Lumberyards and Carpenters

Eitai-bashi (Eitai bridge) is the longest bridge in Edo, and one of the largest in the country. Though not nearly as famous as nearby Nihonbashi, it is probably a more important bridge for the citizens of Edo. The huge, semicircular arch is one of just three bridges spanning the lower reaches of the Sumida river, and linking central Edo with the residential and manufacturing districts on the eastern shore of the river. Although both Nihonbashi and Ryogoku-bashi are more well known, Eitai-bashi is nevertheless an important transportation link from central Edo to the busy lumberyards of Kiba.

Kiba is a low-lying district on the very edge of Edo bay, on the east bank of the Sumida river. It is a very blue-collar neighborhood, and most of the residents live in nagaya (row houses). Many of the people who live here are day laborers and construction workers, who toil in the vast lumberyards that give this district its name.

The word "kiba" literally means "place for wood". The area gets its name because it is the neighborhood designated by the Shogun for all lumber yards. Although many construction companies have offices in the central part of the city, they are prohibited from keeping a large stockpile of wood anywhere near the city center. Instead, they have to keep almost all of their wood stored in Kiba. This is a precaution taken to help prevent serious fires.

When Edo was first built, the main kiba, or lumber yards, were located on the west bank of the Sumida river, in places like Tsukiji and Hamacho. This was the most convenient location, since the wood could be transported there easily by river, and most of the construction work being done in the city was in the downtown areas around Nihonbashi, Kyobashi and Kanda. As the city began to spread out, construction companies set up smaller lumber yards in each part of the city. However, as the people of Edo discovered, this was an invitation to disaster. Fire has always been a serious problem for citizens of Edo. Nearly every building in the city is made of wood, and the houses are packed tightly together, especially in the shitamachi (downtown) areas of the city. If a fire gets started, it usually spreads very fast, and it may destroy many, many buildings before anyone can put it out.

In the crowded, narrow streets of the city, it is often hard to escape from a fire, and many people die every year from even small fires. There is even an old saying among city residents, that "fires and fistfights are the flowers of Edo". Both types of altercations flare up very easily in the crowded downtown neighborhoods. However, when they were planning and building their city, the early Shoguns never imagined that fires could cause as much damage as the Great Meireki Fire did in 1657.

The Great Meireki Fire was the worst catastrophe ever to strike the city, and even today, more than a century later, the city still bears scars from the disaster. Almost half a million people died in the flames, and over half of the city was burned to the ground. After the catastrophe was over, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth Shogun, passed a series of laws and made several changes to the design of the city to help make sure that future fires could not spread so quickly or cause as much damage. One reason why the flames to spread rapidly was that there were many large lumber yards located in the downtown area. Once a big lumber yard catches fire, it is just about impossible to put out, and the flames jump so high that the firemen cannot stop them from spreading to other buildings nearby.

After the Great Meireki Fire, all carpenters and builders were ordered to move their lumber yards to the other side of the river, away from the heavily populated downtown area. The new neighborhood was given the name "Kiba". A number of other changes were made as well, such as widening the roads to create firebreaks, and organising local fire brigades. The job of a fireman is usually held by low-ranking samurai. It is a very dangerous and demanding job, but the firemen of Edo are highly respected, and many local communities look to current or former members of the fire brigade to become their local leaders and peace officers.

Kiba is a very low, swampy area that sometimes gets flooded at extremely high tides and during storms. Although this makes it a rather uncomfortable place to live, it is an ideal place for lumber yards. First of all, it was easy to build a vast network of canals in the area where the lumber yards were located. These canals have a dual purpose -- their main function is as transportation routes, to make it easier to bring wood to and from the lumber yards. In addition, the canals prevent fires from spreading from lumber yard to lumber yard. Although the high tides and floods can sometimes cause damage to the wood (especially if the wood remains under water for too long), it also has a positive effect. Termites cannot build their nests in swampy ground, and the occasional floods destroy any termite nests that have been established in the woodpiles, so the lumber yards of Kiba are almost immune to termite damage.

Wood is brought to Kiba from mountain forests far to the north and west of the city. Lumberjacks working in the forests cut down the tall, straight and hard-wooded trees such as sugi (cedar) and hinoki (cypress). These are the best types of wood for building houses, since the wood is straight, strong and very resistant to water. The logs are then cut into large, semifinished beams, which are tied together like a raft and transported downriver to Edo.

When the huge wooden beams reach Kiba, they are sold to individual lumber merchants or construction companies. The lumber merchants take the huge beams to their own lumber yard where carpenters saw them up into smaller boards and beams, storing them in the lumber yards until they are ready to use.

Most of the lumber merchants have close ties to the construction guilds in downtown Edo. Builders are among the more respected of craftsmen, and master builders can become very wealthy. However, for every master architect and builder, there are usually many lesser craftsmen, apprentices and day laborers who do the dirty work, like carrying heavy beams or bundles of shingles to and from a building site, or tearing down old buildings that are being replaced. The more skilled carpenters tend to live in middle-class areas in Nihonbashi, Kyobashi or Asakusa, while many lower-level workers live in the blue-collar districts near Kiba, where they queue up each day looking for temporary jobs on a construction site.

There are several types of craftsmen involved in the construction of buildings, and they differ in status and importance, from the most skillfuul architects and wood-carvers to the lowest day laborers who do the dirty work to support the more skilled craftsmen. The first, and most highly respected group are the carpenters. Most master carpenters are not only responsible for building the wooden frame of the building, but also for designing the structure and drawing up the blueprint. It takes highly-skilled craftsmen to design and construct some of the larger and more impressive buildings in Edo, and as a result, the carpenter/architects are the "top of the pyramid" in the construction industry.

Next come the stonemasons and the roofers -- who are ranked about equally in terms of prestige, though their work is quite different. To prevent termites from damaging the wooden structures, most buildings in Edo are built on foundations of stone. The shape, stability and placement of the foundations stones is very important, especially in the case of large buildings. A home with an unsteady foundation may eventually collapse, particularly considering how many earthquakes there are in Japan. The roofers are responsible for covering the building with shingles (on working-class homes and most public buildings) or ceramic tiles (in the case of upper-class residences or temples). This job can be very dangerous, since most buildings have fairly steep roofs. One slip and a worker could suffer a serious injury, or even be killed.

The lowest rank of craftsmen in the construction injustry -- just a step above the day laborers and apprentices -- are the plasterers. The homes of blue-collar people, farmers and laborers are usually made of rough-finished boards, with no covering or paint. However, the homes of the samurai are usually coated with a layer of plaster,both for insulation and to provide an attractive exterior finish. In addition, the walls that surround their residences are made of a thick layer of mud and plaster covering a wooden or bamboo frame. Plastering is a rather dirty job, but it requires a certain amount of skill. Many day laborers try their best to win a full time job as a plasterer, since it will mean a step up in status and a better salary than just providing the heavy labor needed on the construction site.

There are two other crafts that are also closely related to the construction industry, though they usually have independent businesses and just sell their products to builders. These are the craftsmen who make shoji (sliding paper screens) and tatami (straw mats). Because of Japan's climate, with its hot and muggy summer weather, most buildings are built with designs that aid in ventilation and air circulation. Shoji are sliding paper screens found on almost all doors and windows. You can slide them open to let the breezes blow through the house, and in the summer time they can be removed entirely, leaving the house open to even the gentlest draft of air. In their place, curtains made of finely-split bamboo or straw are hung from the ceiling. These keep out prying eyes, but still allow the breezes to blow through the entire house.

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