. Kilos of hinoki bark have been brought over from Japan for the occasion, along with two artisanal roofers to complete the job.

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Right around now you might be thinking “Okay, this is great, but why does it matter so much?” Well, as hinoki is a rare and prized resource, there are only one hundred craftsmen in the world with the skills for this type of work. Coincidentally, they are all based in Japan, so the chances to watch them in action are few and far in between (unless you have a special contact with a Shinto priestess.)   

There’s something to be said for watching a craftsman at work, particularly when it is outside. Watching the process unfold is not unlike taking a trip back in time when everything, even the roofs of houses, was handmade by experts. It is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty exciting to witness. So, from October 11 to October 22nd Shofuso is offering a special guided tour to learn more about Japanese architecture and roofing through a special exhibition of carpentry tools. Visitors will be able to take a tour of the roof itself on a scaffolding ramp guided by members of the Shofuso board. We were lucky enough to get a first look at the project's unveiling, and the result looks to come out even better as the work reaches completion. It’s certainly a nice thing to add to your fall activity bucket list before Shofuso closes for the season on October 29th.

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WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAZ MORIHATA