Funa-dansu: Traditionally used by merchants to safeguard important valuables while traveling at sea. Many of these chests were so well made, they were rumored to be water-tight in case the ship encountered trouble.
Kido Ryohei's chests in the old style
Before Ryohei Kido was a traditional furniture maker, he was a newspaper journalist. The reason he came to abandon the security of a salaried employee's life and become an artisan began with a fascination for the traditional performing arts of Iwate Prefecture. It was these that drew him to give up his first job so he could live in Iwate close to the music he loved.
“Ship Chests” and their Tricks
One of the more interesting tansu ever to be made in Japan was the funa-dansu (ship chest) which was in fact an early type of safe. Funa-dansu were frequently used to transport large amounts of money on the kitamae-bune ships, which plied the seas carrying goods from one part of Japan to the other. The boxes had to be strong and they had to be made so that only the owner could gain access. Moreover the inner compartment needed to be watertight to keep the contents safe should the ship sink. For this reason the inner compartments were always made from paulownia, while the outsides were of beautifully grained zelkova. A funa-dansu is typically further encased in intricately detailed metal fittings, which not only add strength but beauty.
In any one of Mr Kido's funa-dansu one can find 300 different wooden pieces and 300 to 500 hand-forged nails. In addition, each comes with five different keys. Mr Kido says that even now, when he is quite used to hand forging nails, he can still only manage 100 a day. He makes his nails thinking about any person who might be repairing one of his chests 200 years from now “I don't want them thinking 'What poorly made nails!'” he says. This is the level of pride that informs his work.
Kido is quite happy to show me the tricks mechanisms employed in the funa-dansu locks and compartments. First he uses the keys and concealed pulls to empty the box of all its drawers. He then challenges me to find more hidden places. I stick my head inside the box but there is not a crack or a seam that I can see which could conceivably act as an opening for any more compartments. Unbelievably, Kido triumphantly opens two more compartments, amazing me with the cleverness and technical precision of his work.
It is not an easy matter to achieve the level of finish Kido requires of himself - especially since he is single-handedly performs the tasks of at least four separate specialized craftsmen - saw miller, cabinetmaker, lacquerer and forger. He dries the timber, rough hews it, measures and cuts it to length, shaves it smooth, puts it together, coats it with lacquer many times, and forges the metal pieces all by himself. One would think that when the pressure was on to complete a piece of furniture for an order that he would consider cutting a few corners. But there in Kido's workshop in large letters so he will never forget are the words DO NOT CUT CORNERS!
Naturally when one is as thorough as Kido, output is rather low. He estimates it takes him two years to complete one funa-dansu. I suppose, when you think that the average funa-dansu lasts 200-300 years, two years is not long to wait.