The chisel in his hands is delicate and sharp. It is used to remove slices of wood. As he works meticulously, to chip away the pieces and to transform branches and tree trunks into a variety of traditional sculptures, he stops for a moment, and removes his glasses. Oiwa-san points to a tree trunk in the corner of his wood carving studio and begins to tell a story about this specific piece of wood and his good fortune to acquire it.
"The tea tree that I am working on carving now, is 100 years old and it was given to me by a friend who creates pottery in his retirement. His grandfather and his father were both tea farmers and this plant is from his garden. It fell during a snowstorm in 2013. I am using a piece of this tea tree to carve a statue which will be the central part of my display at the Uji Tea Festival on May 1st," says Oiwa-san in near fluent English.
Kohsho Oiwa maintains a studio on the foothills of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, surrounded by a bamboo forest. He spends his time on various carving projects, as well as restoring Buddhist statues for shrines and temples. His work surrounds him as he tells stories about the pieces he has created over the years. He is currently at work on projects ranging from; a nine tailed fox, a life-sized sculpture of a traditional fisher woman, the tea tree dolls for the upcoming Uji Tea Festival and restoration. He is busy and dedicated to his craft.
Oiwa-san started wood carving after returning from Australia in 1983. He spent a year working and traveling in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and credits this experience for his interest in traditional Japanese culture.
"I spent a few months working for a winery, picking grapes. I was camping out and making lunch at the camp, then I would ride my bike to work. Many young people gathered there together and as I talked to them, I learned many things. I could see Japan from the outside. The nature, history, customs and the food and I could see many good points."
Oiwa started to learn about carving when he moved to a village in Toyama Prefecture which is known for wood carving. According to Oiwa, there were about 200 wood carvers living in the village at that time. After spending a few years learning from them and honing his craft, Oiwa moved to Kyoto to continue to study. In Kyoto, he began to study and work by himself. He did this by reading books, trying different techniques, visiting shrines and creating. Oiwa developed his own unique skill set, which is displayed in his various projects.
About five years ago, he began carving small dolls out of the wooden stalks of tea tree plants. These dolls were historically used to carry things on the obi belt of a kimono.
"The tea tree dolls are believed to bring good fortune. The image is to meet with nice people and to find love or a good meeting," explains Oiwa, while holding a few delicate examples.
The most ambitious project that Oiwa is currently working on, will take him another three years to complete. There is a traditional type of fishing in Japan that is done with birds. Cormorant birds are used to catch fish and there are two women, who live in Uji, Kyoto who participate in this ancient style of fishing. Oiwa is currently working on carving a life sized statue of one of these traditional fisher women, which he began back in November. The original piece of wood weighed two tons and the current version is down to about 250 kilograms. He first created a smaller clay statue, before carving a small wooden version and then he secured a piece of wood large enough to create a life sized version. This sculpture is too cumbersome to carve inside his studio, so it sits in the courtyard in front.