West Philadelphia: A Slice of Japan in Fairmount Park

West Philadelphia: A Slice of Japan in Fairmount Park
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Shofuso Japanese House and Garden is getting ready for a partial roof replacement later this summer. While most might find this subject to be of no interest, there is actually a unique story behind it.

The roof on the home is made out of hinoki bark.

“Hinoki roofs are a pretty rare thing to find now-a-days,” said James Webster, the visitor services supervisor. “They were really popular in the time frame of the architectural style of this house and you really only found them on structures that very rich and powerful people lived in. So, the emperor’s house would have a hinoki bark roof.”

Shofuso is a 17th century-style home and garden that reflects Japanese culture but what you see inside does not reflect everyone’s life back in the 17th century. The structures and hinoki bark roof were reserved for the top tier of society.

“You won’t find a roof like this in the Americas,” said Shea Sonsky, a visitor services assistant. “It’s a breed of Japanese cypress that is actually a near-threatened species these days.”

Hinoki bark roofing is a traditional Japanese art form. As time moved on, that style fell out of style and became very expensive to maintain. The last time the roof was fully replaced at Shofuso was back in 1999 at a cost of $1.2 million.

There aren’t many people who are qualified to work on a hinoki roof. In fact, possibly only a few hundred are left in the entire world.

“It’s all apprenticeship,” said Derek Finn, associate director of Shofuso. “You don’t learn for a year and then you’re done. You study under someone for several years until they allow you to even do the most basic things. It’s lifelong learning and you have to be dedicated to work on this.”

 

Shofuso has to import the hinoki from Japan, along with the specialized carpenters.

“It’s really amazing to see the actual bark replacement process,” said Webster. “It is a specialized skill that you have to practice your entire life to be fast enough to make it worth your time.”

Webster is fascinated by the process.

“They’ll actually put a bunch of bamboo nails in their mouth and they actually use their tongues to push the points facing forward,” he said. “They’ll grab a bunch of nails, put them in their mouths, will spit out the nails, put down the stripe, hammer it in, spit out another one and they just go through this process.”

The hinoki bark itself starts out soft and gets harder and stronger over time.

“It’s layers and layers of hand-laid shingles of this,” said Sonsky. “It feels like you are flipping pages through a book. They are all paper thin.”

The partial roof replacement of these hand-laid, paper thin shingles of hinoki bark is set for later this summer, and a very expensive process at that, with both the hinoki and workers being imported from Japan.

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Text, images and video by Tracy Yatsko

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